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Raw: Officials announce discovery linked to Harriet Tubman

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Archaeologists in Maryland discovered the historic homesite once owned by the father of Harriet Tubman, state officials announced Tuesday.

Video Transcript

NITA SETTINA: Good morning. I hope everyone is enjoying this beautiful spring. My name is Nita Settina. I am the Superintendent of the Maryland Park Service. And it is my great pleasure to welcome all of you to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park.

Since opening its doors in 2017, we have welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world to learn about the remarkable life of Harriet Tubman. I think you would all agree that the park looks beautiful on this spring day. And I just like to thank and acknowledge our staff in the back there who were waving you in as you joined us. Thank you, guys.


Of course, led by our wonderful park manager Ranger Dana Paterra. This state park, this National Historical Park, this visitor center interprets the legacy of Harriet Tubman as a courageous conductor, liberator, and humanitarian in the resistance movement of the Underground Railroad. Many partners, all dedicated to preserving the legacy of Harriet Tubman, played a key role in making this park a reality. And many are represented here today.

We would like to acknowledge our partners and distinguished guests, including Boyd Rutherford, Lieutenant Governor of the State of Maryland; Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Secretary Maryland Department of Natural Resources; Greg Slater, Secretary Maryland Department of Transportation; Marcia Pradines, Project Leader US Fish and Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex; Diane Miller, National Program Manager, National Park Service, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom; Deanna Mitchell, Superintendent, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park; Liz Fitzsimmons, Managing Director, Maryland Department of Commerce, Office of Tourism and Film; Dr. Julie Schablitsky, Chief Archeologist, Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration; Miss Tina Wyatt, Harriet Tubman's great-great-great-grandniece; Herschel Johnson, a local community historian representing Harriet Tubman Organization, and also caretaker of the lovely Stanley Institute; and State Senator Addie Eckardt, representing Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot, and Wicomico Counties; Delegate Chris Adams, representative for Congressman Harris, Keith Graffius; representative for Senator Ben Cardin, Kim Kratovil. And also we have a representative here from the City Council of Cambridge. So thank you all for joining us today.

We gather here because our discovery and understanding of the life and times of Harriet Tubman continues to be revealed and continues to inspire us. And with that, I am pleased to present our first speaker, Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford. The lieutenant governor is someone we have gotten to know at the Maryland Park Service. Our staff has welcomed him to dozens of state parks as he continues his, what I like to call his odyssey to visit all of the state parks in Maryland and promote them, most recently, last week when he kicked off our first ever State Parks Week.

Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford was elected to office with Governor Larry Hogan in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. He is an accomplished attorney with a lifetime of experience in both public and private service, including the US General Service Administration, US Department of Agriculture, and as Secretary of the Maryland Department of General Services. In addition to his public service, he has extensive legal and business experience, including service in business and government law, information technology, sales, and small and minority business development. As lieutenant governor he has been a strong partner with Governor Hogan, leading the administration's efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, reform burdensome regulations on job creators, break the cycle of poverty between family generations, and he has also led the state's efforts to modernize procurement, improve the mental health delivery system, and make Maryland a national leader in the implementation of the federal Opportunity Zones program.

The lieutenant governor attended the dedication of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in 2017 and joins us today for this momentous occasion. Please welcome Lieutenant Governor Rutherford.


BOYD RUTHERFORD: Good morning. And thank you, Superintendent Settina. Every time I hear that bio, I feel older and older every day. But you know, it's a beautiful day here. It's always a beautiful day on the Eastern Shore. And so it's great to be here at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park here in Dorchester County. And it brings me great joy to highlight a historic find that takes-- that took a significant investment on the part of the state of Maryland, our federal partners, historians, and others who seek to preserve our history.

For the last year, archeologists at the State Department of Transportation State Highway Administration have searched the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge for a site where Harriet Tubman's father, Ben Ross once lived. In November, they found signs that indicated that they were on the right track. And a breakthrough occurred in March. Archeologists uncovered evidence of a home site and its historic artifacts dating back to the early 1800s-- early to mid 1800s. Today I'm excited to announce that our archeologists have confirmed that this site was once the home of Ben Ross and may have been where Harriet Tubman spent her early years.

