Thorns pierced my slacks as I traipsed through the swamp, dodging deep, inky pools and thanking my lucky stars that it wasn't mosquito season. The sign at the start of the two-mile Tubman Road Trail, in Maryland's Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, had warned us that the "trail may be wet" — but that was an understatement. As my boyfriend and I finally reached higher ground, I marveled at how Harriet Tubman had negotiated such a challenging landscape in the dark of night while shuttling people out of slavery on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.
The famous "conductor" was born and toiled in slavery not far from this peaceful refuge, whose bird-rich marshes and forests haven't changed much since her time. For this reason, Blackwater is part of the new 25,000-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, and next to the forthcoming Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park. What's more, 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of Tubman's death.
You could call it the year of Harriet — so what better time to visit? We planned our spring weekend based on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, which features 35 sites related to Tubman's life, some of which are narrated by a new audio program.
We popped the byway CD into our player and headed for Cambridge, taking in the ornate Dorchester County Courthouse, where Tubman's niece and children escaped from a slave auction in 1850. Down the street was Long Wharf, whose scenic harbor of pleasure boats belied its history as a place where slave ships once unloaded their human cargo.
At the small Harriet Tubman Museum in downtown Cambridge, museum president Donald Pinder schooled us on Tubman through exhibits and portraits. She was born Araminta "Minty" Ross near Bucktown, Md., around 1822, and married freeman John Tubman in 1844 (she later took her mother's first name as a thank-you to the elder Harriet for her love and nurturing). As a slave, Tubman trapped, hunted and logged — strenuous outdoor work that our audio guide called a "training ground" for her role as railroad conductor.
She fled slavery in 1849, eventually settling in Auburn, N.Y. But "Moses," as she was called, didn't rest on her laurels. Tubman returned to the Eastern Shore more than a dozen times to help more than 300 people gain freedom. She also served as a Civil War nurse, scout and spy for the Union Army, becoming the first woman to lead an armed artillery raid, and was an advocate for women's suffrage and the aged until her death around the age of 90. "She didn't brag or boast about what she did, she just went on and did it," Pinder said.
Also exploring the museum that day was Doug Davis of Milford, Del., who knew about Tubman's role helping guide slaves through Delaware, a free state. (Maryland abolished slavery in 1864.) "It's so close to home," Davis said. "This is part of our history."
Historians aren't sure exactly where Tubman was born, but one possibility is the long-gone Brodess Farm, where we found a historical sign amid a sea of cornfields. As we drove to the nearby Bucktown Village Store, our audio guide told us that in 1835, a slave owner in the store hit 13-year-old Minty on the head with a two-pound weight while aiming at someone else. The resulting brain damage caused her to lapse into occasional sleeping spells, during which she claimed to hear the voice of God.
Local business owners Susan and Jay Meredith have preserved the corner store as a museum, its light-blue shelves brimming with historical curios. Jay let us feel the weight of the same kind of counterweight that hit Tubman, as well as touch the rough flaxweed that the young woman would have worked as a slave. The couple is certified by the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom to run Underground Railroad tours by kayak and bike. "Water plays such a huge role in the escape of African Americans," Jay told me.
But it wasn't easy. Most Eastern Shore runaways would follow the Choptank River north to Delaware, but they had to traverse waterways, which was risky, because few of them knew how to swim. That's why many slaves crossed at Hunter Creek, northeast of Cambridge, where the Linchester Mill made the waters passable. We peeked into the mill — now a museum — and stood at the banks of the still, shallow creek. Our feet crunched on spiky "gumballs" — the seeds of the sweet gum tree — that barefoot or poorly shod escapees would have painfully encountered, a reminder of their unforgiving journey.
Evening fell as we arrived at Choptank Landing, the riverside spot where Tubman may have escaped from the Thompson plantation. A flock of sea gulls cried overhead as we walked down an old road to the plantation house, now framed by tall, overgrown grasses.
I'd probably stood where Tubman had before, but this felt somehow different. Then I realized why: This humble dirt track may have been Harriet's actual road to freedom — the one that paved the way to salvation for hundreds more.
Lodgecliffe on the Choptank
103 Choptank Terr., Cambridge
A B&B in a stately home on the river that once guided runaways north. Rooms from $150.
Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay
100 Heron Blvd. at Route 50, Cambridge
A 400-acre golf and spa resort with river marina and Tubman historical marker. Double rooms from $229.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Visitor Center
2 Rose Hill Pl., Cambridge
Follow Tubman's life on a self-guided driving tour of 35 sites, including her birthplace and museum. As you drive, listen to narrated stories with a new byway audio guide available at the Dorchester County Visitor Center.
2145 Key Wallace Dr., Cambridge
Tubman toiled near these marshy swamps, where today you can drive, hike or kayak in search of wildlife, including bald eagles. Refuge open dawn to dusk. Visitor information desk and gift shop open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.