The Secret Lives of Parks

An American Hero Turns 200

Episode Summary

This month marks 200 years since Harriet Tubman’s birth, and we’re still learning new information about her life and family, and still marveling at how a woman with all the odds against her risked everything to liberate herself and countless others — and play a significant role in liberating her country. In this episode, we explore Tubman’s life and motivations, some of the public lands devoted to her, and a few ways to celebrate this very big birthday.

Episode Notes

One of the most remarkable figures in American history was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in March 1822. No one could have predicted the incredible life that this girl, Harriet Tubman, would go on to lead. On the eve of Tubman’s 200th birthday, host Jennifer Errick explores what this American legend was really like and what we can learn at some of the park sites that interpret her history. Guests include Alan Spears, senior director for cultural resources at the National Parks Conservation Association; Dana Paterra, park manager at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center; Kate Clifford Larson, American historian and Tubman biographer; and Diane Miller, program manager for the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom with the National Park Service.

Learn more about Harriet Tubman’s early history and download audio tour information on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway website at; learn about Tubman’s namesake park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at; and learn about the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program at Original theme music by [Chad Fischer](

Sound effects by Ismael Gama Jr.

This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with moral and technical support from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Vanessa Pius.

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 9
An American Hero Turns 200

Jennifer Errick: In March 1822, a baby was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore. No one could have predicted the extraordinary life that this girl, Harriet Tubman, would go on to lead. Today on the eve of her 200th birthday, we explore how Harriet Tubman became a legend in American history, the public lands devoted to her and what we're still learning about her remarkable life.

I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.


On the curve of a rural road in Bucktown, Maryland, a metal sign stands next to an empty field marking the place where one of the great figures of American history was once treated as a piece of property. Araminta Ross, the girl who had one day rename herself Harriet Tubman, spent her early life on this piece of land on an estate known as the Brodess Farm, the beginning point on her path to freedom. There are no structures left here, just an expanse of tall grass bordered by a forest within the larger protected landscape known as the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Most of us learn about Tubman in school, has she liberated herself from slavery in 1849, then returned to help family and community members escape with her. Standing on the edges of fields and river banks in Dorchester County, it's an incredible feat to contemplate.

She first left with two of her brothers and made it as far as the next county before the men lost their nerve and insisted on turning back. So the second time she left, she went on her own, in the dark of night, following the Choptank River north, making it into Delaware and eventually all the way to Philadelphia, walking some 90 miles on foot guided by sheer determination and faith. Then she returned to this same part of Maryland about 13 more times, starting the following year to rescue more than 70 family members and other freedom seekers.

These daring escapes and rescues are what we know Tubman best for, but it's only part of her story. She also made enormous contributions to liberating her country. She advised abolitionists in the lead up to the Civil War, and during the war, she served in numerous roles from nurse to cook to spy. She famously helped lead a union army raid along the Combahee River in South Carolina that freed hundreds of enslaved people. After the war, she was outspoken as a suffragist and humanitarian.

Alan Spears: One of the most important parts of Tubman's legacy is that she helps to broaden our definition of what constitutes a hero, and it is no longer exclusively the purview of marble men on horseback waving swords. Harriet Tubman was not a statesman or a statesperson. She was an enslaved person. She was a young girl who was beaten on a fairly regular basis and grew up in a very violent environment, and she took from that enough willpower to resist enslavement.

Jennifer Errick: That's Alan Spears, Senior Director for Cultural Resources at the National Parks Conservation Association. A Civil War scholar who advocates for robust historic and cultural preservation and interpretation, Spears has a deep knowledge of Tubman's history and the state and national park sites devoted to preserving it.

In exploring Tubman's legacy, what I most wanted to learn from Spears and others was what Tubman was really like beyond the facts we read in grade school textbooks. I wanted to know more about her life and her character.

Alan Spears: An examination of her life and legacy gives us a real sense of what it was like for enslaved people in the Mid-Atlantic during the antebellum period. When Harriet as a girl was asked by her mistress to sweep the floor of a cabin, she did so with gusto and enthusiasm, but she'd never swept a floor before. And so, as she swept and moved forward, the dust that she was kicking up with the broom would settle in behind her, and when her mistress came into the cabin, it appeared that Harriet Tubman had not done any work at all, and she was beaten for that. One of the other jobs that she had as a young child was to rock the cradle of one of the babies, and if the baby woke up and cried, Tubman was beaten, she was whipped.