I want to share a little more about what we have learned about Ben Ross and his life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. For several years, we believe that Mr. Ross harvested trees on the property and sold the timber. And the timber was then transported to shipyards by free black mariners to use to make ships in Baltimore. Harriet Tubman worked alongside her father as a teenager. And historians believe that Tubman learned to navigate the land and waterways she would later traverse to lead enslaved people to freedom.

The discovery of Ben Ross's cabin is a major find. And I'm proud that Julie Schablitsky and her team of archeologists at the Maryland Department of Transportation were able to use their hard work and dedication to make this project a reality. And yes, the Department of Transportation does have archeologists on staff. They are scientists who lend their expertise and planning-- in planning infrastructure in order to avoid disturbing structures, cemeteries, and other significant historic areas in that process. Their commitment to their work is illustrated by their willingness to brave the elements and other obstacles to preserve the nation's histories. And the State Department of Transportation also supports archeological projects that chronicle how transportation systems and communities have evolved over time so that we can share those stories with the public and save precious remnants of our history.

Maryland is full of history. From the mountains of Western Maryland to the beaches of the Eastern Shore, the addition of Ben Ross's home site to the Harriet Tubman Byway will bring a boost to Dorchester County visitors and an historical significance to this area. This discovery adds to another puzzle piece in the story of Harriet Tubman, the state of Maryland, and our nation. It is important that we continue to uncover parts of our history that we can learn from, especially when we can do this before time and other forces wash it away. I hope that this latest success story can inspire similar efforts and help strengthen our partnerships in the future. Thank you very much.


NITA SETTINA: Thank you, lieutenant governor. Our next speaker is a valued partner of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and National Historical Park, Marcia Pradines. Marcia is the project leader of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Since joining us on the Eastern Shore five years ago, she has focused on strengthening relationships with the community, helping new audiences engage with the outdoors through programs like mentored hunts, and finding the connections between people and wildlife that make conservation successful. Please welcome Miss Marcia Pradines.


MARCIA PRADINES: Thank you so much, Anita. And thank you, everybody for joining us here today. Yes, shocking. I was going to make some joke, but I decided not to. Thank you.

When I first started here, not quite five years ago, I was so excited about the prospects ahead of me. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a magnet for residents, all of the Maryland, D.C., Virginia area, and even all over the globe. We have 30,000 acres of wildlife habitat that attract people as well as wildlife. But I was most excited about the potential to invite new audiences to the refuge to learn how conservation is valuable, not only to wildlife, but also to people, history, and to the landscape that made us all who we are today.

The future of conservation lies in the hands of people. And it must have value to everyone. When we conserve habitat, we also conserve the stories of those who came before us, like Harriet Tubman's father, Ben Ross, and all the others whose names we may never ever hear about, and that worked alongside of him in the marshes and the forests of the refuge. With the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center as our immediate neighbor, we have an opportunity to welcome even more people and to do more together than any of us could do alone.

The Peter's Neck property has been an extremely important piece for the refuge to acquire, ever since our comprehensive conservation plan was first written all the way back in 2006. With rising sea levels, increased storms, loss of habitat, its value to us only increased. The area is predicted to naturally convert to marsh, with parts remaining forested all the way into the year 2100.

The 2,600-acre parcel was bought for $6 million, but not with taxpayer dollars. It was bought by dollars from those waterfowl hunters and birders who bought the federal duck stamp for only $25 each, and offshore and oil and gas leases from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. So this is a major investment in conservation and outdoor recreation right here in Dorchester County. But we also heard that perhaps, just perhaps, Ben Ross's homestead might be on the parcel. We weren't sure. But with that in mind, before we even stepped onto the property, we began discussions about what to do next with the State Park and with the National Park Service.

Thankfully, Maryland stepped up to meet the very first challenge before us to begin the search for what they call Ben's 10. I don't think they knew what they were getting into here, with our outrageous mosquitoes that call us home-- yes-- the relentless flooding from rain and tide-- yes-- and the mud that results. We can't thank them enough for their hard work and their dedication in the field all of those weeks in October and then again in April.

