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Harriet Tubman’s lost Maryland home found, archaeologists say

The famed abolitionist’s father, Ben Ross, sheltered her and family on the Eastern Shore in the 1840s

A photo shows Harriet Tubman sometime between 1860 and 1875. (Harvey B. Lindsley/Library of Congress/AP)
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Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky found the coin with her metal detector along an old, abandoned road in an isolated area of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She dug it out of the ground and scraped off the mud.

She hadn’t been finding much as she and her team probed the swampy terrain of Dorchester County last fall searching for the lost site where the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman lived with her family in the early 1800s.

She’d been frustrated that there had been no hint that she was anywhere near the home of Tubman’s father, Ben Ross. But as she cleaned the coin, the profile of a woman with flowing hair, and wearing a cap that said, “Liberty,” emerged. At the bottom was the date: 1808.

Tuesday morning state and federal officials announced that Schablitsky, guided in part by the coin, believes she has found the site where Tubman lived with her parents and several siblings during her formative teenage years before she escaped enslavement.

It was the spot, experts said, where a long-vanished cabin stood, which had served for a time as Tubman’s family home.

The structure, of unknown form, was owned by her father. A timber foreman and lumberjack who had been enslaved, he had been given his freedom, the house where he lived and a piece of land near the Blackwater River by his enslaver.

Officials said bricks, datable pieces of 19th-century pottery, a button, a drawer pull, a pipe stem, old records and the location all pointed to the spot being the likely site of the Ben Ross cabin.

The announcement was made at 10 a.m. at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, in Church Creek, Md.

The find is a crucial piece of Tubman’s story, experts said. And it illuminates the role that her father, and her family, played in her development into the fearless Underground Railroad conductor that she became.

Harriet Tubman fled a life of slavery in Maryland. Now a new visitor center opens on the land she escaped.

The Underground Railroad was the clandestine network of guides, like Tubman, and safe houses mostly across the eastern United States that rescued thousands of enslaved people from bondage in the South in the years before the Civil War.

Between about 1850 and 1860, using stealth and disguise, Tubman made 13 trips home, spiriting 70 people out of enslavement, historians believe. Among those she saved were several brothers and her parents, who, while no longer enslaved, were still in danger in Maryland.

Her father was a devout patriarch who taught Tubman the ways of the marshy woodlands where they lived and struggled to keep his family together within the machinery of slavery, experts said.

Once free, Ben purchased his enslaved wife, Rit, and for a time sheltered Tubman and several of her siblings, all still enslaved, in his cabin in what is now the federal Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, south of Cambridge, Md.

“Think of it as a place where [Harriet] came of age in a loving household within a close knit community,” Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson said in an email.

“That landscape became her classroom,” Larson said. “Those years she lived with her father were absolutely crucial to the development of Harriet Tubman.”

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Schablitsky, an archaeologist with Maryland’s State Highway Administration, said: “A lot of us think we know everything … about Harriet Tubman. This discovery tells us that we don’t, and that we have the opportunity to … understand her not just as an older woman who brought people to freedom, but … what her younger years were like.”

The project began last year when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought for $6 million a 2,600-acre tract adjacent to Blackwater to replace refuge areas lost to rising sea levels elsewhere, said refuge manager Marcia Pradines.

Pradines said she had heard the Ben Ross cabin might have existed in the tract and contacted Maryland experts to see if an archaeologist wanted to investigate. Schablitsky said she was interested.

But she recognized the challenge: how to narrow down where to look and how to tell if a site might be Ross’s.

Old records provided a rough starting point. Last fall Schablitsky and her team went to the area and dug over 1,000 test pits. She had been afraid that numerous unrelated artifacts would turn up. But as they dug, nothing turned up.

“We were coming up basically empty-handed,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Where is this place? Where is this place?’”

The area was often waterlogged, sometimes inaccessible, and most of what was being found was “dripping wet mud,” she said.

In desperation, she started walking an old road with a metal detector. A knife sheath turned up, and a shotgun shell, and then something else.

“I dug it out of the ground thinking I was going to get, like, a shotgun shell,” she said.

It was the coin.

“When I looked at the date, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It was totally a eureka moment.”

The coin was found about a quarter-mile from where the cabin would eventually be located, she said. But it “told us that we were on the right path, that we were getting closer.”

A few other artifacts were found at the end of the dig and the team decided to return this March for a more thorough examination.

Last month, as they dug further, more artifacts began to appear — chunks of brick, rusty nails, bits of ceramics with designs patterns that could be dated, she said. Many patterns dated to the “1820s, 1830s, 1840s time period,” she said.

“That’s when we had our … moment,” she said. “That’s when we knew that this is it. Because it couldn’t be anywhere else. There was nothing else … that dated to that time period.”

The combination of records, location and artifacts finally added up, she said. “It’s not just one artifact that tells us we have something. It’s the assemblage. It’s the multiple pieces.”

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross about 1822 outside the hamlet of Tobacco Stick, modern-day Madison, in Dorchester County, according to Kate Clifford Larson’s biography, “Bound for the Promised Land.”

One of nine children, she slept in a cradle made of a hollowed-out sweetgum log, and was hired out to work by the time she was 6. Her parents, who were enslaved at the time, had been married about 1808, the year the coin was dated.

As a child, Tubman was beaten by a mistress who slept with a whip under her pillow.

She began to work outdoors, in part under the tutelage of her father. She checked muskrat traps, broke flax and hauled logs with a team of oxen she was later permitted to purchase.

She was only 5 feet tall, but her work made her strong.

Her know-how gave her some freedom of movement, and she was able to live in her father’s cabin roughly between 1839 and 1844, when she was ages 17 to 22, Larson said.

“She got to live with him, worked in the woods with him,” Larson said in an interview.

“He was an amazing figure, and a committed father,” she said. “He taught her how to survive. … She learned how to survive in those woods. She learned how to read the night sky. … He taught her things that helped her become the woman she was.”

He also told her about the Underground Railroad. “He was an Underground Railroad agent himself,” Larson said.

In 1844, she married John Tubman. She moved out, changed her first name to Harriet, and became Harriet Tubman. In the fall of 1849, fearing she was about to be sold, she fled, later returning to conduct others on the secret railway.

Over Christmas in 1854, she came back to rescue two of her brothers and some others. The meeting place was outside a home in Caroline County, Md., where her parents had moved a few years earlier.

The siblings couldn’t tell their mother, Rit, for fear she would create an “uproar,” Larson recounted.

But they did tell Ben, who brought them food. Ben made sure not to look at his children, so he could later tell slave catchers he had not “seen” them.

On Christmas night, he had himself blindfolded with a handkerchief. With a son on each arm, he walked with his children on the start of their journey, Larson reported. After a few miles, he stopped and said goodbye. He stood in the dark until he couldn’t hear their footsteps.

Three years later, Harriet came back for her parents.

Read more:

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Why a group of women walked Harriet Tubman’s 116-mile journey on the Underground Railroad

Desperate for freedom, 77 enslaved people tried to escape aboard the Pearl