‘Virtually Unchanged’: Harriet Tubman’s East Coast | Forum

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The Stewart Canal in Dorchester County, Maryland, once connected inland with nearby docks. While enslaved on a nearby plantation, Harriet Tubman may have used steers to bring logs and cordwood to the canal. (Charlie Ewers)


The Maryland Park Service describes the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a road route that winds through 125 miles of countryside and shoreline in Dorchester and Carolina counties in Maryland, as winding through “a rare landscape, virtually unchanged for over a decade. ‘a century”. It is truly a rare landscape, uniquely shaped by nature and centuries of human occupation.

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 this, but only by looking at the scenery in “deep focus” – to borrow the term for a camera setting that keeps both the foreground and background in focus. . By that I mean using the eye of our mind so that, as much as possible, we keep the background of the past in our field of vision as much as the foreground of the present.

My co-author Charlie Ewers and I have often traveled this landscape to prepare our book Harriet Tubman’s East Coast – The old house is not there. We have documented many miles from Choptank Landing to Parson’s Creek. Along with the evocative photos taken by Charlie, we also studied the landscape with a perspective that took us beyond the camera images and into the past.

Take, for example, Bucktown Road, a Cambridge starting point for a trip to the East Coast of Harriet Tubman. If you look past the fields and farms on either side of the road, you will see green fringes of trees cradling the farms and settlements. These stands of trees evoke the meandering streams and rivers that define the southern landscape of Dorchester and, before they were silted up by agricultural runoff, served as “roads” for many earlier settlements.

Other areas have been shaped by woods and wetlands that escaped colonization, but no regular visits to meet human needs. East of the Bucktown General Store intersection, along the southern edge of Brodess Farm on Greenbrier Road (where Harriet Tubman lived and was enslaved as a young adult) is the Marsh Greenbrier woodland. It was the source of storytelling and supplies for slave and free families, including medicinal herbs and food to supplement the pork and corn that were central to the East Coast diet.

A cautious view across the road to fields surrounded by wetlands and woods also testifies to changes since the days of Tubman’s youth in Dorchester. The farms that would have been strewn with outbuildings (including enclosures and livestock enclosures) and subdivided into crop areas (food, fodder and fiber) are now monoculture areas that differ only by 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 relatively young poultry industry.

The streams and rivers that form the backdrop to our deep concentration would have been better defined in Harriet Tubman’s time. Many places, such as the area commonly known as Bucktown above the eastern end of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, have since eroded and silted up into “broad”, wide swampy corridors where a ribbon of water is only visible after rain. On the Blackwater and Little Blackwater rivers, these broads developed into shallow lakes, the size of which is limited only by higher ground or riprap. The Key Wallace Bridge over the Little Blackwater River may share the same space with the bridge that existed in Tubman’s day, but in his day the long causeway over the water to the west of the bridge was a muddy but passable lane. across the swamp.

This stream wash is even clearer where MD Route 16 crosses Parson’s Creek, west of the area known as Madison. South of this crossing is the start of the Stewart Canal, through which Harriet Tubman may have used to extract timber from the woods around Peters Neck and near the headwaters of the Blackwater River.

The two canals that form a long island (where the timber may have been transferred to a barge or boat) are the most visible reminders of the canal, which has since opened wide and now faces ‘ghost forests’. of dead pines smothered by the salt tides that cross the canal.

The Kentuck Forest, stretching north of Key Wallace Drive, across from the shelter’s visitor center, was the source of precious wood that was dragged along “logging roads” by oxen or floated down the Little River. Blackwater just to the east. These places were as lonely as they appear along the roads today, if not more. Slaves relied on isolated places such as meeting places for worship, departures from the Underground Railroad, hiding places to await punishment or sale, shortcuts to secretly visit families working on other farms and places to escape the “slave catchers” who occasionally patrolled the roads.

So, yes, what we now see of Harriet Tubman’s homeland may be “virtually unchanged” – 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 have to admit that what we are seeing is almost what Harriet Tubman saw – in its widest contours of waterways, swamps, forests and fields – transformed by silted streams, shallow “lakes” and ghost forests choked by the tides. To see it as she would have seen it, we must also use our minds to perceive what is no longer literally visible: the sprawling wetlands, the woods and swamps, and the diversity of crops and livestock.

And, most importantly, we have to see the landscape of Dorchester from the perspective of the slaves who inhabited it – a place of forced labor and often unseen cruelty, but also of hidden resources and secret ‘paths’ from an earlier era that connected divided families and led to freedom.

Phillip Hesser is co-author, with Charlie Ewers, of A Guide to the East Coast by Harriet Tubman – The Old House Isn’t Here (History Press) and, with Cristina Creager, fromWhat a River Says – Exploring the Blackwater River and the Refuge (Friends of Blackwater). It chronicles the life, livelihoods and landscapes of the Delmarva Peninsula and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The opinions expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those ofJournal of the Bay.


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