The Life and Legacy of Harriet Tubman: Part 1

For many, Harriet Tubman's life and legacy was something out of a history book or a now obsolete encyclopedia.

Most known for her efforts to escort over 300 slaves to freedom, Tubman was born in Dorchester County right outside of Cambridge. Those efforts–made over a 10 year span–were successful because of what's historically known as the Underground Railroad.

Now thousands of residents and visitors alike can experience the Underground Railroad by exploring the Tubman Byway right here on Delmarva. The Tubman Byway is a self-guided driving tour that takes you through more than 125 miles of beautiful landscapes on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

For years there was an unmet demand for more on Harriet Tubman, an iconic figure in American history. Amanda Fenstermaker with the Dorchester County Department of Tourism says visitors and natives alike wanted to explore her life and what was offered just wasn't meeting the high expectations.

She said they worked with the Maryland office of tourism to develop a short term and long term goal; one of the goals was to develop a byway to interpret 30 plus historic sites

The sites will generally lead people from Dorchester to Caroline County–from the south to the north–a very symbolic image when speaking of freedom from slavery. In addition to the driving tour, the byway consists of an audio guide and 30 plus signs along the roadway.

One of the sites is the Dorchester County courthouse on High Street in the heart of downtown. It's located at what was a very popular and bustling intersection for commerce. It's also right up the block from the Long Wharf where a lot of trade occurred.

Some of the slave ships would have come in and docked there. People would be brought up to the courthouse where the slave auctions happened. With hotels on every corner, people were coming from all over to buy and sell both products and slaves.

There is one courthouse story in particular that resonates with the history of Harriet Tubman.

Harriet's niece, Kessiah Bowley, was set to be auctioned off with her children. Her husband, John Bowley, was a free man who actually was the winning bidder.  He won, but he didn't have any money to pay.

Kessiah was not chained up after the auction and the auctioneer decided to go to lunch.  In that gap in time, John was able to take his wife and children to hide in one of the homes on High Street. When nightfall came, they escaped via the water to Baltimore and stayed for five weeks while Harriet was able to arrange train tickets to Philadelphia.

A contemporary courthouse now stands at the site, but historians confirm it was the location of the auction block and that slaves were bought and sold there.

Another byway site that reflects a portion of Harriet Tubman's life is the Bucktown Village Store, owned by the Meredith family during the Civil War period. It's speculated that Tubman was born right up the road on the Broadus plantation where she grew up as a house slave.

James Meredith, who now owns the store with his wife Susan, says the store became a byway site because of what is known as Tubman's first act of defiance.

Harriet was in the store one day and an overseer was looking for an enslaved little boy who’d wandered from a work crew. When the overseer, Mr. Thomas Barnette, saw the boy in the store, he asked Harriet to help catch him.

She refused.

The overseer picked up a two pound counter weight and threw it at the boy. It missed him, striking Harriet square in the forehead.

Mr. Meredith says it almost killed her and that she was severely disabled for a long time after that.  She developed the sleeping disease narcolepsy and was consequently sent out to be field slave.

She then began trapping in the marshes and logging with her father's logging crew. This would be Harriet's introduction to life outside of Bucktown, and it would also prepare her for what was to come.

In 1849, Edward Broadus , Tubman's owner, died. His wife had to sell her slaves to survive. Though before that happened, in the fall of 1849, Tubman and her two brothers escaped.

While Harry and Ben would turn around and go back voluntarily, Harriet continued and made it to Canada–alone.

She eventually made her way back to Dorchester County on the historical Underground Railroad– to bring others to freedom.

Categories: Local News, Maryland