The Maryland Park Service describes the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a driving route that meanders through 125 miles of countryside and shoreline in Maryland’s Dorchester and Caroline counties, as weaving through “a rare landscape, virtually unaltered for more than a century.” It truly is an uncommon landscape, uniquely shaped by nature and centuries of human settlement.
But can we say that a landscape visited by direct or indirect human impacts is unaltered, even in its most remote fringes? I believe we can say that, but only by viewing the landscape in “deep focus” — to borrow the term for a camera setting that keeps both foreground and background in sharp focus. By that I mean employing our mind’s eye so that, to the extent possible, we keep the background of the past as much in our field of vision as the foreground of the present.
My co-author Charlie Ewers and I often have traveled across this landscape in preparing our book Harriet Tubman’s Eastern Shore — The Old Home Is Not There. We have documented many miles, from Choptank Landing to Parson’s Creek. With the evocative photos taken by Charlie, we have also studied the landscape with a viewpoint that took us beyond the images of the camera and into the past.
Take, for example, Bucktown Road, one starting point out of Cambridge for a journey into Harriet Tubman’s Eastern Shore. If you look beyond the fields and farmhouses on either side of the road, you will see green fringes of trees cradling the farms and settlements. These stands of trees hint at the meandering creeks and rivers that define the southern Dorchester landscape and, before they were silted in by agricultural runoff, served as the “roads” to many earlier settlements.
Other areas were shaped by woods and wetlands that evaded settlement, but not regular visits to supply human needs. East of the intersection at the Bucktown General Store, along the south edge of the Brodess Farm on Greenbrier Road (where Harriet Tubman lived and was enslaved as a young adult) is the wooded Greenbrier Swamp. This was the source of folktales and supplies for enslaved or free families, including medicinal herbs and food to supplement the pork and corn that was the core of the Eastern Shore diet.
A careful view across the byway at the fields hemmed in by wetlands and woods also testifies to changes since the time of Tubman’s Dorchester youth. Farms that would have been dotted with outbuildings (including livestock pens and enclosures) and subdivided into areas for crops (food, animal feed and fiber) are now single-crop areas that differ only with the seasons and are worked by tractors and harvesters. Two of the crops you see here — soybeans and milo (grain sorghum) — would have been unknown to Tubman and support a comparatively young poultry industry.
The creeks and rivers that form the background to our deep focus would have been better defined in the time of Harriet Tubman. Many places, such as the area generally known as Bucktown above the east end of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, have since eroded and silted into “broads,” wide swampy corridors where a ribbon of water is visible only after rain. On both the Blackwater and Little Blackwater rivers, these broads have evolved into shallow lakes, limited in size only by higher ground or riprap. The Key Wallace Bridge across the Little Blackwater River may share the same space with the bridge that existed in Tubman’s time, but in her day the long causeway over the water to the west of the bridge was a muddy but passable thoroughfare through the marsh.
This washing in of waterways is even clearer where MD Route 16 crosses Parson’s Creek, west of the area known as Madison. To the south of this crossing is the start of Stewart’s Canal, which Harriet Tubman may have used by to bring timber out of the woods around Peters Neck and near the upper Blackwater River.
The two channels that form a long island (where timber may have been transferred to a barge or boat) are the most visible reminders of the canal, which has since opened up into broads and now fronts “ghost forests” of dead pines choked by salt tides coursing through the canal.
Kentuck Forest, sprawling north from Key Wallace Drive, opposite the refuge visitor center, was the source of valuable timber that was dragged out on “skid roads” by oxen or floated down the Little Blackwater River just to the east. These locations were as solitary as they appear along the roads today, if not more so. Enslaved people relied on such isolated spots as meeting places for worship, Underground Railroad departures, hideouts to wait out punishment or sale, shortcuts for secretly visiting family working on other farms, and places to evade “slave catchers” that occasionally patrolled the roads.
So, yes, what we now see of Harriet Tubman’s native land may be “virtually unaltered” — but with the emphasis on virtual, meaning “almost” or “a replicated version of something real.” To appreciate the landscape as it would have been in the mid-1800s, we need to admit that what we see is almost what Harriet Tubman saw — in its broadest outlines of waterway, marsh, forest and field — transformed by silted creeks, shallow “lakes” and tide-choked ghost forests. To see it as she would have seen it, we also must use our mind’s eye to perceive what’s no longer literally visible: the sprawling wetlands, woods and swamps, and the diversity of crops and livestock.
And, most of all, we must see the Dorchester landscape from the perspective of the enslaved people who inhabited it — a place of forced labor and often-unseen cruelty, but also of hidden resources and secret “byways” of an earlier time that connected divided families and led to freedom.
Phillip Hesser is co-author, with Charlie Ewers, of A Guide to Harriet Tubman’s Eastern Shore – The Old Home Is Not There (History Press) and, with Cristina Creager, of What a River Says – Exploring the Blackwater River and Refuge (Friends of Blackwater). He chronicles life, livelihood and landscape on the Delmarva Peninsula and across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.