For at least two decades, historians had searched for the location of the hut where Harriet Tubman lived with her family as a young adult.
“Land registry records told us it was here somewhere,” said Julie M. Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland Department of Transportation, who led an excavation of the swampy terrain on Maryland’s east coast last fall. “We couldn’t understand why we couldn’t find anything. It was like ‘where is this place?’ “
Then, on a whim, Schablitsky swept a metal detector down a deserted street, closer to the river. And she found a coin from 1808 – the same year Tubman’s parents, Ben Ross and Harriet Green, known as Rit, were married. And not far away she found ceramic shards from the 1820s to 1840s.
At that time she knew: she had found the hut of Benjamin Ross, the father of Harriet Tubman, the conductor of the Underground Railroad. She had lived there from about 17 to 22 years from 1839 to 1844.
“We could tell from the glaze that the period matched the Ross cabin perfectly,” she said of the ceramic pieces. “I thought, ‘OK, this has to be it.'”
Her discovery caused a stir among historians when it was announced by state and federal officials at a press conference Tuesday morning at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad visitor center in Church Creek, Md.
“This gives us a glimpse into a time and place in Tubman’s life that we know very little about,” said Kate Clifford Larson, a Tubman biographer, in an interview on Tuesday. “The community really made this woman, and we can’t fully understand her until we understand the place she came from.”
Recognition…Harvey B. Lindsley / Library of Congress, via Associated Press
Tubman’s father was given 10 acres of land when he was manumized or freed from slavery about five years after the death of his previous owner, Anthony Thompson, in 1836. Then he bought his enslaved wife and protected Tubman and her siblings in the hut now the federal Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The site has been privately owned for years, which ruled out archaeological excavations, Schablitsky said. But then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought the 2,600-acre property last year to replace the sanctuaries lost by rising sea levels, and conservation manager Marcia Pradines heard that the lost shack might actually have been in the country – and called Schablitsky.
After an initial delay due to the pandemic and more than 1,000 test pits where only a handful of goopy mud appeared last fall, Schablitsky and her team returned to the site this spring – and made the discovery last month.
“We knew it was out there,” she said. “We just had to find it.”
Larson said the skills young Tubman learned from her father, who cut and sold wood and worked on the subway himself, laid the foundation for her success to follow in his footsteps.
“Her father taught her how to move around streams, rivers and swamps,” said Larson. “And how to navigate this landscape without getting caught.”
Tubman also interacted with free black seafarers who shipped the timber to Baltimore’s shipyards, Larson said – and the knowledge they shared may have helped her guide people to freedom on the subway.
“She knew a lot of these African American sailors called black jacks,” Larson said. “They taught her how to read the stars and told her about other places beyond the east coast where it was safe and where it wasn’t.”
Tubman made 13 voyages south over a 10-year period and helped release approximately 70 enslaved people.
“It has become more and more interesting to people since I started researching it in the 90s,” said Larson.
“With very few resources, she was able to do amazing things,” she added.
Once the site is ready for visitors, Pradines says it will be added to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile drive that includes more than 30 websites related to Tubman’s life and legacy. The Wildlife Service also hopes to develop a network of trails for people to hike and bird watch, she said, which would happen within three to five years.
In the meantime, Schablitsky said, plans for further excavations this summer are underway.
“We hope to find artifacts that tell us more about the personal life of Ben Ross,” said Schablitsky. “Personal items like a tobacco pipe help us recreate what his life would have been like and help us find out more about who he was.”