In less than one year from when we purchased the site, the crew has indeed found Ben's 10, and just in time as the river rises and valuable bits of the story were about to be lost forever. What happens next is just as exciting. But we need a team to make it reality. We opened the parcel to hunting already. But before doing so, we set aside a potential trail system for interpretation with the help of our partners, should we be able to secure a path forward to improve the roads to the area for the public. Hand in hand with our partners and Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service, we have a big vision that we're excited to find a way to fulfill for conservation of our natural and cultural resources.

When land is treated well, it has many values, including wildlife and fish habitat, sustainable timber, storm buffers, water quality, soil health, recreation, and even history. And when it comes to cultural history, this land has rich stories to tell. From the Native Americans who first walked here, harvesting from the woods and the river, to Ben Ross teaching his daughter how to manage timber, or even Fred Besley, Maryland's first state forester who owned this land and stayed in his family up until the point that we required it. We want to honor those stories and help create new stories. From a refuge hunter who hears a sika bugle before dawn in October to a birdwatcher hiking the trail that we plan to build, perhaps hearing their very first pine warbler in spring, or a family that comes to visit to immerse themselves in what the landscape was like when Harriet Tubman was growing into the strong woman she was to become. Together, we will nurture all of these stories yet to be written. Thank you.


NITA SETTINA: Thank you, Marcia. I was sitting there listening to your remarks and the birds surrounding us. I could hear eagles. We are so fortunate to be surrounded by your refuge. So thank you for your conservation service. It is now my pleasure to introduce Dr. Julie Schablitsky, otherwise known, as I understand it, very fondly by her colleagues as Dr. Julie.

She is the Chief Archeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration. She is noted for her Maryland research on African-American sites and the recovery of DNA from artifacts. In her role, she oversees archeologists and architectural historians who manage projects for the Department of Transportation as well as local governments.

We recently partnered with the Maryland Department of Transportation and Dr. Julie on several archeology projects, including most recently at Newtowne Neck State Park, which is in Southern Maryland, where Dr. Schablitsky's recent archeological survey discovered a 300-year-old slave quarters on a former Jesuit plantation that is part of Newtowne Neck State Park. And the lieutenant governor and the secretary and myself had an opportunity to meet you there and see the artifacts-- some of the artifacts you recovered. It is really my pleasure to welcome Dr. Julie Schablitsky, whose work has made today possible. Thank you.


JULIE SCHABLITSKY: Thank you. So right before COVID hit, I got this call from Marcia. And she said, "We just are going to be-- going to acquire some property that may have Ben's 10 on it." And I asked, I said "What's Ben's 10?" And she said, "Well, it's where Harriet Tubman's father lived. And we believe that it could be in this location that we found. But we're not sure." And I said, "All right. You know, this sounds like a great opportunity. We could, if we find it, put it on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. It'd be a great way to share it with the public." Because that's what we do. We have a stewardship program at MDOT that also we have ability to share it with the public.

So we planned to going out in March, but of course, everything shut down. And finally in August-- the hottest time of the year and the worst time to be in a swamp-- is the time we decided to all gather together. So Marcia Pradines, Ray Paterra, Dana Paterra, Deanna Mitchell, and my archeology colleague and partner-in-crime Aaron Leventhal, we all met out there in Peter's Neck with our mosquito netting on and our rubber boots to our knees in our four-wheel drive vehicles. And we went out there and we began to look at the property. And it's wooded. It's very wet. It's very buggy.

And I was inspired. I thought, you know, we can find this. If it's here, we're going to find it. And they're like, yeah, that's the spirit. But then in the back of my head, I'm like, I don't know, it's really wet. And you know, when you dig holes, it's muddy and you have to push all that stuff through those screens, looking for little bits of broken things. You know, how can we possibly find this site? But we decided to do it anyway. So trowels in hand, shovels at our side, rubber boots on, we decided to go out in November of last year.

