Harriet Tubman National Monument created on MD Eastern Shore

Harriet Tubman led escaped slaves along rivers at night. The Blackwater River in Dorchester County, MD, runs near one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, which is now part of the national monument commemorating Tubman. (Dave Harp)

A national monument honoring Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who led others to freedom along through the tidal rivers and marshes of the lower Eastern Shore, was established by President Barack Obama in March.

The new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument contains forested wetlands and marshes that still appear much as they did in the first half of the 19th century, when Tubman was born on a nearby Dorchester County plantation.

She escaped in 1847 and eventually purchased a farm in New York with her husband. Nonetheless, Tubman returned 13 times to lead friends, relatives and other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses that ran from the Deep South to Canada.

Conductors such as Tubman would lead escaped slaves across fields and towns and along rivers by night, and hide during the day.

The new monument includes a 480-acre property donated to the National Park Service by The Conservation Fund. It was once the home of Jacob Jackson, and was one of the first safe houses along the Underground Railroad.

"Journeys along the Underground Railroad were a dangerous scramble across wilderness and through populated areas, and success required heroes like Harriet Tubman to know the land, travel swiftly, and repeatedly take risks," said Lawrence Selzer, president and CEO of the Conservation Fund. "We're thrilled to honor Tubman's heroism by participating in a monument designation in her honor."

While that property serves as the foundation for the monument, Obama's proclamation establishes a 11,750 acre boundary, which includes lands within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and land that could be added in the future. While the National Park Service will operate the monument, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to administer lands within its border that are also part of the refuge. The site will be operated in coordination with an adjacent state park honoring Tubman when it opens in 2015.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, Rep. Andy Harris and many conservation organizations had sought creation of the monument.

"Harriet Tubman, Maryland's heroic conductor on the Underground Railroad and early leader for women's rights, will now get the recognition she deserves," said Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which last year led a letter-writing campaign to build support for the monument designation.

"Commemoration of Tubman's life and the conservation of the Eastern Shore landscapes will encourage tourism and education, ensuring an appreciation of our history and environment."

The president's proclamation directs the Park Service to develop a management plan for the monument within three years.

It is the second national monument established by Obama around the Chesapeake. In November 2011, he designated Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, VA, using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to make the designation. Unlike national parks, which must be created by Congress, the act allows presidents to designate national monuments.

Karl Blankenship is editor-at-large of the Bay Journal. You can reach him at kblankenship@bayjournal.com.

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