Historians have suggested, I think this is probably a true anecdote, that Harriet Tubman as a young girl would wear extra layers of clothes. Not because it was cold, but because when she would be beaten, not if, she would have that extra layer of protection to mitigate against the fists and the whip. That was her life.

Jennifer Errick: Another person who shared detail and context with me about Tubman’s life is Dana Paterra. Paterra is park manager for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center, which preserves sites such as the Brodess Farm from Tubman’s early life and is managed through a unique partnership between the state and the National Park Service. A notable feature at the park is its state-of-the-art visitor center, which opened in 2017 with extensive and thoughtful exhibits that Paterra manages.

Dana Paterra: Probably one of the most impactful areas of the exhibit space for me is where Tubman is five or six years old and she is holding her baby brother, Moses. Her mother, because she had to leave her children for long days to go work in the big house, was basically leaving this six year old to care for other babies. As a mother, I cannot imagine leaving my six year old to care for anything.

Jennifer Errick: Tubman had to grow up and learn to take responsibility quickly. She also had to do grueling work that's hard to fathom in a modern context.

Dana Paterra: As a young child, she was also hired out to masters who were cruel. She was forced to go check muskrat traps in the marshes of Dorchester County in the cold winter months, because that's when their coats are thicker in the winter. So Tubman was hired out to these temporary masters and she had to go check muskrat traps in December and January and February when the marshes are frozen over. Just the things that she experienced as a child and an adolescent are unimaginable now today, I think

Jennifer Errick: How could someone controlled so harshly possibly free herself? Here again is Alan Spears.

Alan Spears: Sometimes our perception of slavery and enslavement is that of a person who rises, goes out to work in the fields of a particular plantation and may come back at the end of the day to the same cabin that they left, and then repeat that process over and over and over again.

What was happening for many of the enslaved people and for Tubman on Maryland's Eastern Shore in the 1820s and 30s and 40s and the 50s right up to the start of the American Civil War, was that they were often hired out or allowed to visit relatives who lived on plantations or on farm sites that were five, six, seven miles away. These enslaved people were not given access to public transportation or to horse-drawn carriages, so a lot of this was done on foot. And if you've got to send someone five miles out to work on another farm, they're probably not going to come back at the end of the day because that's just going to have them out entirely too late. So they might take a day, they might take two days, and they might be visiting relatives.

We don't want to suggest that slavery was somehow easier or less violent and less offensive for enslaved people on Maryland Eastern Shore. They did have more fluidity in some instances, and that was certainly the case with Harriet Tubman.

Jennifer Errick: This fluidity gave Tubman a greater familiarity with her community than someone confined to a single plantation or town. Working near local docks, Tubman learned of African American mariners who traveled widely, had an elaborate communication network and spoke of safety in the north. And she spent long days working alongside her father, a timber man, named Ben Ross. Her time outdoors gave her a deep understanding of the landscape and how to navigate and survive on it.

Kate Clifford Larsen: She was a genius. We have to give her credit where credit is due. She may not have been able to read or write text, but she was brilliant, and she could read everything in her environment that she needed to read. She could read those constellations in the night sky. She could read those marshes, and the rivers and streams on the Eastern Shore, the fields, the way the wind blew, the trees and the forests. She could read people really well.

Jennifer Errick: That's Kate Clifford Larsen, an American historian who wrote the definitive biography on Harriet Tubman, Bound For the Promised Land, published in 2004. She's since worked with the National Park Service and other agencies to help interpret Tubman's history and that of the larger Underground Railroad.

Dr. Larsen became fascinated with Tubman's life while studying history as a graduate student in the early 1990s. Her daughter was in second grade and learning about Tubman in school, but only three Tubman biographies written for adults existed at the time; two from the 19th century and one from 1943. With the help of her professors, Larsen began delving into courthouse records in the south, reading abolitionist letters and libraries and archives in New England, pouring over newspapers and public documents, following Tubman's trail anywhere she could find evidence of her and her contemporaries.

