The life and legacy of famed 19th century abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, becomes richer with every shovelful of dirt examined by Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) archaeologists.
Earlier this month, the team returned to the homesite of Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, and are finding more artifacts to illuminate his life. This visit followed one in August where archaeologists were joined by Ross’ great-great-great grandson, Douglass Mitchell, and members of the Malone Church community. This community can trace their lineage back to ancestors who lived and worked alongside of Harriet Tubman. Their ancestors likely include Black mariners who taught Harriet skills to navigate herself and others to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
“They (living communities) have these great oral histories,” said Dr. Julie Schablitsky, MDOT’s Chief of Cultural Recourses. “They talk about how their great-grandfather worked alongside of Harriet Tubman and they speak about places that we didn’t know about until today.”
Through stories passed down from relatives and her own research, Renna McKinney, president of the Harrisville / Malone Cemetery’s Maintenance Fund, has learned a lot about her family history and her connection to Harriet Tubman and the Ross family. The Ross homesite and Malone Church are roughly two miles apart. Harriet Tubman lived with her husband, John, on or near the Malone property.
The discovery of Ben Ross’ homesite came after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contacted MDOT in late 2020 about the possibility of his former home being located on property they recently acquired as part of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
At a dig at the site in May, Dr. Schablitsky and her team recovered structural artifacts including iron nails and brick. Pieces of glass bottles, clay tobacco pipes and part of a metal picture frame were also found. At the dig in August, the team unearthed fragments from white clay tobacco pipes, buttons and numerous 19th century ceramic sherds.
“We’re finding a lot of materials that you would associate with a domestic space,” said Sarah Janesko, former director of the Harriet Tubman Archaeology Laboratory at MDOT Headquarters in Hanover. “We’ve found ceramics of different kinds where they were preparing and eating food.”
About one mile from Ross’ homeplace, MDOT archeologists found a West African spirit cache in the archaeological remains of a home lived in by enslaved people on the former farm where Harriet Tubman was born. This discovery of the spirt cache, a collection of personal items believed to help protect the occupants of the home, illuminated how the enslaved people lived, as well as the traditions from West African culture.
Later this year, Dr. Julie Schablitsky and her team plan to collect oral histories from the Malone Church community to learn about the larger community that was part of Harriet Tubman’s life.