Pad­dling the his­toric path of Har­riet Tub­man

Dorchester Star - - Front Page - By CHRIS POLK cpolk@star­dem.com

CAM­BRIDGE — The per­son whose pic­ture will be on the new $20 bill is Har­riet Tub­man from Dorch­ester County, and a group of na­ture lovers set out Satur­day, June 4, to get a sense of some of the chal­lenges she faced trav­el­ing her home ter­ri­tory.

Many imag­ine Tub­man to be a brave, de­ter­mined woman try­ing to es­cape slav­ery, mak­ing her way to free­dom and lead­ing oth­ers, trav­el­ing by foot, hid­ing in the woods, wad­ing through swamps and hid­ing un­der bridges as she was guided by the North Star.

Ex­perts such as Don­ald Pin­der, pres­i­dent of Dorch­ester County’s Har­riet Tub­man Or­ga­ni­za­tion, say Tub­man var­ied her routes and even helped some fugi­tive slaves es­cape by boat.

Pin­der led a kayak and ca­noe pad­dle in Tub­man’s home ter­ri­tory and talked about

Tub­man’s role as a fa­mous Un­der­ground Rail­road “con­duc­tor.” He gave an in­side view on what life was like on the wa­ter in Dorch­ester County when Tub­man was en­slaved.

The pad­dle trip is the first in the an­nual Tour the Shore Pad­dle Se­ries that al­lows na­ture lovers to ex­plore lo­cal rivers, creeks and parks. It is spon­sored by the Mid­shore River­keeper Con­ser­vancy. Pad­dlers get a chance to learn about lo­cal ecol­ogy while re­con­nect­ing with na­ture and meet­ing new peo­ple.

Born into slav­ery in Dorch­ester County, Tub­man be­came world fa­mous as an abo­li­tion­ist, hu­man­i­tar­ian and leader, es­cap­ing to the North her­self and re­turn­ing many times to lead oth­ers to free­dom.

She is con­sid­ered to be one of the most suc­cess­ful lead­ers ever recorded as­so­ci­ated with the Un­der­ground Rail­road.

Most peo­ple pic­ture Tub­man’s es­cape ef­forts to be mainly land-based, but along an Eastern Shore of many wa­ter­sheds, the rivers and shore­line fig­ured promi­nently into sev­eral of her es­cape plans, Pin­der said.

Tub­man could have helped es­cap­ing slaves by boat through Dorch­ester’s tan­gled cen­tral sys­tems of rivers and on to Fishing Bay and Bal­ti­more, on at least one oc­ca­sion, he said.

Le­gend has it that she some­times en­cour­aged es­cap­ing slaves to en­ter the wa­ter along the shore­line to avoid be­ing tracked by bounty hun­ters.

The June 4 pad­dle be­gan at the boat ramp on Draw­bridge Road south of Cam­bridge at the base of a bridge that passes over the Tran­squak­ing River.

The Tran­squak­ing River is a thin trib­u­tary which me­an­ders south, pass­ing at one point about a mile from the Buck­town Vil­lage Store.

The store is the fa­mous lo­ca­tion where a young Tub­man re­ceived a blow to her head that frac­tured her skull while she was try­ing to help another en­slaved per­son. The head in­jury plagued her for the rest of her life.

Pin­der said Tub­man tried to es­cape with two of her brothers twice, but in­tu­ition con­vinced her to turn back be­cause con­di­tions were not right.

She es­caped suc­cess­fully in 1849 with help from those work­ing in the Un­der­ground Rail­road who planned her con­nec­tions and set up a time for her to go, he said.

Pin­der said it is be­lieved she trav­eled, hid­den in a horse cart with a false bot­tom, to the home of Rev. Sa­muel Green in East New Mar­ket. From there she prob­a­bly went on foot to Pre­ston.

“They were 10 to 15 miles apart,” Pin­der said. “It would not have been un­usual or a hard­ship for peo­ple to walk there. And then they rested by day and then moved on by night.”

In Pre­ston, it was es­tab­lished that the home of Ja­cob Lev­er­ton, a Quaker who lived on what is now Sea­man Road, was an Un­der­ground Rail­road stop. The old brick home is still used to­day.

