History no longer underground

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Robert Friedman

Cathy Eshmont (left) and Paulette Lutz were recently honored by Preservation Howard County for their research into Howard County’s role in the Underground Railroad network that helped slaves escape to freedom. They are shown outside the old Ellicott City courthouse, built in 1840, where legal challenges to slavery were heard.
Photo by Christopher Myer

The slaves were hiding in the so-called “Indian cave” in a rocky embankment across from what is now Harriet Tubman Lane, near the Middle Patuxent River in Columbia. When the pursuing posse saw an intact spider web at the mouth of what is more like a deep crevice, they continued to look elsewhere for the runaways.

The spider spinning its web over the mouth of the space after the slaves had crawled inside could only be explained as an “act of God.” The posse left, and the slaves took off soon after in their escape to freedom up north via the Underground Railroad. 

That is one of the word-of-mouth stories passed down over the years and shared with researchers who are trying to trace how slaves escaped from bondage in Howard County. They are looking for the trails the escapees took, the homes and churches and public places they were sheltered in, and the people who helped them along the way.

Right now, the spider web story is considered a local legend. But the cave could get future official recognition from the National Parks Service as a site in the Underground Railroad network if proper documentation is found — such as the names of the escaped slaves who had used the cave, perhaps located through diaries, letters or other records.

“I heard a house nearby was owned at the time by a Quaker family,” said researcher Cathy Eshmont. “There could be some truth to the story, because the Quakers were anti-slavery and often hid runaway slaves in their homes and on their property.”

Award-winning research

Paulette Lutz, president of the Howard County Historical Society, and Eshmont were among those who recently received awards from Preservation Howard County, which protects and preserves local historic sites. The women were cited for their research and documentation of Howard County’s role in, and sites contributing to, the Underground Railroad network.

Through their work, the National Parks Service included four Ellicott City sites in its Network to Freedom Program. They include the courthouse on Main Street, the building that housed the original courthouse on Court Avenue, the Emory Street Jail, and the Howard County Historical Society’s library and archives. There are now official plaques at all the sites.

Eshmont and Lutz also found Howard County Historic Society records, as well as books and other documents, recounting legal challenges to slavery that played out in the courthouses, as well as attempts by slaveholders to regain escaped slaves.

One of those was the case “The State vs. Negro Bill,” an 1840s proceeding filed by a local slave master against not only the escapee but also the people who helped him on his way to freedom.

Another example of their findings was the story of William Chapin, a white abolitionist from New York. Chapin ran a “railroad” escape route via horse and carriage. Records discovered by Eshmont and Lutz show that Chapin was arrested for his activities in Montgomery County and sent to the Ellicott City jail. He was fined $20,000 — a huge sum at the time.

How involved was Tubman?

Eshmont, 60, and Lutz, 67, are working on other stories and sites that could meet the National Parks Service’s regulations to be cited as part of the Underground Railroad network. One of these stories, handed down from family-to-family in Howard County, involves Harriet Tubman, the Maryland-born escaped slave who went on to become one of the great early liberators and an advocate for women’s suffrage.

After escaping in 1849 from the Eastern Shore, where she was born into slavery, Tubman made several trips from Philadelphia back to Maryland to rescue her family. She eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom.

Despite the paucity of written records, Lutz and Eshmont are continuing efforts to corroborate the stories passed down from local families that Tubman led groups of slaves from Howard County plantations to freedom in Canada and other northern locations. Specifically, they are trying to confirm whether Tubman, while leading a group of slaves to freedom, spent a night sleeping in the cemetery of the Locust United Methodist Church in Columbia.

Lutz noted that finding documents about this and other Underground Railroad activities is difficult. It is not surprising that few or no records exist, since the activities were illegal at the time, and the people involved did not want incriminating evidence to remain.

Eshmont added that there was a strong possibility that the county played a bigger role in the Underground Railroad than is currently documented. 

For example, local historians believe the community of Simpsonville was an important stopover point in the county’s Underground Railroad connections.

“Simpsonville was a logical community for runaway slaves, because the slaveholder Nicholas Worthington freed his 17 slaves and gave them each land in the community,” according to the HoCo Connect blog site. The community was called Freetown because of Worthington’s act in 1845.

The late Wylene Burch, who was the founding director of the Howard County Center for African American Culture, had noted that research showed the Underground Railroad thrived in the county because it was in “the tight place” as slaves came up through Maryland via different waterways, such as the Middle Patuxent and Patapsco rivers, to go north.

Eshmont urges county residents who may have letters, family diaries or photos giving evidence of slaves moving to freedom through the county to contact her and Lutz through the Howard County Historical Society.

Slaves played important role

According to the 1860 Census, more than one out of five Howard County residents was a slave, while another 10 percent were free blacks — double the proportion of the rest of the state.

The county’s slaves were originally brought to Maryland to work in the tobacco fields. After the discovery of iron ore in Howard County, slaves were brought to the ironworks quarry off Route 32.

When asked what role slaves played in developing Howard County, Burch had said: “They built it. All of these buildings built in the 1700s…with all that heavy cement? Those [slaves] really struggled and worked and developed the area. There are so many great buildings in Howard County, old mansions…slaves did that.”

It was this realization — “that a lot of our early economy was built on the backs of slaves” — that led Eshmont, a retired Department of Defense employee, to be interested in the area’s black history. “I think we owe those folks a lot,” she said.

Eshmont, who is white, said she also found that her ancestors, some of the earliest settlers in Maryland, came to this country as indentured servants — a form of bondage for poor whites in Europe. After signing contracts binding them to a master for several years, they were given free passage to America, where they worked and lived under harsh conditions.

Lutz, who has lived in Howard County for 57 years, said “there is so much rich history in the county that I was naturally drawn to it. I want to contribute to documenting that history even further, to expand the history of African-Americans, and include the history of the Hispanic American and Asian communities here as well.”