CHURCH CREEK, Md. — Last fall a team of archeologists dug hundreds of small holes in a marshy, forested and buggy area of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. But there were no obvious signs of the historical site they’d set out to unearth. Frustrated, Julie Schablitsky, the chief archeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation, grabbed a metal detector and began scanning an area along an old road.
“I got this beep, beep, beep,” she recalled, expecting it to be just another buried shotgun shell. “I dug, and what came up was this coin.”
Not just any coin. It was a 50-cent Liberty coin, dated 1808 ― the year that American abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s parents, Benjamin and Harriet Greene Ross, were married and started a family in this remote area along Maryland’s shore. It’s also the year that the U.S. officially banned the importing of humans who would be forced into chattel slavery.
The coin ultimately led Schablitsky’s team to what they’ve concluded are the remnants of a cabin and homesite that Tubman’s father owned. It is where Tubman spent part of her childhood before she escaped and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
State and federal officials announced the discovery Tuesday at a small event at the visitor center of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park.
Along with the coin, the initial seach last year turned up other small artifacts, but Schablitsky’s team ran out of time and money for the year, she said. They returned this March and began a more thorough excavation. They unearthed nails, bricks, chunks of glass and painted pottery, a drawer handle, a piece of a chamber pot, a pipe stem and even a porcelain button. Experts have since dated many of the items to the first half of the 19th century.
“With the artifacts, the archaeology, the evidence of a building and just the location — knowing [Ross] worked in the timbered wetlands — those multiple lines of evidence tell us unequivocally that this is the home of Ben Ross,” Schablitsky said.
The discovery helps Tina Wyatt, a descendant of Harriet Tubman and Ben Ross, imagine what her ancestors were like. She wondered if the 1808 coin could have been a wedding gift that her great-great-great-great-grandfather dropped accidentally. She pictures Ross smoking a pipe at the end of a long day of work.
The decorative, painted pottery dispelled a myth in her mind about what her ancestors and other enslaved people would have had in their kitchens, she said.
“It means so much to the family to be able to see all of this,” Wyatt said at Tuesday’s event. “It’s so important, not just for family, but for the world to understand about our history, to know what happened.”
The homesite is in an area of the refuge known as Peter’s Neck, not far from where the Blackwater River snakes its way past what was once the plantation of Anthony Thompson, where Tubman was born into slavery around 1820. Though she and her mother were enslaved by a different family, Tubman — then Araminta “Minty” Ross — would have spent time as a young child and a teenager at the homesite, experts said Tuesday. Her enslaved father, Ben Ross, logged and sold timber to be used for shipbuilding in Baltimore. He was freed five years after Thompson’s death and given a 10-acre piece of land in the 1840s.
“Harriet Tubman worked alongside her father as a teenager, and historians believe that Tubman learned to navigate the land and waterways she would later traverse to lead enslaved people to freedom,” Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said at Tuesday’s event.
Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 at age 27. Over the next decade or so, she returned to the region about 13 times to help at least 70 others flee to freedom in the North, according to historians.
“This discovery adds another puzzle piece in the story of Harriet Tubman, the state of Maryland and our nation,” Rutherford added. “It is important that we continue to uncover parts of our history that we can learn from, especially when we can do this before time and other forces wash it away.”
Archeologists pinpointed the Ross cabin site just in time. It sits on the edge of marshlands that are migrating further inland each year due to the sea-level rise caused by climate change.
“It’s a lot closer to being lost than we realized,” Marcia Pradines, project manager of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Blackwater, told HuffPost. “When they dig their [excavation] pits, the water is just a foot or so from the surface of the soil. We were about ready to lose it if we didn’t find it.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the 2,600-acre Peter’s Neck property for $6 million in 2020, a strategic purchase to replace some of the roughly 5,000 acres that have disappeared to rising sea levels since Blackwater refuge was established in 1938. The Peter’s Neck area is less susceptible to rising seas than other areas and is expected to remain above water but convert to marshland by 2100.
“This is where the future of the refuge will be,” Pradines told HuffPost.
Officials are still excavating the site and are not disclosing its exact location in order to prevent it from being damaged; however, the long-term plan is to open a trail system to provide public access to the area. Many of the discovered artifacts are expected to eventually be on display at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek.
Pradines said the discovery represents a rare opportunity to connect people with both nature and American history.
“They’ll get to learn how the landscape and how nature really helped shape who we are. That’s certainly the case of this particular landscape. It shaped who Harriet Tubman was. The landscape actually tells the story.”
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