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Archaeologists discover site of Harriet Tubman’s father’s home in Maryland

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased a 2,600-acre tract of land on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge last year, it was done with conservation in mind.

Since the refuge was established in 1933, it has lost more than 5,000 acres of marsh to open water, said Marcia Pradines, who manages the refuge. The Peter’s Neck property, though — as it’s known — is projected to remain above sea level through 2100, according to environmental surveys.

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“This is basically the future of the wildlife refuge here,” Pradines said.

But officials also suspected the property could contain an enchanting historical discovery — the place where Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, once lived.

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On Tuesday, at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center near Cambridge, archaeologists announced they’d found it.

Historical records showed 10 acres of what is now Peter’s Neck, nearby the visitor center, was bequeathed to Ross from his enslaver Anthony Thompson. Back then, it was part of the Thompson plantation. Five years after Thompson’s death, in the 1840s, Ross received the land and his freedom, according to Thompson’s will.

While he lived there, Ross felled timber on the property, which was shipped to Baltimore shipyards.

Tubman, then Araminta Ross, likely would have spent time with her father there, adjacent to the plantation where they were enslaved. Historians say Tubman would have learned to navigate the nearby marshes and forests alongside her father, key lessons she would have used to liberate herself and others on her numerous journeys along the Underground Railroad.

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When State Highway Administration chief archaeologist Julie Schablitsky and her team first surveyed the property in August, donning knee-high rubber boots to trudge through the watery, mosquito-ridden marshes in search of what’s known as “Ben’s Ten,” she wasn’t sure what they’d discover.

“How can we possibly find this site?” she thought to herself. “But we decided to do it anyway.”

In November, the team started digging pits in the area, in an effort to locate evidence of Ross’ home.

“After about a thousand holes, I was getting pretty frustrated,” Schablitsky said.

That’s when she took out her metal detector, and within five minutes, she made an astounding discovery — a half dollar coin dated 1808, emblazoned with Lady Liberty encircled by stars. That was the year, she remembered, when Ben Ross married his wife, Harriet’s mother.

During a return visit in March, they hit the mother lode. Though they didn’t find the foundation of a home, possibly because it rested on brick piers, the team found numerous artifacts dating to the 1800s on the site, including nails, brick, glass, dish fragments, a button and pottery. Based on those discoveries, the team was able to pinpoint where Ross would have lived.

A coin found at the excavation site where archeologists believe Harriet Tubman's father once lived.
A coin found at the excavation site where archeologists believe Harriet Tubman's father once lived. (Courtesy of National Wildlife Refuge System U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

All the while, Schablitsky was sending photos of her discoveries — fragments of a chamber pot, pieces of a pipe — to Tina Wyatt, a descendant of the Tubman family.

“It’s like we were right there with her,” Wyatt said.

The artifacts helped Wyatt to imagine Ross’ life, she said. Maybe after a long day working in the forest, supervising mariners, Ross would sit in his home to smoke, she thought. She could imagine him gazing out upon the landscape of the Eastern Shore, and contemplating what he’d do the next day.

She was amazed to see colorful shards of bowls and plates in the collection. She figured that Ross, long a slave, wouldn’t have had much in the way of luxurious cookware.

“That dispels a myth,” she said.

Wyatt, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, said that, growing up, she wasn’t outspoken about her connection to Tubman. In the second grade, during a lesson about “Aunt Harriet,” Wyatt spoke up, but a classmate mused: “Well then my father is the president of the United States.”

After that, she largely kept quiet. When a high school teacher discovered her story, she shied away from it, even as she advocated with her classmates for more lessons about Black history in the classroom.

Later on, she learned more about her family’s history, as relatives once reluctant to wade back into the troubled waters of slavery told her their stories. And now, she has one more story to hold onto.

“It means so much to the family to see all of this,” she said.

Making the discovery was something of a race against the clock, Pradines said. Even though the Peter’s Neck property is poised to remain above rising waters for now, the area where Ross’ homestead stood is close to a river and could become marsh as the globe warms.

“When you dig these pits, it’s filled with water, almost like a foot or so from the surface” she said. “So, they really were racing against time to find this, because it’s very much going underwater.”

An archaeological team led by Julie Schablitsky of the State Highway Administration searches the site believed to be the former home of Harriet Tubman's father.
An archaeological team led by Julie Schablitsky of the State Highway Administration searches the site believed to be the former home of Harriet Tubman's father. (Courtesy of National Wildlife Refuge System U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Pradines said her team at Blackwater hopes to create a nature trail on the property so that visitors can explore the area where Ross once lived. For now, the biggest barrier is the gravel road leading to the site, which is pockmarked by ditches and frequently flooded, she said.

There isn’t much to see on the site, Pradines said, but when it opens, likely in a year or two, visitors will have a new way to step into Tubman’s life story.

“You can see the landscape, you can hike the trails — the same exact trails that Harriet Tubman would have been working alongside her father Ben Ross — and really experience what it looked like,” she said, “because it’s pretty much the same as it was back then except for encroaching sea level rise.”

That site, when it’s ready for the public, likely will be added to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a list of more than 30 sites tied to Tubman’s life that visitors can view as part of a 125-mile road trip.

In the meantime, the artifacts discovered during the excavation likely will be displayed at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, which opened to the public in 2017.

“It’s just exciting to me,” Pradines said of the discovery, “because it’s a wonderful story of how we’re trying to conserve this wildlife, and we ended up being able to conserve and preserve the story of the people that lived there too.”

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