Archaeologists found the site of Harriet Tubman’s family home

color photo of four people digging with woods in the background
Enlarge / Julie Schablitsky searches for artifacts at the site.

In the years before the American Civil War, Harriet Tubman led dozens of enslaved people to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the war, she scouted, spied, and led military raids against Confederate forces. Now, archaeologists have pinpointed the Maryland childhood home where she learned her fieldcraft.

Tubman’s father Ben Ross inherited the 10-acre tract of land from his former enslaver in the late 1830s. “She would’ve spent time here as a child, but also she would’ve come back and been living here with her father in her teenage years, working alongside him,” said Schabitsky in a recent press conference announcing the find.

“This was the opportunity she had to learn about how to navigate and survive in the wetlands and the woods,” said Schabitsky. “We believe this experience was able to benefit her when she began to move people to freedom.” Her experience with her father also taught her the region’s coastal shipping routes and probably provided her with useful contacts.

Lost and found

When Harriet “Rit” Green married Ben Ross around 1808, the couple were enslaved on neighboring Maryland plantations: Green by the Brodess family and Ross by the Thompsons. In 1922, Green gave birth to the couple’s fourth daughter, Araminta (who would eventually change her name to Harriet. A few years after that, Thompson left orders in his will to eventually free Ross from his enslavement. Ross also inherited 10 acres of land in Dorchester County from Thompson.

Historical records suggested that those 10 acres lay somewhere on what’s now a much larger property near Maryland’s Eastern Shore, called Peter’s Neck. Schabitsky and her colleagues started surveying the 2,600 acres of Peter’s Neck after the US Fish and Wildlife Service bought it last year.

More than 1,000 test pits on the property came up empty in November 2020, but when Schabitsky returned to the area a few months later, her metal detector revealed a coin from 1808—the year Tubman’s parents married—near an abandoned road. A renewed search nearby turned up traces of a 200-year-old family home: nails, brick, and glass, along with a button and several fragments of dishes that dated from the 1820s to the 1840s.

“Discovering the location of patriarch Ben Ross, Sr.’s home and artifacts he used has humanized a man responsible for giving us a woman of epic proportions, Harriet Ross Tubman,” said Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece Tina Wyatt at the press conference.

How Araminta Ross became Harriet Tubman

For a decade after Ben Ross inherited his land and his freedom, he continued to manage Thompson Farm’s timber harvest—with help from Araminta and her brothers, who the Thompsons sometimes hired from the Brodess plantation. Young Araminta also found herself hired out to local landowners to check muskrat traps in the marshes. Her enslavers were more or less unwittingly putting the enslaved child through a training course in how to eventually thwart them, and she learned very well.

Araminta Ross married a free Black man, John Tubman, in 1844; that’s also when she changed her name to Harriet. Although her husband was free, Tubman remained enslaved by the Brodess family, along with mother and her siblings. Mother and daughter were now in the same strange, terrible situation: married to free men but still enslaved themselves.

A few years after her marriage, to avoid Brodess’ plans to sell her off to the highest bidder, Tubman fled north to Pennsylvania and freedom. She returned a few months later to sneak three of her cousins away from a Baltimore slave auction and guide them along the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania. It was the first of 13 trips over the next 11 years, during which Tubman guided at least 70 people out of the slaveholding state of Maryland north to Pennsylvania and, eventually, Canada.

She traveled at night, using her knowledge of the woods and marshes to survive, evade pursuit, and navigate the 900 miles between Maryland plantations and freedom. Much of that knowledge had been gained during her time at the family home now marked only by crumbling bricks and broken dishes.

Ross managed to buy his wife’s freedom in 1855. By then, the Ross property had become a safe house along the Underground Railroad, too. In 1857, the Rosses were sheltering eight formerly enslaved people on their way north, but law enforcement had discovered their safe house and was poised to arrest Ross. Tubman arrived just in time to sneak her parents and their charges out of Maryland in a daring rescue.

Staying ahead of rising waters

The Ross site not only helped shape Tubman’s future; it was part of the Underground Railroad in its own right. And as Wyatt pointed out, it could reveal often-hidden details about the lives of enslaved and formerly enslaved people in America.

Last year, the site became part of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Maryland Coast. By 2100, the woods where Tubman and her father once cut timber will be marshland, and much of Maryland’s current coastal marshes will vanish beneath rising seas. That’s why the US Fish and Wildlife Service bought the 2,600 Peter’s Neck property, which turned out to include the Ross site, for $6 million last year—to provide future marshland habitat for the refuge.

“When we protect vulnerable habitats, we help preserve the stories of those who came before us, like Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross,” said Cynthia Martinez, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System at US Fish and Wildlife, in the press conference. Revenue from the Federal Duck Stamps program, combined with other federal funds and a donation from The Conservation Fund, provided the means for the land purchase.

A final note

Although the Ross site fades from history in 1857, Tubman did the opposite. She worked with abolitionist John Brown to plan the Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859. When the Civil War began, Tubman became a scout and spy for the Union army. She even led an armed raid that liberated 700 enslaved people in Combahee Ferry, South Carolina in 1863.

Tubman didn’t slow down a bit after the war. She actively campaigned for women’s suffrage, cared for her aging parents, and established a care home for elderly Black people. It’s an amazing story by any standard—but there’s more.

The thing is, Tubman suffered a traumatic head injury as a child. One of her enslavers threw a metal weight at another enslaved person, missed, and hit Tubman in the head hard enough to fracture her skull. Everything she did—the Underground Railroad, the war, and the suffrage activism—she did while living chronic pain and frequent bouts of dizziness and possibly even epilepsy.