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Harriet Tubman: archaeologists find abolitionist’s lost Maryland home

Alexandra Villarreal
<span>Photograph: Harvey B Lindsley/AP</span>
Photograph: Harvey B Lindsley/AP

Socially distanced archaeologists in masks trudged through the wet forests on Maryland’s eastern shore, searching for signs of a long-abandoned home.

Julie Schablitsky, the chief archeologist for Maryland’s state highway administration, used a metal detector, hoping for nails or other signs of an old building.

Instead, along the roadway, she found an 1808 coin imprinted with the word “liberty”.

“When this thing came out of the ground, I was shocked,” Schablitsky told the Guardian.

Her discovery in November became a hopeful calling card: she and her team understood they might be getting close to finding the one-time home of Ben Ross, father of the famed Underground Railroad conductor, political activist and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

On Tuesday, federal and state officials announced that Ross’s cabin site had been located at Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, on land recently acquired by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This discovery adds another puzzle piece to the story of Harriet Tubman, the state of Maryland, and our nation,” said Maryland Lt Governor Boyd K Rutherford. “It is important that we continue to uncover parts of our history that we can learn from, especially when they can be lost to time, and other forces.”

Known as one of US history’s singular heroes, Tubman is believed to have spent time at the cabin as a child and teenager. Surrounded by wetlands and woods, she would have had the chance to learn how to survive conditions like the ones she endured to escape slavery and eventually free dozens of other people from bondage.

“It gives us another vantage point to learn about and understand who Harriet Tubman is,” Schablitsky said. “A lot of times, we see her as an older woman leading people to freedom, when in reality she was, you know, a young child and a young woman at one point.”

Researchers were able to identify the search area for Ross’s home through historic wills and land deeds, but they didn’t know exactly where X marked the spot.

When Schablitsky’s team first visited the area last fall, they discovered 19th-century dish pieces as well as the 1808 coin. Then, in March, they unearthed a series of long-lost artifacts, including a hinge, drawer poles, nails and a button, that represented an erstwhile homesite.

By analyzing manufacturing and decorative techniques, the archaeologists were able to date those objects to the first half of the 19th century, when Ross had lived there.

“The significance of the discovery of the homesite of my great-great-great-grandfather Ben Ross, and of a spellbinding assortment of artifacts that were once held in the hands of the man himself, but have since been long-inhumed in the soggy Dorchester county soil, is truly inestimable,” Douglas Mitchell, one of Ross’s descendants, said in a release.

Archaeologists found the remnants at the fringe of the marsh, which has migrated up into the woods as rising sea levels have killed off forests in the area. Schablitsky remembers finding holes they had dug filled with groundwater the following morning.

“Where it is, if you waited many more years, it might be lost forever,” said Marcia Pradines, project leader at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Some of the land there is projected to be underwater by 2100, and officials initially purchased the parcel with Ross’s former home to ensure the refuge’s future and habitat.

For now, the area with the cabin site – which is underground and looks like marsh – isn’t open to the public because it’s difficult to reach. But Pradines teased an interpretive trail that would eventually allow visitors to hike where Ross and Tubman once worked.

She also anticipates that the artifacts will end up on display at the nearby Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center.

“Landscapes and nature – they make us who we are,” Pradines said. “And to be able to share the story of how this particular parcel shaped the lives of Harriet Tubman, Ben Ross, and all the other people who worked that landscape back then and share their stories is something that we don’t always get to do.”