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  • Writer's pictureJulie M. Schablitsky

The Archeology of Harriet Tubman's Birthplace

In the spring of 2020, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Black Water National Wildlife Refuge, purchased a parcel of land on Peter’s Neck in Dorchester County. Historically, the property was owned by Anthony Thompson, a wealthy farmer who used enslaved labor to log and farm his land. One of the people he enslaved was Ben Ross. Ross worked as a timber foreman, who managed and supervised the cutting of trees by other enslaved people. When Thompson remarried after 1803, his new wife, Mary Brodess, brought her toddler son Edward and her enslaved people including Harriet “Rit” Green to the new home. The joining of the Thompson and Brodess families resulted in the serendipitous union of Ben Ross and Rit Green in 1808. Around 1822, they became parents to Araminta “Minty” Ross, better known as Harriet Tubman. When Edward Brodess came of age about 1824 and left Thompson’s farm, he took his inheritance including Rit Green and her children, with him to Bucktown. Ross stayed behind at the Thompson Farm living and working in the forested wetlands along the Blackwater River. During her teenage years, Harriet and some of her siblings returned to Peter’s Neck to live and work alongside their father timbering. When Thompson passed in 1836, his will allowed Ross to remain at his homeplace and to use 10 acres and the surrounding woodlands. In addition, it provided for his manumission in 1840. 

 

Historical land transaction records mentioning “old Ben’s” place, suggested the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge held the archeological remains of Harriet Tubman’s father on their property. Since the Maryland Department of Transportation supports archeology stewardship projects associated with transportation landscapes and the African diaspora, the refuge manager requested help finding Ben’s 10. After four weeks of surveying and digging 1,000 shovel test pits and several excavation units, we announced the discovery of Ben Ross’ homeplace in April 2021.


Our archeological survey uncovered several historic domestic sites, but only one dated to the time of Ross. During the excavation, we worked closely with two of Ross’ descendants, Ernestine “Tina” Wyatt, the great-great-great-grandniece, and Douglas Mitchell, the great-great-grandnephew, of Harriet Tubman (see their statements below). When a new artifact was discovered, I sent them a text message with photos so they could feel like they were discovering their family history with us. Wyatt visited the site where she put her foot on a course of worn brick within the space near where her grandfather’s home once stood. Mitchell participated in the dig as well, picking tobacco pipe stems and broken glass from the soil. He told us the experience was humbling and filled him with gratitude.

 

Over the last three years we have found hundreds of domestic artifacts, architectural materials, and faunal (animal bone) remains. Buttons, clay tobacco pipe fragments, broken bowls and cups have been collected from the site. While faunal preservation was poor, we did find turtle, oyster, fish, bird, and pig bone. We have puzzled over incomplete courses of bricks in the ground, dark pits filled with artifacts, and still do not know the exact size of Ross’ house. While many of the bricks seem to have been carried off to be used elsewhere, it is possible the home was built using a system of wood posts, and potentially brick piers, keeping floors raised above the damp ground surface. The home had pane windows and was likely built of logs.


Figure 1. Excavation exposing a course of bricks at Ben Ross' Home Site.


Thompson enslaved 43 people at one time and while some were rented out, others lived closer to the farm where they worked. During the spring of 2022, we found a domestic site measuring 20 ft. x 30 ft. with a brick foundation, a cellar, and the foundation of a fireplace. While the large, well-built building seemed unlikely to have initially housed enslaved people, the artifacts told a different story. Large sherds from inexpensive painted cups, blue edge-ware platters, and bright pink sponge printed bowls were found within and around the home. We picked up numerous thimbles, straight pins, buttons, and tobacco pipes from the soil. The faunal remains reflect a regionalized diet similar to other enslaved households.


As we dug deeper, beneath the living surface and into clay, a heart shaped glass bottle stopper appeared. Other artifacts tightly clustered around the bottle stopper included brick and oyster bits, two iron nails fused together with rust, and white ceramic plate sherds, including one with blue painted decoration. This cache of artifacts was buried in front of the chimney foundation during the early 19th century. We have seen these curious clusters before, and they have African roots associated with the Bakongo religion. These spirit bundles or minkisi (nkisi singular) consist of several different materials and can include over a dozen objects empowered with medicine and ancestral spirits that influence the living world. The glass heart shaped bottle stopper captured the flash of the spirit and represents the body of water between the living and the dead. The copper alloy button shape may represent the Kongo cosmogram while the red clay of the brick symbolizes transition and meditation. The white clay of the ceramic fragments and shell directs the spirit while the nails were used to activate and affirm the intention. The items in this spirit cache, along with its location, in front of the fireplace, suggests it was placed here by someone of African ancestry to protect the people inside the home. They may have needed protection from an overseer, from being sold away from their family, or from sickness. While the intention may not be known, this find is archeological evidence that African culture and religion survived the Transatlantic slave trade and was alive in 19th century Maryland.


Figure 2. Cache of artifacts buried in front of the chimney foundation.


Currently, MDOT archeologists are processing the artifact collection from Harriet Tubman’s Birthplace. New findings from the analysis will be folded into interpretive panels and publications associated with the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Additionally, we are expanding our research into the Harrisville and Malone’s Church community to better understand not only the life of Harriet Tubman, but the larger community who helped her bring people north to freedom.


Statements from Tubman/Ross Descendants who collaborate on the archeology of Harriet Tubman’s Birthplace


Tina Wyatt, the great-great-great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman-

While pursuing my Masters in Museum Studies I was able to understand the importance of material culture and the story it is able to tell about Americana; in this case, the story of the enslaved and my ancestor, Harriet Ross Tubman. However this and other American stories draw from many disciplines such as archeology, historical research, and interpretation to give a more complete and complex view of families, relationships, and their daily interactions, hopes and dreams, bringing them to life. While reading historical accounts on the lives of my ancestral Grandparents Ben, Rit, and their children, then being able to hold objects they used elevates how they may have lived in tangible, practical ways.

 

I grew up visiting where Aunt Harriet lived in Auburn, New York on a regular basis, a place where she worked alongside my Great Grandmother, and a place where my Grandmother remembered her as a child. However, as 3x Great Granddaughter of Soph, Aunt Harriet’s older sister that was sold away never reaching Auburn with her infant daughter Ann Marie and the rest of the family, It was even more precious to me to take part in the dig at the Ben Ross site since it presented the only possible way to get a glimpse of Soph, to stand where she might have stood, walked and interacted with her family. This is what gave me an experience I will never forget.


Douglas Mitchell, the great-great-grandnephew of Harriet Tubman-

As a great-great-grandnephew of Harriet Tubman, and as an aspiring Tubman scholar, participating so intimately in the excavation of the "Ben's Ten" archeological site in Dorchester County, has been a profoundly moving experience for me...broader, deeper, and more visceral than the considerable knowledge imparted by the tens-of-thousands of pages of books and historical documents I've studied pertaining to my Aunt Harriet and her family. That my own blood, sweat, and tears quite literally fell from my hands, from my brow, and from my eyes, and reunited with the blood, sweat, and tears of my ancestors here in this saturated, secretive soil of Maryland's Eastern Shore, has been an education and a homecoming more poignant and more complete than even the most impassioned words can hope to convey. With sincerest humility and gratitude, Douglas Mitchell (3x great-grandson of Tubman's father Ben Ross, and 2x great-nephew of Harriet Tubman).

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