Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

An American hero’s history at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge honors and celebrates the life and history of Harriet Tubman, whose heroic actions helped many slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Now a sanctuary for migratory birds, areas of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge were once part of the landscape where Harriet Tubman was born and raised. The refuge is situated in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where Tubman was born in 1822. The natural habitats of the refuge, wetlands, waterways, swamps, and upland forests, are representative of the landscape that Tubman experienced and grew up in.

Tubman spent her childhood as a slave working on farms that abut or are included within the boundary of the refuge. As a young adult she worked as a timber laborer on the north side of the Blackwater River. She had family members that were spread out throughout the area, which led her to travel throughout the region, likely through much of the refuge. Other activities that Tubman participated in, including muskrat trapping, are still a way of life in Dorchester County.

The refuge landscape is a mosaic formed by the estuarine environment formed by the Blackwater River, Little Blackwater River and the Choptank and Transquaking Rivers. Greenbriar, Kentuck and Russell swamps and the tidal marshes are characteristics of Maryland’s coastal plain within the refuge and they exhibit more open water than they did 150 years ago, but their character is unchanged. While the mixed hardwood and pine forests have undergone constant harvest and regrowth since the European settlement, the current woodland habitats represent the forested communities that sustained the economy during Tubman’s time. These woodlands are still being managed by the refuge using silvicultural practices similar to those used in her time. The refuge maintains much of the agricultural landscape that Tubman grew up in but today, instead of tobacco, the major crops are corn and wheat and these lands are managed using mechanized equipment rather than hand labor.

Tubman’s experiences in this region put her in situations in which she developed a familiarity and understanding of the natural landscape that she was able to later draw on during her escapes.

Learn more about African-American history on national wildlife refuges.  

More Resources

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park

The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, managed by the National Park Service, encompasses an approximately 25,000-acre mosaic of federal, state, and private lands in Dorchester County, Maryland, that are significant to Tubman's early years, and evoke her life while enslaved and as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. There are no facilities solely dedicated to the National Historical Park at this time.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center, Maryland

Maryland's Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, which opened in March 2017, is a 17-acre tract adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County near Church Creek, Maryland. The state park features a visitor center with exhibits, programs, and a walking path.  The park and visitor center is located about 12 miles south of Cambridge, Maryland, off of Route 335, only 2 miles from the Blackwater NWR visitor center.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, Maryland

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway is an All-American Road, the highest level of designation for a scenic byway in the US. The byway is a 125-mile driving tour of more than two dozen historic sites and scenic vistas associated with Tubman that lie both within and outside of the National Historical Park. Call Dorchester County Tourism at (410) 228-1000 for more information.

Did you know?

The Tubman Road Trail on the refuge is not named for Harriet Tubman, but for the white Tubman family who owned property in this area and whose name was used to describe an early road which was a major thoroughfare during Tubman’s time. Part of the Trail follows this historic road. This road was once the primary route connecting the north and south sides of the Blackwater River. It was the road locals would have taken to go back and forth to the Thompson’s farm and other African American communities in the area. It is likely that Harriet Tubman used this road to go back and forth from where she was enslaved during her childhood near the Little Blackwater River to Stewart’s Canal and the other parts north of the Blackwater River.