Maryland Department of Transportation archaeologists were searching for homes of enslaved people on the farm where Harriet Tubman was born.
They found a home – and a bit of Africa in the process.
The discoveries, announced February 14 at an event at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Dorchester County, came after years of searching on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The search began in spring 2021 with an archaeological survey and ground penetrating radar which revealed a 20-foot-by-30-foot structure.
When the archaeologists returned in March 2022, they concluded this structure was a remnant foundation of a 19th century brick building. The team continued their archaeological work in August 2022 and processed the artifacts and their findings in the Harriet Tubman Lab at MDOT Headquarters in Hanover, Maryland. They determined the building was a home on what used to be the 1,000-acre Anthony Thompson farm. Inside this home, the team discovered a West African spirit cache in front of the remains of a fireplace.
Dr. Julie Schablitsky, MDOT’S Chief of Cultural Resources and Chief Archaeologist, believes enslaved people placed the cache there about 200 years ago to protect those who lived inside from negative spirits. The cache included a glass heart-shaped bottle stopper – believed to catch or reflect spirits – as well as a white ceramic dish symbolizing the spirt word and other items such as iron nails and a copper button.
“As archaeologists, we know a few things, we understand it is not what we find, but what we find out,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “Our focus should not only be on those who lived in the past, but of those who are living around us.”
“What we resurrect from the ground could have a profound and deep meaning to descendants,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “Indeed, when we share archaeological discoveries with these communities our true purpose is understood.”
Two of Harriet Tubman’s descendants, Douglas Mitchell and Tina Wyatt, spoke at the February event, as did Governor Wes Moore, Acting Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld, and representatives of state and federal partners.
Governor Moore said holding some of the artifacts in his hands was “pretty overwhelming,”
“It’s a constant reminder of where we come from,” the governor said. “We are now uncovering this, we are continuing to discover, we are continuing to learn pieces about a history and a journey and a path. We now have this pretty awesome responsibility to be a part of that larger journey.”
“Maryland is a powerful storytelling destination because our legacy is one of struggle, hope and triumph.” said Acting Secretary Wiedefeld.
Other artifacts uncovered in and around the foundation of the brick building included beef and pork bones, as well as bones from turtles and muskrats. There also were oyster shells. Dr. Schablitsky said the remains tell her enslaved people lived there and supplemented their diet with wild game.
The findings also led Dr. Schablitsky to conclude an enslaved overseer, possibly a man named Jerry Manokey, may have lived in the home. Mr. Manokey was a contemporary of Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross. Mr. Ross’ home discovery was announced by MDOT archaeologists in April 2021 and was found on the former Thompson farm. At one time, Mr. Thompson enslaved more than 40 people.
“Dr. Schablitsky and her team of archaeologists revealed material culture in a different way,” said Tina Wyatt, Harriet Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece and Mr. Ross’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter. “A tangible way that allows you to make a real-life connection, connecting the past to the present.”
“They’re not excavating Dorchester landscape, rather they are excavating us,” said Douglas Mitchell, Harriet Tubman’s great-great-grandnephew and Mr. Ross’s great-great-great-grandson. “The landscape of our society, past and present, likewise, our choices today to honor, to deeply investigate, to better understand, to accept and even to embrace our troubled history, serve to empower all of us as we share the daunting responsibility to learn from both mistakes and from the successes of our shared paths.”
In Mr. Thompson’s will, he bequeathed the men their eventual freedom – as well as 10 acres of land each for life, and as much timber as they needed. Mr. Manokey also was granted a supply of bread for one year and was freed upon Mr. Thompson’s death in 1836. Mr. Ross was required to serve five additional years before obtaining his freedom.
Dr. Schablitsky and her team believe Mr. Thompson’s will indicates the importance of both men to the farm, with Mr. Ross working as a timber foreman and Mr. Manokey possibly overseeing agricultural operations.
Sharing and telling the story of Harriet Tubman has been a multi-year partnership of local, state and federal agencies. This latest announcement is an example of the inter-agency collaboration between the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Department of Commerce. Dorchester County officials are also part of the effort, as are the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program and the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service.
This partnership led to international recognition of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway and serves as a catalyst for economic development across the Eastern Shore.
“This is empowering,” said Acting Commerce Secretary Kevin Anderson. “This is a place where America can see and begin their own personal investigations and own personal feelings about what we’ve done as a country and where we are and celebrate our rich, rich, rich history. We’re just really excited to have this in the state of Maryland.”
Acting Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz praised the partnerships and said the discoveries add to the story of Harriet Tubman and her family.
Today, the remains of the enslaved overseer’s home are on private property, while Mr. Ross’ home was found on the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The findings will eventually be on display at the visitor center. The team of archaeologists from the transportation department will continue their research on the Eastern Shore this spring and summer and plan to revisit Ross’s homesite and the overseer’s quarter.
“Our partnership with the state of Maryland, with their rangers and our rangers at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, really tells the diverse story of Ms. Tubman and her work to free enslaved human beings,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams.
“That story of compassion, in which she never lost a person while on the Underground Railroad, needs to be told so we don’t ever relive that part of our particular history, but learn from that piece of history,” Director Sams said. “The rangers of the state and the rangers from the federal government work hand in hand in telling this story, and they tell it fiercely.”
To see more pictures and videos of Governor Moore’s announcement click, go to the album on MDOT’s Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mdotnews/albums.
To learn more about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor’s Center, visit: https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/pages/eastern/tubman.aspx.