A stiff wind picked up as we stood at the edge of marshlands that are now protected by the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland and watched kayaks making their way up a small river. In that moment my family and I were transported back in time, listening to the story of a young slave named Jane Kane who had worked on a plantation just downstream. Jane was forbidden from marrying Harriet Tubman’s brother, Ben Ross, so one night she slipped down to where Ben had hidden men’s clothing for her and made her escape. Ben and Jane met up with Tubman who helped them reach freedom, eventually settling first in Chatham, Ont., and then in St. Catharines.
We were exploring the Harriet Tubman Byway, a driving tour that lets visitors to travel through Maryland’s Eastern Shore at their own pace, visiting sites from Tubman’s early life. It snakes up to Philadelphia just like travellers on the Underground Railroad would have. There’s an app and a website (harriettubmanbyway.org/the-byway) filled with maps, information and an audio guide to enrich the experience. Travel is always a great way to sneak some history lessons by the kids, but never have stories from the past sprung to life as vividly as they do while moving through a landscape that remains largely the same as when Tubman herself used the North Star to guide her way to freedom.
We started our road trip with a factual overview of Tubman’s life at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, a newly constructed exhibit hall just outside of Church Creek, Md., that’s surrounded by walking trails and a picnic pavilion. There we met Maryland State Park Ranger Cierra Maszkiewicz, who noted that the exhibit is designed to lead from darkness into light as you move through Tubman’s biography. Born into slavery on a small farm, Tubman was desperate to avoid being “sold South” to slave traders who would take her from her family into an even harsher life. Guided in equal part by religious convictions, an intimate knowledge of the land and her local network of Underground Railroad helpers, she eventually escaped to freedom. Tubman returned 13 times to rescue other slaves from her community, served as a spy during the Civil War, supported the suffragette movement and opened a home for the aged. My 13-year-old daughter Irene blinked back a tear and said, “She’s the bravest person I’ve ever heard of.”
The next morning, we pulled up to a small, yellow wood-panelled building to meet with the owner of the historic Bucktown General Store, Jay Meredith. The store was owned by Meredith’s family in 1835 when 13-year-old Harriet Tubman stepped aside to let a runaway slave escape through the back door. The overseer of the slave picked up a two-pound iron counterweight and hurled it toward the slave, missing and striking Tubman in the head instead. She nearly died, according to Meredith, and went on to suffer from sleeping spells and seizures during which she claimed to receive visions from God. “Visiting this store is a spiritual journey for some people,” Meredith said. “They kneel right down on the ground. I believe the hit to the head was pre-ordained and allowed her to communicate with God.”
But there were also other factors that made the Eastern Shore of Maryland the perfect place to give rise to an extraordinary figure like Tubman. Local historian J.O.K. Walsh stood in the recently restored Linchester Mill and explained how the economy of Maryland differed from the big cotton plantations of the South. Slaves here were owned by local farmers who could often not afford to keep them during periods of bust. And at same time, the religious group known as Quakers had come out in opposition to slavery and began to influence public opinion. As a result, many farmers began freeing some of their slaves, who would often continue to live in the community as free Black men and women. Business hubs such as the Linchester Mill would have local farmers, enslaved and free Black people all mingling together.
It was this network of free Black people and Quakers who made the Underground Railroad run. In Webb Cabin, the restored one-room home of a freed Black man and his family, Walsh moved a small rug aside to reveal a trap door in the floor. All three of my kids immediately jumped into the hole, which was big enough to hide five men. “You know,” Walsh said, “a slave who escaped with Harriet Tubman claims to have spent more time under the ground than over the ground.”
Just down the road from the Bucktown General Store, there’s a plaque marking the spot where Tubman was born in 1822 – or so the story goes. There are lots of stories about her in these parts and not all of them are factually accurate. But her legacy has been passed down through generations creating a mythology that has power and influence in its own right.
The Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center in Cambridge, Md., has a less official kind of vibe, one that celebrates the legend as much as the woman. It’s a funky space filled with a hodgepodge of Tubman-themed memorabilia. One wall has prints of the many portraits taken of her. Another houses a collection of stamps from 1978 when she became the first-ever African American woman honoured on one. There’s even a quilt exhibit put on by the National African American Quilt Guild. Display cases filled with souvenir T-shirts bring Tubman’s legacy right into our present day.
Outside, the road in front of the museum on Race Street in downtown Cambridge has a Black Lives Matter mural painted on the it. A sign that her spirit lives on.
If You Go
How to get there
It’s about 10 hours of driving from Toronto to the Maryland’s Eastern Shore, much of it through scenic mountains in Pennsylvania. Proof of vaccination is required at land borders to the United States. Updated information can be found at dhs.gov.
What to do
In between stops on the Harriet Tubman Byway you can explore the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge or the Chesapeake Bay through Blackwater Adventures. blackwateradventuresmd.com
Take a one-hour detour to visit the beach town of Ocean City, Md., or look for the wild horse on Assateague Island. visitmaryland.org
Where to eat
For an authentic taste of no-frills soul food visit Porter Soul Food in Cambridge, Md. The catfish, candied yams, and mac and cheese are must-haves. facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063476381321
Enjoy fresh-caught local seafood in a laid-back family-friendly dining room. Jimmie & Sook’s in downtown Cambridge has something for everyone. When in Maryland, do get the crab! jimmieandsooks.com
The Market Street Public House in Denton, Md., is a hot spot for locals to enjoy classic pub fare and a cold beer. marketstreet.pub
Where to stay
The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay is a sprawling resort hotel on the waterfront. With indoor and outdoor pools, a fitness room with a view and on-site golfing, there’s lots to entertain the family. Double queen rooms during March Break from US$279 a night. hyatt.com
The writer’s accommodations were provided by the Maryland Office of Tourism. The organization did not review or approve the story prior to publication.
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