Kate Clifford Larsen: How is it that a woman who had nothing and came from the most oppressed circumstances to rise up and move forward and take her own freedom, liberate other people and demand the people that she met do the same thing? That confidence, where did she get that confidence? These are questions I just live with and I still live with them. How did she do it? How did she move forward without being consumed by hate and anger? How did she do it? I think that's why so many people are in love with Harriet Tubman. There's something about her that we all admire and we want to be part of it.

Jennifer Errick: Larsen and other experts I spoke with for this story offered two defining aspects of Tubman's character. In addition to her intelligence and courage that motivated her in her daring escapes and subsequent rescue missions, one was her deep spirituality.

Kate Clifford Larsen: She had deep and profound faith in a Christian God, and she believed that her God was protecting her and guiding her. That just gave her this substance that other people were very attracted to. She talked very freely about that emotion, that sense of faith and that calling. People around her understood it and accepted it. It was authentic and very powerful the way she talked about it.

Jennifer Errick: A second defining aspect of Tubman's character was her love of family. Here again is Park Manager Dana Paterra.

Dana Paterra: No doubt every time she made the decision to come back to Maryland, it was gut wrenching. It had to be. She was risking her life. The thing that motivated Tubman was her love of family. Every time she came back to Maryland, she came back to rescue family. And specifically she came back to rescue her sister, Rachel. I think one of the most heartbreaking things about Tubman's story is she was never able to rescue Rachel. Every time she came back, either Rachel's kids were being hired out and she didn't want to leave her children, or something was happening and Rachel could not leave with her.

I think regardless of who you are or what you bring as far as your background, you can relate to this universal concept of love of family.

Jennifer Errick: These two deep motivating forces not only drove Tubman, they persuaded other people who became emotionally involved in her fate and her missions, who mourned with her when Rachel died in slavery, and who put themselves at risk to help Tubman save others. Unlike some historic figures who are revered in hindsight, Tubman isn't just admired now through the lens of history. In Dr. Larsen's research, she repeatedly saw evidence that Tubman was beloved and respected by her contemporaries; black and white, female and male, rich and poor.

Kate Clifford Larsen: These abolitionists wrote about her. They talked about her. They were amazed by her. They had that same sense of awe that I have. She just wowed them and they loved her and they wanted to work with her. She demanded that they do more, be better, work harder and fulfill the promise that they were making that they would end slaveries.

Jennifer Errick: This kind of praise was exceptional even in abolitionist's circles.

Kate Clifford Larsen: During that time period, people were prolific letter writers so there were lots of letters to go through, but they weren't talking about formally enslaved people or other African Americans that much in their letters. They would talk about the abolition movement and this meeting and that meeting. They might write about Frederick Douglas. But they rarely highlighted African American women and particularly formerly enslaved ones. So the fact that they wrote about Tubman, she did have this thing that they were very attracted to. They wanted to see her be successful and they admired her courage.

Jennifer Errick: Alan Spears notes another prominent aspect of Tubman's character that stands out in stories about her — her wit.

Alan Spears: It's not as though her life was entirely void of joy and humor, which just makes her even more remarkable that she might have a sense of humor. There's that quote that is attributed to Harriet Tubman relating to her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, that she was just an old woman who enjoyed taking long walks in the woods. That, if true, would give you a sense of exactly how Tubman approached her life, that she had seen much suffering and experienced much pain, but was still with it and still resilient and still a fighter.

Jennifer Errick: One strong focus of Dr. Larsen's work has been dispelling some of the myths around Harriet Tubman. One enduring piece of misinformation is the number of people Tubman helped escape from Maryland.

Kate Clifford Larsen: When I started researching her life, I believed some of the myths too. I thought she rescued 300 people in 19 trips. So through the process of research, I was able to see where the myths were made up in real time during Tubman's lifetime. The 300 people in 19 trips was made up by Sarah Bradford, one of the early biographers in the 19th century. She actually says in the book that she made the number up, because that is what she thought the numbers were. Well that doesn't do us any good. It is disrespectful to Tubman. It's disrespectful to the people that she rescued.

Jennifer Errick: Even the historic marker I mentioned that stands at Tubman's former home site, the Brodess Farm, has this incorrect figure engraved in the metal, it is so entwined with Tubman's story. Another fact that has been subject to dispute is Tubman's birth date. Scholars have given a range of years when they believed she might have been born, but Larsen quells this dispute with the scholarly equivalent of a mic drop.

