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.
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.
"The doorway is probably where she was standing when she was hit," said Jay Meredith, owner of the Bucktown Village store where the incident is believed to have occurred. The store was purchased by his great-great grandfather Thomas Meredith well after the Tubman incident.
It's currently under renovation, but Meredith often opens it for tourists. Inside are empty hardwood shelves and walls painted in weather-beaten sky blue, a rusty corn sheller and a large chalice-shaped bowl that was used for mashing corn into meal.
Adjacent to the store is an 1840 smokehouse from the farm where Tubman's father worked; Meredith purchased the building from the property owners who had planned to raze it and moved it next to the village store.
The two structures are next to a 1790 Colonial plantation where Meredith's ancestors have lived for four generations. Many were also slave owners; his great-great-grandfather owned slave Thomas Elliot, who escaped with the help of Harriet's father Ben and became part of a fugitive slave group known as the Dover Eight.
Meredith hopes his renovation will be completed by this summer. "I want to re-create the village to the way it used to be," he said.
Meredith also owns a copy of an Oct. 3, 1849, issue of the Cambridge Democrat newspaper, where Eliza Ann Brodess published an ad offering a $300 reward for the capture of Tubman (referred to by her nickname, Minty) and her two brothers Harry and Ben. Tubman is described as "aged about 27 years, is of chestnut color, fine looking, and about five feet high."
Tubman departed months after her owner, Edward Brodess, died, leaving all of his possessions to his wife, Eliza Ann, who had decided to sell some of the slaves for cash.
"Her brothers went back to the plantation," said Meredith, "but Harriet kept going. Once she reached freedom, she came back and got both of them, her mother and most of her other relatives." Tubman went on to become a Union Army nurse and spy during the Civil War. She died in March 1913.
Some of the sites on the tour relate to how everyday life went on during the slavery era. About a mile from the village store sits Scott's Chapel. Founded in 1812, it was one of few churches in the nation attended by white citizens and free and enslaved African-Americans.
Sampson said the blacks had to sit in the back of the chapel and the church has segregated graveyards, with African-Americans buried across the road and whites buried behind the church. The church is still open today (its current structure was built in 1891).
And although its congregation is now only white, African-Americans are still buried alongside ancestors who once worshiped there. Old, chipped tombstones with lettering that's barely legible are alongside graves with modern tombstones and fresh-cut flowers.
"The black families who grew up there still want to get buried there," said Sampson. "It's a tradition."
Adherence to custom passed down from one generation to the next is what helps the area to remain unchanged.
"This place is exactly how it was back during the Civil War period," said Meredith. "I have a map of 1877, and it shows all of the houses of this area, and it's just like it is now. This has always been rural Dorchester Country, generational farmland, and it's just stayed the same."
Tubman's story, however, had almost disappeared from the landscape until a few years ago, when interest in slavery, the Civil War era and African American history became popular. Among those who speak openly about events of that period are Tubman's descendants who still live in the area.
"I've known for some time that I was related to Harriet Tubman, but it wasn't until my college years that I learned much about my family history," said Patricia Hawkins of Salisbury, whose great-great-grandfather David Ross was Tubman's brother.
"My grandfather, the late Owen Ross, knew all his life," she added, "but he didn't talk much about it, probably because she was a runaway slave." She said the current efforts by the Maryland Office of Tourism to commemorate Tubman with a discovery center in Dorchester County are long overdue.
Thompson says interest in the anti-slavery heroine regularly prompts buses of tourist from all over the country. He usually does about 12 bus tours a year.
"The worst time to do the tour is during the time farmers are harvesting," he said, "because then we have to compete with those combines on the highway. Right now would be a great time."
The Tubman tour
For more information about Harriet Tubman or to schedule a guided tour, contact:
The Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center 424 Race St. Cambridge MD 21613 Phone: 410-228-0401
For a brochure of the self-guided tour, contact:
Dorchester County Department of Tourism 2 Rose Hill Place Cambridge, MD 21613 1-800-522-TOUR tourdorchester.org