The homesite where famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman likely spent time with her father before escaping slavery and leading others to freedom has been discovered in Dorchester County, MD. The forested site is located on land added last year to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was born into slavery in Maryland, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, but escaped to Philadelphia in 1849. She returned repeatedly to help others find freedom, becoming a famous "conductor" on the escape route known as the Underground Railroad.

Maryland and federal officials announced Tuesday that a state archaeological team uncovered a trove of artifacts at the site believed to be where Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, had lived in a cabin during his enslavement and which he owned outright as a free man by the 1840s.

The site was found on a 2,600-acre tract that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought last year on Peters Neck, a mostly wooded peninsula southwest of Cambridge. It was purchased for $6 million to give the extensive marsh at the Blackwater refuge room to migrate inland as climate change raises sea level around the Chesapeake Bay.

The property includes 10 acres that records show had been bequeathed in the early 1840s to Ben Ross by Anthony Thompson. Ross had been enslaved by Thompson, who in his will directed that Ross was to be freed and granted the land five years after Thompson’s death, which occurred in 1836.

Tubman site river view

This view of the Blackwater River, taken from the former homesite of Harriet Tubman's father, Ben Ross, is similar to what Tubman and Ross would have seen in the mid 1800s. The recently discovered site is now part of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. (Dave Harp)

A team of archaeologists from the Maryland State Highway Administration began investigating the tract in November 2020. The team returned in March and found numerous artifacts dating to the 1800s, including nails, brick, glass, dish fragments and even a button. Their discovery confirmed the location of the Ross homesite.

“The importance of discovering Ben Ross’s cabin here is the connection to Harriet Tubman,” said Julie Schablitsky, the SHA’s chief archaeologist. “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.

“This was the opportunity she had to learn about how to navigate and survive in the wetlands and the woods,” Schablitsky added. “We believe this experience [benefitted] her when she began to move people to freedom.”

Tina Martin Wyatt

Tina Martin Wyatt, a descendant of Harriet Tubman's father, Ben Ross, speaks at a press conference announcing the discovery of the Ross cabin site on the grounds of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. 

Tubman was born Araminta Ross in March 1822 on the Thompson farm near Cambridge. She and her mother were enslaved by the Brodess family, who moved them away from the farm when she was a toddler. In her teens, though, Araminta had a chance to work with her father, who felled and sold timber that was then shipped to Baltimore. It was in those years, historians believe, that the woman who became known as Harriet Tubman learned the skills she used to escape and return to help members of her family and others to do likewise.

“This discovery adds another puzzle piece to the story of Harriet Tubman, the state of Maryland, and our nation,” said Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford. “It is important that we continue to uncover parts of our history that we can learn from, especially when they can be lost to time, and other forces.” 

Descendants of Ross also hailed the find.

"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 Tina Wyatt, Ben Ross’s great-great-great-great granddaughter.

Tubman site archaeologists at work

Archaeologists explore the site at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge where Ben Ross, the father of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, once lived. 

Douglas Mitchell, a great-great-great grandson of Ross, called the discovery “truly inestimable.”

“Dr. Schablitsky’s findings hold the promise of both deepening and broadening our understanding of the remarkable life not only of the patriarch and his beloved wife, but also, of course, that of his legendary daughter and heroine, Harriet Tubman,” Mitchell said.

Tubman archaeology site

Archaeologists identified this shoreline site in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland as the former home of Harriet Tubman's father, Ben Ross. 

Officials eventually plan to add the Ross homesite to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile, self-guided scenic drive that includes more than 30 sites related to Tubman’s life and legacy.

“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, USFWS chief of the National Wildlife Refuge system.

“Acquiring Peters Neck last year was a critical addition to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge,” she explained, “[because] the area is predicted to naturally convert to marsh by 2100 because of sea-level rise. We look forward to working with our partners to create more opportunities to connect people to nature and strengthen the bond between the land and community.”

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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