In search of the Underground Railroad
Maryland’s most famous heroine, Harriet Tubman, was born enslaved in Dorchester County around 1822. She was rented out at age six by her owner, but at age 27 escaped to Pennsylvania.
After her escape, Tubman became a highly effective “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, making 13 trips back to her home area to guide 70 people to freedom.
“I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger,” Tubman once said.
Dorchester County, Maryland, about 80 miles east of Washington, D.C., is a mosaic of 600 square miles of vast, flat farmlands, dense woods, creeks, rivers and marshes. Its mazelike landscape looks much as it did in the 1800s, when many enslaved people bolted from their Dorchester County plantation owners to freedom.
The Underground Railroad was secretive in nature, and few structures remain. But many historic sites related to Tubman survive today.
Invisible depots and tracks
Neither subterranean nor a train, the Underground Railroad was a loosely connected network that stretched over half of the United States, connecting sympathizers who helped self-emancipating people escape slavery.
Runaways headed to free northern states and Canada as well as Spanish Florida, California, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. They were aided by people who cooperated across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender and religious lines.
Freedom-seekers often traveled at night — in disguise, on foot, in wagons, by boat, however they could. During the day they slept in barns, cellars, sheds, churches or other “stations.” They used railroad-related code words such as stations and depots (safe hiding places), conductors (guides) and tracks (routes with sympathizers).
Maryland was a pivotal border state before the Civil War. Its many waterways and overland routes were used by many enslaved people, who often headed to Philadelphia as their first destination. That city was the headquarters of William Still’s Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which aided 1,500 people in their journey to freedom.
Harriet Tubman Byway’s 45 sites
If you want to tour local Underground Railroad sites, follow the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway — a self-guided driving tour along 125 miles in Maryland and 98 miles in Delaware — which highlights 45 marked sites.
Travelers can download an audio guide from the website (harriettubmanbyway.org) or download a free smartphone app to navigate the trip. In fact, smartphone users can now point their phone’s cameras at certain sites to see historic images superimposed on the current landscape.
For an introduction to the byway and touring materials, start at the Dorchester County Visitor Center in Cambridge, Maryland. The Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center opened in Cambridge four years ago.
Not far away, slave auctions took place outside the Italianate Dorchester County Courthouse, built in 1854, and its 1852 predecessor, destroyed by fire. Inside this courthouse, a free Black man, Samuel Green, was given a 10-year prison sentence for owning the anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
A memorial garden in Cambridge honors Tubman with murals painted by her descendant Charles Ross.
At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, 10 minutes away, a film and exhibits detail Tubman’s life. Visitors learn that her early love of the outdoors and life of hard work, including driving mules, timbering and farming, later gave her insight and survival skills to escape, aid others, and become a Civil War Union nurse, spy and suffragist.
The adjacent Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a wild expanse of the natural elements that Tubman and others navigated. In the refuge, they foraged for food in the wetlands, dense woods and muskrat lodges.
Historic buildings help tell the story
One of the byway’s most popular stops, the Bucktown Village Store, stands mostly unchanged today. (The store, now a small museum and gift shop, is currently closed due to the pandemic.)
Here Tubman witnessed an enslaved field hand break free of his master. When the “owner” demanded that Tubman help with the capture, she refused, and he struck Tubman in the head, cracking her skull and leaving her with seizures and headaches for the rest of her life.
The tour route takes visitors north to several sites from the 1800s, including the Jacob and Hannah Leverton House in Preston, a Quaker abolitionist haven.
At Preston’s Linchester Mill, a water-powered grist mill with a post office, general store and several safe houses, people could get the latest news. The town’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery was likely a meeting place for fugitives.
In Denton, the William Still Family Interpretive Center honors the Still family’s struggle for freedom. Still documented more than 1,000 escapes, compiling in 1871 one of the most authentic existing records of the Underground Railroad.
Another conductor: Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass also led people on the Underground Railroad near Rochester, New York. Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He became a bank president, statesman, lecturer and author.
To learn more about Douglass, visit the Talbot County Courthouse in Easton, where Douglass was jailed in 1836 after he attempted to escape from his plantation.
In addition, visitors can see the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, and Douglass’s home, Cedar Hill, in Washington, D.C., where he lived from 1878 until his death in 1895.
To help your search
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway has a list of all 45 sites on the self-guided tour: harriettubmanbyway.org. Some sites may be closed during the pandemic, so call ahead.
Make a reservation for the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center in Church Creek, open Thursday through Sunday, at bit.ly/Tubmanreservations.
The National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom lists more than 650 locations in 40 states. Visit bit.ly/exploreugrr.