So how do we know where to even begin? Well, we know that in 1836, Anthony Thompson's will-- and he was a person who enslaved Ben Ross-- he put in there that in five years from his death, that Ben would be manumitted, freed, and be given 10 acres. So that's where you get that Ben's 10. So those 10 acres are where he was supposed to live. But where in this place would it be?

Not only with the will, but also some land deeds over time began to mention old Ben's place alongside the road in this location by the water. And putting those clues together we had a search area. And within that search area, we began to bring a dozen archeologists along the roadways and dig hole after hole after hole. After 1,000 holes, I was getting a little frustrated. I'm like, where is this place? And then I thought, well, I have one more tool in my tool kit, and that's a metal detector. I'm going to go and see if I can go out and find perhaps nails that are associated with a building.

So within five minutes, I'm jumping on side of the road with my metal detector. I got this beep, beep, beep, and I dug it out, and it looked like a shot-- I thought this is a shotgun shell signature? But no, and I dug, and what came up was this coin from 1808. A $0.50 Liberty, ironically, had-- $0.50 piece. And this, to me, was my clue that we're getting close. 1808 was Ben Ross and Rit Greene, Harriet's parents' date that they were married and began their family.

So I thought, all right, I'm going to keep going. So we got to the end near the road and began to find little broken bits of ceramics. These are the calling cards to the archeologist that you're getting to something old, something important. But guess what? We found this in the last few days of the project. We ran out of time, ran out of money, and our time was up. But we were inspired to come back yet again.

So we came back last month with more archeologists in tow and with our rubber boots and it wasn't quite as wet and the bugs still weren't out. And so we had-- we felt inspired. So we went out to the location and began to-- our little small holes that we used to find sites, began to-- we dug larger sites, 5-foot by 5-foot units. And each unit that we dug revealed more and more information, artifacts dating to that first half of the 19th century, because that's what we're looking for. But we also want to know not only do we have a domestic site where someone lived, but where is the building? Where is the home? Where is the cabin? And what would that look like?

Well, luckily enough-- in fact there's a brick right there-- that's from Ben Ross's cabin. He probably had a building set on brick piers. And within that and associated with that site, we're finding drawer pulls from his bureau. We're finding a button from his shirt. We're finding pipe bowls and pipe stems from what he smoked, all that in this location. But was it old enough? Ben was there in 1830s and 1840s. So we looked at the artifacts closer and confirmed that these artifacts do date to the time that he was living there.

So how do we know that we have it? How are we sure? Well, we looked everywhere we could within that search area. The only thing, the only space that told us that this could be it, something from the early 19th century is where-- the place that we have found. So with that, with the artifacts, the archeology, the evidence of a building, and just the location, knowing he worked in the timbered wetlands, those multiple lines of evidence tell us unequivocally that this is the home of Ben Ross.

So why is this find important? Well, as someone who knows something about Harriet Tubman, I always thought, well, is this everything we're ever going to learn? How do we learn more? And sometimes the answer is archeology. When we're able to find extra sites, additional sites, other people who inspired her, who gave that lesson of integrity and perseverance like her father, it's not only-- it takes her kind of in a situation and puts her as a daughter, as a child, as someone who is standing on the shoulder of a giant, her father. And I think that kind of gives us that excitement that we can learn more about Harriet Tubman through her parents. We can learn more about the people who taught her how to navigate, negotiate through places like wetlands and woods. So I think that's what's important.

We have also just begun to excavate that location. We're keeping it private and so that no one will disturb it. But we want to return back because we want to learn more. What did he eat? What did he have in his home? How big was this site? So all those questions have yet to be answered. And so we're going to be able to learn more.

Now, the thing is it's great that archeologists are out in this marshland looking for this important site. But it means nothing if we don't have a descendant community with us. So from the beginning, we did have Herschel Johnson, who's here today. He's a local community member and historian. He was with us to help inspire us and help and have us reach out to the community. We have been able to make contact with Douglas Mitchell, who's in Washington State, probably hopefully watching right now. He's a descendant. He's a great-great-great-great-grandson of Ben Ross. We also have Tina Wyatt here with us today. And she's the great-great-great-grand niece of Harriet Tubman and great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Ben Ross.

