Paddling the historic path of Harriet Tubman
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.
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.