New Federal and State Parks in Maryland Commemorate Life and Legacy of Harriet Ross Tubman

Proposed HTUGRR State Park Visitor Center
Proposed visitor center for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, designed by GWWO, Inc./Architects. Courtesy GWWO, Inc.

I was a conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger (Harriet Tubman, 1896).

On March 25, 2013, President Barack Obama established by proclamation the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Tubman’s native Dorchester County, Maryland.    Encompassing some 25,000 acres of federal, state, and private lands, including large segments of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the Tubman memorial honors the life and legacy of one of the United States’ most outstanding human rights advocates and freedom fighters best known for her role as a “conductor”  on the Underground Railroad.  It is the 399th unit of the National Park Service (NPS), one of thirty-six focusing on African American themes and one of three recognizing African American women.

Establishment of the national monument follows on the heels of groundbreaking ceremonies on March 9 for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Maryland, encompassing approximately seventeen acres within the federal monument. Also dedicated at that time was the Maryland portion of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway and All-America Road.  Both federal and state events mark the centennial of Tubman’s death on March 10, 1913.

Stewart's Canal
Current view of Stewart’s Canal, part of the landscape Tubman learned growing up and negotiated as she led enslaved persons to freedom. Photograph by Barbara Tagger, courtesy National Park Service.

The federal monument is primarily a vast expanse of marshes, woodlands, and fields largely unchanged from the landscape Tubman experienced during her early years on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and which she skillfully navigated during her years as Underground Railroad conductor.  No Tubman-specific structures or statues or NPS facilities are planned for the monument; rather, the intent is to evoke Tubman’s world and inspire imaginative reconstruction of her life and deeds. The monument does include two extant sites:  Stewart’s Canal, dug by free and enslaved people between 1810 and 1832, where, plying the canal, Tubman learned important outdoor skills; and the home site of Jacob Jackson, a free African American who served as conduit for a secret message to Tubman’s three enslaved brothers alerting them that she was about to arrive to guide them to freedom.

The state park, scheduled to open in early 2015, will feature a 15,000-square-foot LEED-certified visitor center, multimedia exhibits, a theater, a memorial garden, recreational trails, a picnic pavilion, restrooms, outdoor displays, a gift shop, and administrative offices.  Interpretation will both commemorate Tubman and tell the story of other women and men who operated and sought self-liberation on the Underground Railroad within the region.  Exhibits will include a focus on the four main drivers in Tubman’s life – faith, family, community, and freedom.

Currently, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway and All-American Road extends more than two hundred miles through Dorchester and Caroline counties in Maryland and the entire state of Delaware. The byway features dozens of historic sites, homes, mills, fields, meeting houses, waterways, and landscapes that collectively highlight a history of slavery and freedom in the mid-Atlantic.  It is hoped that in the future, the Byway will continue through Pennsylvania and New York, ending in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Canada, where Tubman led many of her charges to freedom.

A Collaborative Success

Thompson Farm
Current view of the road leading to the farm once owned by Anthony Thompson, where Tubman was born; Harrisville Road, Peter’s Neck Area, Dorchester County. Photograph by Barbara Tagger, courtesy National Park Service.

While interest in public recognition of Tubman’s life has been longstanding, planning for both the federal monument and state park has gone on for nearly a decade and included a number of public and private entities.  In the mid-2000s, by mandate of the U.S. Congress, the NPS began work on a Special Resource Study, required for all proposed NPS sites, to evaluate the potential for establishing a unit within the national park system commemorating Tubman. NPS involved a number of stakeholders in the planning process, including Tubman family members, scholars, the Harriet Tubman Organization in Cambridge, Maryland, representatives of the Harriet Tubman Home site in Auburn, New York, and the director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The study was completed in 2008 and since then has guided development of the monument.