And while we were out there, every day I was sending them photographs of the things that would pop up-- a prettily painted piece of ceramic went through their phone-- from my phone to their phone. So in a way, they were sitting on my shoulder, looking over my shoulder as we're beginning to pull these things out of the earth. And that is the reason we do this. It's great for Marylanders, but it's also very important that we're in a way creating memories and giving them photographs of their family and of their family's items. So without-- without any more talk about archeology-- and I'm happy to answer questions later-- but I'd like to introduce Tina Wyatt, the descendant of Harriet Tubman and Ben Ross.


TINA WYATT: Greetings to you, lieutenant governor and to all those working in the Maryland State Department. And it is great to be here. I love coming down here. Ever since that we, you know, had the opening-- or before we had the opening, it was just a wonderful place to be. For something that occurred that was so horrific to my people, this place is so peaceful and so calm and I just love it. I love just coming, standing out here and just looking around. And knowing that, you know, this was a part of her life, the beginnings of her life, and knowing that it's-- and the other thing that is so wonderful about it is that it's pretty much untouched from the time that she was here, that he was here. So we are able to really see what she saw, hear what she heard and look and just feel the environment.

She embraced this environment, not her circumstances but the environment as she learned from it. She learned from what her father had to teach her. And he also embraced that environment and made the best of it.

Most of all, I want to thank Dr. Julie, who kept us abreast as family every step. You know, she contacted us-- even though we couldn't be here, and I wish I could have been here-- I would have loved to have been here. But you know, safety and everything else comes first. But she texted us. She sent pictures as soon as it became apparent to her. So it was like as she described. It was like we were right there with her, you know, the next best thing.

And it means so much to the family to be able to see all of this. And that's why I want to thank the State of Maryland for having the vision and also to have-- to give the support to create this tourist center and also to keep funding things that relate to it, that keep the story going and expanding. Because it's so important, not just for family, but for, you know, the world to understand about our history, to know what happened, and to be able to understand the differences between the different types of plantations and farms and things that existed then.

And I think this is part of also what the dig that Julie is doing shows. Because when she showed us the fragments of some of the plates, things like that, and I looked at them, I said, "Wow." I asked-- I said, "This is to me, it looks highly decorative." I didn't expect to see something like this used by enslaved people. I mean, because my knowledge of seeing things were, you know, gourds and wooden spoons and wooden plates, things like that. But to see that, I'm saying, you know, that dispels a myth.

You know, how is that related? Is it related to just this area, to this plantation? Was it related because who he was? Because for him to have been given 10 acres, you know, and freedom, but mostly that 10 acres, that's something that's not common. You know, so was it-- was he using those kinds of everyday utensils to be able to eat off of and use on a daily, because of who he was, the status that he had within the plantation? We don't know. And so that's something that continues to be explored. And as you come up with more and more artifacts, it tells the story. It expands the story of our family, but also of telling the story of enslaved life and also afterwards for, you know, for the United States and the world to be able to see.

So it also humanizes him. It makes a connection for us as a family to be able to-- because Julie just showed me the half dollar in 1808, and that's when they were married. So you know, it helps me to visualize them getting married. Maybe they were given that half dollar, and you know, it being there and then they dropped it, or something like that. You know, making up my own story about what it was. And so it also tells me when she found a pipe, I said, "Oh, so he was a pipe smoker?" you know. And you know, so that helped me to visualize at the end of his day, did he have time to go and sit in his cabin and smoke his pipe, you know, sit down and contemplate what he was going to do next? Because for him to be a supervisor for the timbering, that was something unusual as well.

But with him being her father, on Harriet's father, he taught her many valuable lessons, things that she used throughout her life, things she used to liberate herself, to liberate others, things that she used when she went down to fight in the Civil War that made her so great at what she did. A lot of that came from her father and that knowledge that she embraced as she was growing up, . no matter what her circumstances were. So you know, I love you, Dr. Julie, for being-- for persevering and being so determined to keep on trying to uncover their life story. That brings it more alive to us. Thank you.