Maryland Lieutenant Governor Boyd K. Rutherford today joined state and federal partners at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center to announce the discovery of the historic homesite once owned by the father of famed abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. The former home of Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, was discovered on property acquired in 2020 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), as an addition to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland. An archaeology team led by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA), conducted research that led to the discovery.
“This discovery adds another puzzle piece to the story of Harriet Tubman, the state of Maryland, and our nation,” said Lieutenant Governor 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. I hope that this latest success story can inspire similar efforts and help strengthen our partnerships in the future.”
USFWS purchased the 2,600-acre Peter’s Neck property for $6 million with Land and Water Conservation Funds and revenues from the Federal Duck Stamps program, along with assistance from The Conservation Fund. This land was purchased as a critical addition with the impact of sea-level rise to provide future marsh migration and outdoor recreation. The property contains 10 acres bequeathed to Ben Ross by Anthony Thompson in the 1800s. As outlined in Thompson’s will, Ben Ross was to be freed five years after Thompson’s death in 1836. Ben Ross was freed from slavery and received the land in the early 1840s.
“When we protect vulnerable habitats, we help preserve the stories of those who came before us, like Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross,” said USFWS Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System Cynthia Martinez. “Acquiring Peter’s Neck last year was a critical addition to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, as the area is predicted to naturally convert to marsh by 2100 because of sea-level rise. We look forward to working with our partners to create more opportunities to connect people to nature and strengthen the bond between the land and community.”
MDOT SHA’s archaeology team, led by MDOT SHA Chief Archaeologist Dr. Julie Schablitsky, began searching for evidence linked to Ben Ross in November. When they returned in March to continue their search, Dr. Schablitsky and her team found numerous artifacts dating to the 1800s, including nails, brick, glass, dish fragments and even a button. At today’s event announcing the confirmation that these artifacts were evidence of Ben Ross’s cabin, Dr. Schablitsky discussed their historical and cultural significance.
“The importance of discovering Ben Ross’ cabin here is the connection to Harriet Tubman. She would’ve spent time here as a child, but also she would’ve come back and been living here with her father in her teenage years, working alongside him,” said Dr. Schablitsky. “This was the opportunity she had to learn about how to navigate and survive in the wetlands and the woods. We believe this experience was able to benefit her when she began to move people to freedom.”
“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,” said Douglas Mitchell, great-great-great-grandson. “Dr. Schablitsky’s findings hold the promise of both deepening and broadening our understanding of the remarkable life not only of the patriarch and his beloved wife, but also, of course, that of his legendary daughter and heroine, Harriet Tubman. On this joyous occasion, more than 160 years after Ben Ross departed his humble cabin never to return, all freedom-and-justice-loving Americans are Ross kin, celebrating this immensely important archaeological discovery and the priceless revelations it is destined to offer.”
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in March 1822, on the Thompson Farm near Cambridge in Dorchester County. She and her mother were enslaved by the Brodess family and moved away from the farm when she was a toddler. Ben Ross felled and sold timber, which was transported by free black mariners to Baltimore shipyards and used to build ships. Harriet Tubman learned to navigate difficult terrain while working with her father. Interacting with mariners also provided knowledge of waterways on the East Coast, which may have helped her lead people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“Discovering the location of patriarch Ben Ross Sr.’s home and artifacts he used has humanized a man responsible for giving us a woman of epic proportions, Harriet Ross Tubman,” said Tina Wyatt, Harriet Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece and Ben Ross’ great-great-great-great-granddaughter. “This brings enlightenment, revealing how he lived his daily life making it a real-life connection to and for me, a great-great-great-great-granddaughter. The world benefits also from the study of these artifacts concerning objects used by the enslaved; are they common to this plantation, to his position, or to this region? It gives us so much more to explore, explain and exhibit.”
The archaeological discovery of Ben Ross’ home site will be highlighted on the historic Thompson Farm where he and his family were enslaved. This new point of interest will be officially added to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, designated an All-American Road by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The byway is a 125-mile, self-guided scenic drive that includes more than 30 sites related to Harriet Tubman’s life and legacy.
“The landscape surrounding our 17-acre park looks much the same today as it did then. This view offers a powerful experience that really allows you to appreciate how well Tubman knew the terrain and how she used it to help others to freedom,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio. “Preserving and protecting these newly discovered artifacts provides an additional way to experience her heroic story and connection to the land.”
“This remarkable archaeological discovery is another reason that Maryland is ‘The Most Powerful Underground Railroad Storytelling Destination in the World,’” said Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary Tom Riford. “The newly found artifacts coupled with the historical research being conducted through a partnership between the Office of Tourism, the Maryland State Archives Legacy of Slavery program and other public and private organizations ensures the authentic interpretation of the Underground Railroad all across Maryland.”
FHWA provided funding for this archaeological dig and has provided funding to support operation of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway because of the link to Maryland’s transportation network.
“The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway connects travelers from around the world to a heroic figure in American and Maryland history, and to the beauty of our Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay,” said MDOT Secretary Greg Slater. “This discovery solidifies another link between transportation and our nation’s history, and it’s our duty and honor to preserve this history so it may be shared with generations to come.”
The partnership between Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park will continue to focus on future opportunities to conserve the history and habitat of the parcel, as well as explore opportunities for future interpretation that combines natural and cultural history. To learn more about the Harriet Tubman historical sites in Maryland, visit the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway website.