Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument
President Obama has announced a new national monument to Harriet Tubman on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, including parts of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Tubman escaped slavery on a plantation in Dorchester County, MD, in 1849, and then helped guide scores of other slaves to freedom.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument near the city of Cambridge is the first such monument to commemorate an African American woman. The park includes Stewart’s Canal, dug by hand by free and enslaved people between 1810 and the 1830s. Lands that are part of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, although included in the new national monument, will continue to be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The monument also includes the home site of Jacob Jackson, a free black man who used coded letters to help Tubman communicate with family and others. The monument will also partner with Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park Visitor Center when it opens in 2015. The monument will be managed by the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service. Ground was broken for the visitor center on March 9, 2013, during the centennial commemoration of Tubman’s death.
A 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway has also been unveiled, including passage through Blackwater Refuge. This 27,000-acre refuge contains wetlands and forests similar to those of the mid-19th century, providing protection to freedom seekers as they followed the rivers northward, hid in the forests and marshes, foraged for food and struggled through water to throw pursuers off their trail. Knowledge of the terrain was vital to survival while hiding and fleeing to freedom. Though Tubman is not known to have liberated others from this area, several escapes did occur within the Refuge boundaries.
The wooded forests, marshland and waterways that characterize the refuge are largely unchanged from the time that Harriet Tubman lived and worked in Dorchester County. The trails and waterways at Blackwater offer interpretation about life on this landscape during the antebellum period. They offer a place for visitors to see birds, wildlife and environs that were a part of Tubman’s life.