Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
The Eastern Shore of Maryland is a place of marshes and weeds, swift currents and plentiful water, fowl and fish, forests and farmland. Starting in 1634 with the founding of the colony, landowners, businessmen, and shipbuilders enslaved Africans and African Americans until the state abolished slavery in 1865. Slavery formed the foundation of the economic and social life of Maryland. During the colonial period, enslaved persons labored on the tobacco plantations. By the early nineteenth century Maryland had switched to wheat as its primary cash crop, which meant that the dynamics of slave labor changed. More owners shifted to hiring out their slaves when crop production required less intensive labor. This allowed an increased level of movement for enslaved persons between plantations, counties, and towns.
Harriet Tubman was part of this variable labor force. This meant that she learned the land around her and became skilled at navigating Dorchester County and its environs. Because of its close proximity to Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York, many enslaved persons in Maryland sought their freedom. Maryland led all southern states in the number of runaway slaves in the decade leading up to the Civil War.
From 1850-1860, Tubman guided family and friends to freedom. Sarah Bradford asserted that Tubman made ninteen trips and assisted 300 people to freedom. She inflated significantly the numbers. Through careful research and documentation, Kate Clifford Larson has established that Tubman made thirteen trips to the Eastern Shore and brought approximately seventy people to freedom, and gave instructions to another fifty or sixty who made their own way north.
Quotation: Harriet Tubman to the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, Rochester, New York, November 18, 1896.
A Guide to the History of Slavery in Maryland (Annapolis and College Park, MD: The Maryland State Archives and University of Maryland, 2007), 1 and Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 4-6.
Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine, 2004), 85-86.
Sarah H. Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (Auburn, NY: W. J. Moses, Printer, 1869), 21, electronic edition, Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bradford/bradford.html. See Kate Clifford Larson, “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” Harriet Tubman Biography, accessed March 20, 2019, http://www.harriettubmanbiography.com/TubmansUGRR.html.