Weather played a crucial role for the Underground Railroad
Over the course of her life Harriet Tubman, guided 70 enslaved people to freedom. What many people don’t know is that even though it was cold and icy, she preferred to travel in winter.
The name Harriet Tubman may be very well known in this day and age, but less well known is the crucial role the land, the seasons and the weather played in the dangerous trips the iconic abolitionist took, repeatedly risking her life to guide enslaved people to new lives of freedom.
Tubman was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Born into slavery, she escaped to freedom in the North in 1849 and went on to become the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad.
"I was conductor of 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," Tubman famously said.
Tubman is credited with making 13 trips and guiding 70 enslaved people to freedom.
Located just 5 miles from where Tubman was born is the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Dorchester County. The park preserves the land she used to carry herself and many others to safety some 170 years ago. Angela Crenshaw manages the national park and talked with AccuWeather about the surrounding geography then and now.
“I’ve been told that if you tell Harriet Tubman you’re here at the center, you tell her where north is, south is, east and west, she’d be able to make her way to Bucktown, which is east of here," Crenshaw told AccuWeather one rainy February afternoon. "And she’d be able to make her way to Peter’s Neck, which is where she was born in Madison just west of here, and she would know that Cambridge is just north. That’s how little the landscape has changed."
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park is a 480-acre National Park Service unit in the U.S. state of Maryland.
Visitors to the park can experience the same fields, woods, marshes and water that Tubman navigated and visualize the scope of the geography Tubman traversed in pursuit of freedom.
Crenshaw said Tubman planned her emancipations to take place during the fall and winter months. "When the sun sets in the winter at, say, 3:30 and doesn’t rise until 6 or 7, you have much longer to travel. During the day when the sun is out, it’s much easier to see somebody in the woods -- to chase somebody and follow someone.”
The journey, regardless of season, was perilous.
“The landscape here in Dorchester County is very tidal and very marshy so in the summer would’ve been squishy and wet," Crenshaw explained, adding that, "in the summer, there are a lot of biting flies and mosquitoes and chiggers and things that are definitely a hindrance."
Contrast that with the cold of winter: “In the winter, the ground is frozen solid, but it could also give way underneath you," Crenshaw told AccuWeather.
Tubman's route usually took her up Maryland's Eastern Seaboard, through Delaware and into Pennsylvania, where slavery was illegal.
“From here to Philadelphia is about 100 miles and she would’ve done that on foot. She could’ve taken boats as well as wagons, so it was a mixture -- any way she could travel she did. One hundred miles in the winter. Or fall.” From there, those seeking freedom from pursuers would often make their way to Canada.
Because the seasons played such an integral role in how and when Tubman planned her journeys, the park has installed stunning stained-glass windows depicting the seasons.
Although traveling at night in the fall or winter offered the best chances for escaping, most enslaved people did not have maps or compasses to guide them. A freedom-seeker's ability to navigate was often a matter of life and death. Taught to navigate by Black Jacks, free African-American sailors, Tubman used the North Star as her guide saying, “God’s time is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens. He gave me the strength in my limbs. He meant I should be free.”
This photo of Harriet Tubman was taken in 1848 by Horatio Seymour Squyer. (National Portrait Gallery).
Although most couldn't read or write, those making escapes could find the star by locating the Big Dipper -- also called the Drinking Gourd -- which is most visible in the night sky during late winter and spring. Their eyes would follow the Big Dipper across the sky until they spotted the North Star.
As the National Park Service notes, "The night sky is a canvas of stories that links us to this past. National parks are among the best places to see the stars and hear these stories. The next time you gaze at the stars, think on the drinking gourd story and those early Americans who staked their freedom on a star."
Gary Lewis drove down to the park with his friend, Carletta Cannon. He said it was this famous Tubman quote that affected him the most: "There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death -- if I could not have one, I would have the other."
"Being like a 5' 2" black woman born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in slavery to now, in 2020, to still be talking about and in awe of what she has done is her legacy. Because there are many who didn’t make it across the Atlantic," Lewis told AccuWeather. "She had sisters who were sold and we don’t know their names, we don't know their stories but we do know her and that comes from her saying, 'Nah, I’m gonna take my life into my hands,' so, for me, that’s what her legacy is.”
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