During this same period, the Maryland DNR also developed plans for a Tubman state park, and in April 2007, a land exchange between DNR, the Conservation Fund, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service secured the site on which the park will be located. A working group has been set up to inform development of the visitor center and exhibits; in addition to several of the participants in the NSP planning group, it includes representatives from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, Dorchester and Caroline Counties tourism offices, the Chesapeake Bay network (which is part of the NPS system), the Network to Freedom, and local stakeholders. This group continues now in an advisory capacity and is briefed on the progress of the visitor center occasionally. NPS has also been invited to become involved in the visitor center and currently works with the various partners on the project.

Interpretive signage marking the location of the Edward Brodess Farm, where Tubman grew up with her mother and siblings; Bucktown, Maryland.  Photograph by Barbara Tagger, courtesy National Park Service.
Interpretive signage marking the location of the Edward Brodess Farm, where Tubman grew up with her mother and siblings; Bucktown, Maryland. Photograph by Barbara Tagger, courtesy National Park Service.

According to Cherie A. Butler, Acting Superintendant of the NPS Tubman memorial, “The combined effort to preserve Tubman’s legacy has provided real life examples of how the interconnections among groups play an important role in telling America’s stories.  Characterized by sustainability, connections, and commitment, the results are greater than the sum of the parts. None of us can achieve these results alone. Working with partners has been and will continue to be an integral part of keeping Tubman’s story alive.”

The Woman Being Honored

Born enslaved likely in early 1822, Araminta “Minty” Ross was the daughter of Benjamin Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green Ross. Minty and her family experienced relative stability while under the direct authority of her father’s owner, Anthony Thompson, whose plantation was serviced by dozens of enslaved persons. Her hatred of slavery, however, developed at an early age when, upon Thomson’s death, his stepson Edward Brodess inherited ownership of Rit Ross and her nine children.  Throughout her adolescence and early adult years, Minty Ross experienced hardship, abuse, and isolation, all the while living with the fear of being separated from her family and friends to meet the needs of her employer.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman, c. 1860-1875. Photograph by H. B. Lindsley, from the Library of Congress collection.

Minty married John Tubman, a freeman, in 1844 and later changed her name to “Harriet” Tubman, likely in honor of her mother. Following the death of Brodess, his widow Eliza Brodess threatened to sell the Ross family members in order to pay off personal debts. Rather than risk the possibility of being sold, Tubman made the difficult decision to flee Maryland in hopes of securing her freedom. Tubman set out on her journey in the fall of 1849, relying mostly on her familiarity with the region’s landscapes and waterways and placing deep faith in the network of support for slaves seeking freedom known as the Underground Railroad.  Years later she recalled of her arrival in Philadelphia:

I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free.  There was such glory over everything . . . I felt like I was in heaven.

Tubman spent the next eleven years returning repeatedly to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, cleverly eluding authorities to liberate a host of enslaved African Americans, including family members and friends. Her efforts were greatly admired by abolitionists and Underground Railroad supporters, earning her the nickname “Moses.”

I had reasoned in my mind . . . there was one of two things I had the right to, Liberty or death.  If could not have one, I could have the other, for no man would take me alive.

During the Civil War, Tubman served as a volunteer scout, spy, nurse, laundress, and cook for the Union forces. At the end of the war, as more than four million enslaved African Americans, including Tubman, celebrated their new status as free Americans, Harriet turned her attention to building a home in Auburn, New York, where she had purchased property from William Seward, an abolitionist and Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln. There, among a community of family, friends, and supporters, she committed the remainder of her life to human rights, woman suffrage, and caring for the sick, elderly, and disabled.

The establishment of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument and the similarly named state park ensure that Tubman’s profound commitment to justice and equality for all will remain fixed in our collective historical memory.

For information about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Memorial, go to:

For information about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, go to:  The website includes a link to the Maryland portion of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway and All-America Road.  Information about the Delaware portion of the byway is at:

Barbara Tagger is Interim Project Manager, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park Initiative, National Park Service.