For nearly two decades historians have been in search of the Maryland home in which famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman spent her formative years before she escaped enslavement.
On Tuesday, largely through the work of Julie M. Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, state and federal officials announced that they believe they have located what remains of the former home of Tubman.
“Land records told us it was here somewhere,” Schablitsky told the New York Times. “We couldn’t understand why we weren’t finding anything. It was like, ‘Where is this place?’”
Searching since last fall over the swampy terrain of Dorchester County, Schablitsky decided on a whim to change up her route and swept her metal detector along the side of an isolated road near Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
It was there that her metal detector began pinging. Scraping the mud and muck off a coin, to Schablitsky’s delight a profile of a woman emerged with the words “Liberty” scrawled across her cap. The date at the bottom read 1808.
“When I looked at the date, I couldn’t believe it,” Schablitsky told the Washington Post. “It was totally a eureka moment.”
The discovery of the coin put Schablitsky and her team of archaeologists on the right track. About a quarter of a mile from where the coin was first unearthed, the team found the structure of what was once a home.
As the team dug around the area, more artifacts — from chunks of brick, nails, and ceramic pieces — began to appear.
The combination of records, location, and artifacts finally added up, she told the Post. “It’s not just one artifact that tells us we have something. It’s the assemblage. It’s the multiple pieces.”
One of nine children, Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross, sometime between the years of 1820 and 1822. Her parents, Benjamin Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green, were enslaved at the time.
Tubman’s father was manumitted, freed from slavery, around five years after his former owner Anthony Thompson’s death in 1836, and was granted 10 acres of land, according to the Post.
Ross managed to buy his wife’s freedom and sheltered his children in the cabin he had built in what is now the federal Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
According to Kate Clifford Larson, a Tubman biographer, Tubman lived there roughly from 1839 to 1844 — between the ages of 17 and 22.
It was during this time that “her father taught her things like how to make your way through streams, rivers and marshes,” said Larson. “And how to navigate that landscape without getting trapped.”
In 1849, after hearing a rumor that she was to be sold down somewhere in the deep South, Tubman made her bid for freedom.
The “self-liberated Harriet Tubman arrived in Philadelphia unharmed and launched an illustrious career as a member of the Underground Railroad,” writes historian Catherine Clinton. “By all rights, in legend and deed, Tubman was the ‘Great Emancipator,’ leading scores of escaping African Americans to freedom, often all the way to Canada.”
Over a 10-year period Tubman made 13 trips into the South, helping to escort some 70 enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
During this period Tubman garnered the nickname Moses, but her tireless work was not done. At the outset of the American Civil War, Tubman rendered her services to the Union — spending 10 months as a nurse ministering to the sick.
However, Tubman knew she could be of greater help to the North. Under the direct approval of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, she was given the authority to line up a roster of scouts to infiltrate and map out the interior of the southern waterways, according to Clinton.
On June 2, 1863, Tubman, under the command of Union Colonel James Montgomery, helped to successfully rescue more than 700 slaves in the Combahee River Raid.
For historians, the decades-old quest to discover Ross’ home provides further insight into the life of the renowned abolitionist and activist.
“This gives us insight into a time and place in Tubman’s life we know very little about,” Larson said in an interview on Tuesday. “The community really created this woman, and we can’t fully understand her until we understand the place she came out of.”