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Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument

Dorchester County, Maryland

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Eastern Shore marshland
Courtesy of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge via Wikimedia Commons

Situated between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, Maryland’s Eastern Shore features a rich landscape containing a patchwork of woodlands, streams, swamps, agricultural fields, and open water. Somewhat isolated from the rest of the state, the region’s interface of flat terrain and crisscrossing waterways has influenced the development of distinctive economic practices and cultural traditions among its residents. To match its visual resplendence, the Eastern Shore houses a wealth of history. Particularly significant is the region’s Dorchester County area, birthplace of the famous abolitionist and civil rights advocate, Harriet Tubman.

Today considered a national hero, Tubman is best known for her role in assisting countless enslaved African Americans escape to freedom as a leading “conductor” of the Underground Railroad – a secret network of northward-leading routes and safe houses. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument memorializes this legacy not through physical structures, but by instead preserving approximately 25,000 acres of federal, state, and private land in Tubman’s native Dorchester County, Maryland.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Born Araminta Ross to enslaved parents in 1822, the future humanitarian grew up living in slavery on a plantation in the Dorchester County area.  At the age of 13, young “Minty” suffered a severe injury from a blow to the head with a two-pound weight, following her refusal to assist an overseer in the restraint of a runaway slave. The physical repercussions of this injury affected Tubman for the rest of her life. While still a slave, Araminta adopted the name “Harriet” at the time of her marriage to John Tubman, a free black man, around the year 1844. Tubman and her husband continued to live and work in Dorchester County for several years until her escape from slavery in 1849, at the age of 27.  Ultimately settling in Auburn, New York, Tubman returned to the Dorchester area a total of 13 times over the following decade to guide her family members and dozens of other fugitive slaves north to freedom.

Throughout the Civil War, Tubman contributed to the Union cause in a multitude of roles, serving at various times as a cook, nurse, scout, and even spy. After the war’s end, Harriet focused her efforts on the women’s rights movement, working alongside such prominent activists as Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott to promote women’s suffrage. In the later years of her life, Tubman continued to care for African Americans in need through the establishment of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in 1908.  Five years later, she died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913. 

Although she lived out her final decades in New York, the dense marshes and green woodlands of Maryland’s Eastern Shore are where Harriet Tubman first grew spiritually and physically strong. The area’s vibrant scenery offers a compelling backdrop evoking the narrative of Tubman’s early life, escape from enslavement, and experience as conductor for the Underground Railroad. Spending her formative years working in the fields, woodlands, and waterways of Dorchester County, Tubman acquired the survival skills necessary for her success guiding freedom-seeking slaves northwards and, later, as a Union scout and spy.

Visitor Looks Out Over Stewart's Canal at Dusk

Stewart's Canal
Courtesy of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument

Within the bounds of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument lie two other significant Underground Railroad sites. Located near the area’s western edge, Stewart’s Canal – built by slaves as a trade route in the 1830s – opened up some of Dorchester’s more remote territory to the Chesapeake Bay, helping the enslaved population connect with the northern route to freedom.  Near the canal is the home site of Jacob Jackson, a free black man who assisted Tubman in her efforts to guide runaway slaves northward.  Using his home as one of the first Underground Railroad safe houses, Jackson aided Tubman in communicating secretly with her family that she would return to Dorchester and guide her three enslaved brothers to freedom.

The monument offers visitors a unique experience in which they must rely on the terrain – rather than physical structures – to relay the narrative of Harriet Tubman’s life in Dorchester and envision the experiences of those who escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad. With a landscape relatively unchanged since Tubman’s time, visitors to the monument are invited to explore the site’s natural features and experience the interface of fields, marshlands, and waterways in much the same way as Harriet Tubman and other northward travelers of the period. 

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument is a park in progress.  Currently, the monument contains no planned park facilities and offers limited visitor services. Working in cooperation with Maryland’s planned Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, the National Park Service aims to place additional services within the park in coming years.

Plan your visit

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located about 12 miles south of Cambridge, Maryland. For directions, visitors may use the address for partner site Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, Maryland, 21613. For more information, visit the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad website or call 267-838-2376. The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is open Monday-Friday, 8:00am to 4:00pm, Saturday-Sunday, 9:00am to 5:00pm, and is closed on the Thanksgiving holiday and Christmas Day.  There are no fees for admission to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, however some of the monument's partner sites may charge fees.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument is associated with the planned Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Maryland and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge run by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service.  Prior to the monument’s designation, the National Park Service conducted a Special Resource Study on the Dorchester County land and other areas associated with Tubman’s life. Harriet Tubman is also featured in the National Park Service Aboard the Underground Railroad: A National Register Travel Itinerary.

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