Harriet Tubman spent her childhood as a slave working on farms near and within what is now Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. As a young adult she was a timber laborer on the north side of the Blackwater River. She traveled throughout the refuge area to visit family. She helped with muskrat trapping, which is still a way of life on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.


Blackwater Refuge is celebrating the history and life of Tubman, the African–American abolitionist and humanitarian who escaped slavery at age 27 and whose heroic actions helped at least 70 other slaves reach freedom via the Underground Railroad.


Through its vast habitats of wetlands, waterways, swamps and upland forests, the refuge is working with local, state and federal partners to commemorate the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. In March 2013 — precisely 100 years after Tubman’s death — ground was broken at the Maryland Park Service’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park. A few weeks later, President Obama established the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, which encompasses some refuge land.


“We see this partnership with the National Park Service, Maryland Park Service, the Harriet Tubman Organization, Dorchester County Tourism and others as a win–win opportunity,” says refuge manager Suzanne Baird. “The National Monument designation provides another layer of protection for refuge habitats, gives the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service an opportunity to highlight the importance of these habitats to the conservation of the historic and cultural resources, and will provide an opportunity to have people visit a national wildlife refuge who may not normally come.”


Now a place for migratory birds, the refuge was once part of the landscape where Tubman was born and raised. Much of the landscape has sustained the character it had during the 1800s.


The Greenbriar, Kentuck and Russell swamps and the tidal marshes at the refuge are typical of Maryland’s coastal plain and, while they exhibit more open water than they did 150 years ago, their essence is largely unchanged.


The mixed hardwood and pine forests have undergone constant harvest and regrowth since the European settlement, but the current woodland habitats represent the forested communities that sustained the economy during Tubman’s life. The refuge manages the woodlands using silvicultural practices similar to those used in her time. The refuge also maintains much of the agricultural landscape that Tubman grew up in. But today, instead of tobacco, the major crops are corn and wheat, and mechanized equipment rather than hand labor is used.


Tubman’s early experiences in the refuge area helped her develop a familiarity with and understanding of the natural landscape she drew on during her escapes.


Photo of Harriet Tubman
(Library of Congress)

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park visitor center, which is scheduled to open in summer or fall 2015, will serve as a hub for visitor activities. It will be connected physically and culturally to the refuge visitor center through programming, multi–use trails and roads. The refuge visitor center’s interpretive exhibits are being updated to incorporate Tubman into their storytelling. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument is also working with partners to accommodate visitors. “It is definitely a park site in progress, and in the coming years services will be added in cooperation with Maryland’s planned Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park,” says Cherie Butler, the superintendent of the national monument. “This national monument exemplifies a new model for park units. There is cooperative management from the beginning.”


So, soon visitors will be able to enjoy more than what meets the eye — both ecologically and culturally — at Blackwater Refuge.


Tylar Greene is a public affairs specialist in the Northeast Region office in Hadley, MA.