Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought 2600 acres of land to add to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. While the main goal was to give wildlife some higher ground to inhabit as other areas succumb to rising water levels, that particular ground had historical significance, too.
Some of the land, now known as Peter’s Neck, used to be the plantation of Anthony Thompson, the man who enslaved Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross. In his will, Thompson granted Ross two things: freedom, and 10 acres of land from the plantation. Ross built a cabin on the property in the 1840s, and it was there that Tubman—born Araminta Ross—honed the wilderness skills that would help her during her years as an Underground Railroad conductor. “That landscape became her classroom,” biographer Kate Clifford Larson told The Washington Post. “Those years she lived with her father were absolutely crucial to the development of Harriet Tubman.”
The cabin is no longer standing, but the new land acquisition seemed like a golden opportunity to try to find wherever it once was. So refuge manager Marcia Pradines got in touch with Julie Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist of Maryland’s State Highway Administration, who gathered a team and started digging for artifacts last fall. “After about a thousand holes, I was getting pretty frustrated,” Schablitsky told The Baltimore Sun. She finally decided to try using a metal detector, and almost immediately turned up a half-dollar coin from 1808—the same year Tubman’s parents likely married.
The group didn’t find the location of Ross’s former home right away, but the coin helped direct their efforts. After a winter hiatus, they resumed in March and focused their search in the region around where Schablitsky found it. About a quarter mile away, the team unearthed a trove of brick pieces, nails, bits of glass, a button, and pottery fragments with designs dating back to the 1820s. All the physical evidence, combined with historical records placing Ross’s plot in the area, was enough to make the researchers feel confident that they’d pinpointed the site of the cabin. “It’s not just one artifact that tells us we have something. It’s the assemblage. It’s the multiple pieces,” Schablitsky told The Washington Post. She shared photos of all the artifacts with Tina Wyatt, Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece, who told The Baltimore Sun that seeing them helped her visualize what Ross’s life was actually like. “It means so much to the family to see all of this,” she said.
As for what’ll happen to the site in the future, Pradines is tentatively planning to create a nature trail around it. That could become part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile trail with other important places associated with Tubman. We don’t yet know where the artifacts themselves will end up—there is a full-fledged museum along the byway—but they might spend some time in the nearby Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center until a decision is made.
[h/t The Washington Post]