Tub­man ended up in Philadel­phia, and be­gan to think about help­ing her family es­cape, Pin­der said.

As the group pad­dled on June 4, they passed by wild and wooded shore­line that looked very sim­i­lar to that of Tub­man’s time.

Pin­der said that Tub­man was very good at in­ter­pret­ing noises in the night­time for­est and could tell when they were made by an­i­mals or hu­mans.

This bode her well one time, he said, when she was ap­proach­ing the bridge to Wilm­ing­ton and heard sounds not made by an­i­mals. She knew she had a price on her head.

A group of bounty hun­ters were wait­ing for her, Pin­der said, but she laid low for three hours un­til they fi­nally gave up and left.

Pin­der said counts of the num­bers of peo­ple Tub­man led to free­dom vary, from 60 to 70 as re­ported by au­thor Kate Clif­ford Lar­son to 300 as re­ported by au­thor Sarah Brad­ford.

He told the group to keep an eye out for wildlife and semi­aquatic crea­tures as they pad­dled.

“We have to know that peo­ple lived years ago here with­out su­per­mar­ket stores,” he said. “And they lived off the land and the wa­ter. What­ever you see, you have to con­sider, that’s what they ate.”

Fish that were plen­ti­ful in Tub­man’s time would have been yel­low perch and black bull­head cat­fish, he said.

There would also be deer, muskrat and foxes prey­ing upon bull­frogs. Other rep­tiles in­cluded snakes and leop­ard frogs.

Pin­der said that in times past, the cen­tral part of the Tran­squak­ing River above the bridge on Draw­bridge Road was brack­ish and could be fresh enough dur­ing low tide for farm­ers to use for ir­ri­ga­tion.

He said that of the many rivers in Dorch­ester, farm­ers would call the thin, cen­tral swampy rivers the “good trib­u­taries.”

Tub­man’s legacy and pop­u­lar­ity con­tin­ues to spread through­out the United States with nu­mer­ous sites named for her.

On the Mid-Shore there is a Har­riet Tub­man Un­der­ground Rail­road Na­tional Park at Sail­winds, and in Dorch­ester County there is a mu­seum de­voted to her, among oth­ers.

A na­tional park in New York will soon be named for her, and it was an­nounced in April that her pic­ture will re­place An­drew Jack­son’s on the front of the $20 bill.

Satur­day’s pad­dle trip was held un­der the guid­ance of MRC nat­u­ral­ists Elle O’Brien, Suzanne Sullivan and Elizabeth Brown. Break­fast donuts were sup­plied by the Bay Coun­try Bak­ery.

Each pad­dle trip in the Tour the Shore Pad­dle Se­ries is or­ga­nized by a group of “river­keep­ers,” ed­u­ca­tors and sci­en­tists who work to pro­tect Eastern Shore wa­ter­ways. Some may com­bine wa­ter and land ex­plo­ration.

Next in the se­ries is on Fri­day, July 22, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. MRC sci­en­tists will lead a pad­dle on Bol­ing­broke Creek off the Chop­tank River be­gin­ning in Trappe and walk the wooded trails of the Izaak Wal­ton League’s Bol­ing­broke Na­ture Area.

Tours are $30 in­clud­ing kayak rental, $20 if you pro­vide your own kayak. A lim­ited num­ber of binoc­u­lars and guide books are also avail­able to use on pad­dle trips.

Pr­ereg­is­tra­tion is re­quired and space is lim­ited. Con­tact Suzanne@mid­shoreriver­keeper.org or call 443-3850511 to sign up and get all the de­tails.

Other pad­dle trips in­clude Wye Is­land on Aug. 18 and Robins Creek, ex­tend­ing to the Eastern Shore Land Con­ser­vancy’s Lynch Pre­serve on Sept. 16.

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.mid­shoreriver­keeper.org.

PHOTO BY CHRIS POLK

Don­ald Pin­der, cen­ter, gets ready to pad­dle the Tran­squak­ing River in Dorch­ester County along with oth­ers and talk about the path of Har­riet Tub­man. Elle O’Brien, left, and Suzanne Sullivan, right, of the Mid­shore River­keeper Con­ser­vancy help him launch his kayak.

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