You can’t move in this area without tripping over something historic. And yet—too often—our kids only get to see the history of the rich, the vaunted and the already-remembered. How can you show your family that historical sites aren’t always cordoned off with velvet ropes and accompanied by costume interpreters?
Taking a driving tour following portions of the Underground Railroad through the Eastern Shore of Maryland is a good way to experience history in a new way—and many sites relate to the most famous “conductor,” Harriet Tubman. As part of its history, Maryland claims both a large section of the Underground Railroad and arguably its most famous “conductor,” Harriet Tubman. Maryland Byways lays out an Eastern Shore driving tour that takes you through landscapes that are nearly unchanged to a history that is on the edge of disappearing. Start at the Visitors Center at Sailwinds Park, right off Rt. 50. Besides an impressive playground, stop to use the bathroom and get the “Finding a Way to Freedom” driving tour map, which serves as a good supplement to the book’s map, which is somewhat lacking in detail.
In Cambridge, you can see the Dorchester County Courthouse that, in addition to being the site of slave auctions, was also where the trial of Samuel Green, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for owning a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A short walk through Cambridge—which has plenty of shops and restaurants—guides you to the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center. Leaving Cambridge and continuing on 16 West, you could easily blow by the Stanley Institute. Instead, keep an eye out for the small yellow building on the right side of the road—it was an African-American school established just after the Civil War.
Continue on Rt. 16 into Madison. Before you reach the town, Trinity Church is on the right-hand side. The church, which is still in use, has a waterfront graveyard that’s good for a quiet walk; kids can do rubbings of gravestones or just look at how the styles change over the years. Turn around and them pick up MD 335 heading south. This takes you next to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which has plenty of hiking trails if little ones need to stretch their legs. One of the trails, the Tubman Road Hiking Trail, is a two-mile walk that takes you by the remains of a 17th-century homestead.
Follow the signs to the Brodess Farm, which is where it’s assumed that Harriet Tubman was born. The original house is gone—only a modern house is there, and it’s very clear they don’t want you tromping through their yard—but there’s a sign on the side of the road. As you continue into Bucktown, the Bucktown Village Store is where Tubman was supposedly struck by an overseer when she got between him and an escaping slave. The store rents bikes, canoes and kayaks and tours are offered, but only upon request. Shortly past that is Bucktown United Methodist Church, where Tubman and her family may have worshipped. One of the few integrated churches of the time, the graveyards still remained segregated, with African Americans being buried across the street. Both graveyards still stand.
Heading north, pick up 50 again, then 16. A quick right onto Rt. 14 should bring you to where Mt. Zion United Methodist Church stood. Here, Samuel Green—the man convicted of owning Uncle Tom’s Cabin—was the preacher. On our trip, we think we found it, but it’s now Faith Community United Methodist Church, and there’s no marker describing what the land used to be.
Continuing north on 16 brings you into Caroline County. Caroline had a large population of both free African Americans and Quakers, which put them at odds with the slaveholders of Dorchester County, just to the south. Here you can see the Linchester Mill, where both free and enslaved African Americans worked. There are also some walking trails here and signs, but the place hasn’t yet undergone much in terms of restoration. Then continue to Choptank and Poplar Neck, where Tubman’s parents lived. Please note that although there is a park at Choptank landing, the road is closed and the bridge condemned, so you can’t reach it. There are port-a-potties and soda machines at the end of Choptank Rd., however.
As you loop around, you can stop at Mount Pleasant Methodist Episcopal Cemetery, which stands where an old Quaker meeting house (and possible station on the Underground Railroad) stood; the cemetery is still in use today. Finally, get back on 16, then take a left on Grove Rd. After about a mile you’ll pass the sort of falling-down shed you pass every time you take a drive on the back roads of this area. In fact, it’s the original cabin, built in 1852, that belonged to James Webb, a free African-American. It’s the only surviving log house known to have been built by a free black man. There is no sign. There’s a tarp on the roof and supports holding up the house, and trash in the surrounding yard. Still, the quiet there allows to you peek in the windows and see into the one tiny room—owned by a man who was one of the few of his race not to be owned by someone else.
Younger kids may not appreciate the driving tour. Older kids, whether history buffs or not, might appreciate the eerie value of walking on the land used by those trying to escape from an inexorably cruel fate. More than that, though, this tour gives you an opportunity to discuss with your children how the history of different people are valued differently. While there are plans to better preserve this part of Maryland’s—and America’s—history, contrasting the solitary, crumbling Webb cabin with the stately mansions so often associated with the same time period (and being able to do it alone, without guides or other tourists) carries with it a quiet power.