The Route to Freedom

Discover the land of Harriet Tubman on a driving tour of Dorchester County


CAMBRIDGE -- Much of the landscape in Dorchester County is still stuck in the 19th century, back when Harriet Tubman stole away as a slave in 1849, lived as a free woman in the North then made more than a dozen returns to the area, guiding scores of family and friends to freedom. In fact, some of the back roads and swamps she traveled along seem to have been virtually untouched.

And that's a good thing.

Want to see what America looked like before freedom was recognized for everybody? Visit Dorchester County's Finding A Way to Freedom driving tour, a 60-mile stretch along U.S. Route 50 and State Highway 16 and a few adjoining secondary roads that chronicle Tubman's life and the routes that escaped slaves traveled to reach nearby Underground Railroad stops in adjacent Caroline County.

The tour includes more than two dozen sites, including: the village store believed to be the place Tubman almost lost her life during her first act of public defiance; the Methodist church that was among the few in the country to open its doors to both free and enslaved worshippers; the water-locked countryside where slaves hid for weeks before fleeing to Caroline County.

Structures on the route that haven't been completely overhauled show their wear: rotted floorboards, door hinges and tools rusted to a grainy brown, brittle tombstones with lettering that's scarcely legible. But they're still standing, along with rows of rotted-out trees that serve as a backdrop to emerald-green marshes and plowed soil upon which families have farmed for generations.

No need for modern-day re-enactments here. You can visualize Tubman leaving this place in the middle of the night, traveling with neither a guide nor road map, risking her life and her freedom with each return trip.

"Dorchester County has remained very rural, and you do get a sense when you come to this county what it was like when Harriet Tubman was alive and the Underground Railroad was active," said Natalie Chabot, Dorchester County tourism and heritage area director. "Go out to the countryside and see the waterways and you can see the challenges [runaway slaves] faced trying to get past the open farm fields still here and the massive rivers here."

Most of the structures on the tour are either abandoned or privately owned, but a few are still being used, including the Dorchester County Courthouse in downtown Cambridge.

Built in 1854, it is the home of several incidents that occurred during the height of the Underground Railroad. Among them: In 1850, Tubman's niece Kessiah and her two young children escaped from the slave auction block in front of the courthouse.

Kessiah's husband, John Bowley, a free black ship carpenter, transported them in a small sailboat from Cambridge to Baltimore, where Tubman met them and carried them to safety in Philadelphia.

That was the beginning of Tubman's career on the Underground Railroad.

The museum

Visitors can learn more about Tubman and the Underground Railroad at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center, just a few blocks south from the courthouse. Built in the late 19th century, it is the last surviving frame building downtown.

The downtown area borders the Choptank River and Long Wharf, one of the state's key ports during the 19th century.

The 70-mile river served as a passage for runaway slaves, who often had to secure boats for passage.

The port was also the site where Hugh Hazlett, an Irish laborer and captured Underground Railroad conductor, was to be handed over to custody via steamboat from Denton in 1858.

Just as the steamboat approached the port, a crowd gathered, and the sheriff, fearful of a lynching, ordered the boat to dock elsewhere.

The tour offers a glimpse of how Tubman lived before escaping to freedom. She was born Araminta Ross to slaves about 1820 in Dorchester County, and her family lived on a number of farms in the county before settling on the plantation of owner Edward Brodess in Bucktown.

"There's a dispute now as to where she was born," said Royce Sampson, a tour director for the Harriet Tubman museum. "We knew she grew up at the Brodess farm, but she may have been born in Madison."

In 1835 came Tubman's first act of public defiance: Jim, the slave of a farmer named Barnett, went into the Bucktown store without his owner's permission, and Tubman followed him into the store. An overseer named McCracken cornered Jim and ordered Tubman to help him capture and tie up the slave.

She refused, and as Jim went out the door, Tubman stood in the overseer's path. The enraged man picked up a two-pound weight from the counter and hurled it in the direction of Jim, but the object instead struck Tubman in the head, fracturing her skull. Tubman was disabled for months, left with a scar on her forehead and spent the rest of her life suffering from sudden sleeping spells.

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