Phyllis Kimber Wilcox | Contributor
Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820-1913). Photographic portrait, ca. 1911. Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller scrapbooks, NAWSA Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (041.00.00)
Araminta Ross (1820-1913) known to the world as Harriet Tubman, was a conductor on the underground railroad, a nurse, a spy and leader of the Combahee River Raid.
Considered the “Moses of her People,” Harriet was an exceptional human being—the real-life Wonder Woman.
Had she been White, we would be able to glimpse her image from countless films, plays and stories. We would know where she slept. There would be places to pay homage. Until recently, this was only a dream. Now, a new archaeological exploration is giving hope of one day locating the home of one of America’s true heroines.
Harriet’s life, unbelievable in a cinematic sense, echoes Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” Struck in the head while young, Harriet would be tormented with significant physical trauma for the rest of her life. In the book Harriet Tubman: A Life in American History, Kerry Walters writes:
“Slaves were always subject to physical abuse, usually by overseers or masters, but not infrequently by mistresses and even White children . . . Harriet Tubman was viciously used by a woman to whom she was hired out when she was still only a child. At times, slaves were forced to physically assault fellow slaves. Solomon Northup, who escaped from slavery and wrote a memoir entitled Twelve Years a Slave, records being required to whip another slave with supervised savagery while his master’s entire family, including small children, watched the proceedings with what struck him as sadistic pleasure.
It need hardly be mentioned that both the victims and the perpetrators of such actions could easily become desensitized to violence. Beaten slaves sometimes brutalized their fellows, and White children who observed their elders abusing slaves often fell into similar modes of behavior.”
The assault left Harriet subject to seizures and visions making her story that much more remarkable. Following in her footsteps has been a long process.
According to an Atlas Obscura story entitled “The Mystery of Harriet Tubman’s Family Cabin,”
“[T]he excavations are taking place in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, in Dorchester County, Maryland where Harriet grew up. The hunt is being led by Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration.”
The search for Ben Ross’s (Harriet’s father) cabin began twenty years ago. By piecing together local oral history, newspaper articles and historic records, they now believe they’re looking in a promising area, after searching for the Ross cabin in an area long believed to be her home with no luck.
The entire enterprise was further complicated by flooding and the rise of the water table around the suspected site.:
“We are digging in inundated soils, where there’s sloppy soil to push through screens. We’re not avoiding areas that are not really livable today but would have been livable back then. So, as we go along these road systems that existed during the time of Ben Ross, we’re looking for evidence of his home and his neighbors.
As we’re walking along, we’re finding nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. We found a home from the late-19th or early-20th century, but that’s not old enough. So, we kept going and along Harrisville Road, we found evidence of a mid-19th-century house site. We need to go back to confirm that’s what we have. That may be Ben Ross’s home, but we have to make sure we exclude other areas before we can unequivocally state that this is indeed the place where he lived.”
When discussing the importance of the find:
“This place we’re looking for, where she grew up, this was her training ground,” Schablitsky says. “This is what gave her the tools and experience to be successful as a conductor of the Underground Railroad.
It’s not just about Harriet Tubman—it’s about the communities that helped raise her, educate her, keep her secrets,” Larson says. “Reading the landscape, night sky, marshes—she learned that from the communities there.
The excavations have turned up clues they’re searching in a likely spot—a coin which helps date the site. If we’re lucky perhaps we’ll be able to walk where Harriet started her incredible journey.
Walters, Kerry. Harriet Tubman: A Life in American History. ABC CLIO LLC 2020.Hester, Jessica Leigh. “The Mystery of Harriet Tubman’s Family Cabin” Atlas Obscura. 21 Dec 2020.