Kate Clifford Larsen: I find this so funny when people say there's a debate over this. We have the payment to a midwife on March 15th, 1822, who was hired to help give birth. That document in combination with other court documents shows that the only person that could have been born in March of 1822 is Harriet Tubman.

Jennifer Errick: The fact that there are courthouse records about Tubman's life, isn't unusual, but a midwife, that suggests there was something out of the ordinary about her birth since her mother's enslaver would not have been hiring a helper out of kindness. This record settles a key fact while also adding mystery to Tubman's story.

Kate Clifford Larsen: How remarkable it is that we have it, and that also the enslaver hired a midwife. He didn't depend on another enslaved woman in the slave quarters; he hired a professional midwife. I'm still sitting with that. I think is really something that needs to be talked about too. I mean, there certainly were women in the community that were there to help with the birth. Was there something wrong? I don't know, but I just find it interesting, because there are no records of any other midwife payments in that ledger.

Jennifer Errick: Another person delving deeply into historic records and helping to uncover truths about this period in time is Diane Miller, Program Manager for the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, managed by the National Park Service. This network established by Congress in 1998 is made up of nearly 700 diverse sites that preserve and interpret the history of freedom seekers and the people who helped them.

Harriet Tubman was the best-known participant in the Underground Railroad, but of course, she was far from the only one. Some people estimate that more than a hundred thousand enslaved people found their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad, though we'll never know the network's true scope.

Miller describes the Network to Freedom Program as a large public history project, as well as a grassroots movement honoring the thousands of people like Tubman around the country.

Diane Miller: The Underground Railroad is really a story of self-liberation. We follow the enslaved people on their journey from where they were enslaved to freedom, how they got there, where they settled, how they've built a life in freedom. There are all different types of associations with the Underground Railroad that we recognize. We include escape sites, rescue sites, transportation routes, churches where the congregation was very involved. It's really a story of agency of the freedom seekers. While there were people that assisted and suffered greatly for doing that, we try to keep the focus on the enslaved people who were self-liberated.

Jennifer Errick: Like Larsen, Miller uses a wide array of sources to uncover and document stories of the people involved. Many of whom never expected to be identified, let alone rediscovered two centuries later.

Diane Miller: Surprisingly there's more information about the Underground Railroad than I think scholars ever thought. A great place to start is usually the oral traditions that are in a community or in a descendant's families. They often will give you clues to what to look for. These oral histories have been passed down generation to generation. Some oral traditions are really specific. You can start to look at the details that are mentioned and corroborated with other kinds of evidence, then you can build a portrait of what was happening at the time.

Diane Miller: A lot of times there are documents in local history collections. There's even still documents in the hands of families, diaries, that sort of thing. A lot of times there were dramatic confrontations and escapes and rescues, and so that will appear in local newspapers. And because it was illegal, there were court cases, and you can go back to the old court records and find where people were charged under breaking the Fugitive Slave Law.

Jennifer Errick: Although Harriet Tubman's history largely takes place on the east coast, Miller emphasizes that the Underground Railroad operated all over the country and that not all freedom seekers went north. Many traveled south or fled to port towns where they found refuge on whaling ships and other commercial vessels. Much of Miller's own research focuses on indigenous tribes, such as the Seminole, who had deep ties to black communities and helped enslaved people escape.

Diane Miller: There's just hundreds, thousands of people that liberated themselves. There were people that took amazing risks and suffered consequences for their work with the Underground Railroad. It's a huge story of many, many heroes.

Jennifer Errick: Miller considers her work as much about public engagement as preservation, and she credits the many people who devote themselves to revealing the history that is all around us hidden from view.

Diane Miller: There are just passionate people all over the country who are digging into the research in local libraries, local history collections, and bringing out these stories of the Underground Railroad.

Jennifer Errick: Researchers are also still finding new information about Tubman's life and family. Just last year, a team of archeologists, led by Dr. Julie Schablitsky with the Maryland Department of Transportation, discovered the home site of Tubman's father, Ben Ross, and recovered artifacts from his former cabin. Scholars believe that Tubman spent the first two years of her life at this site on a parcel of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge that was recently added to Tubman's namesake park.

Here again is Park Manager, Dana Paterra.

Dana Paterra: The archeological site, what was found, included fragments of bricks, a drawer pull, a button, some glass from windows, things of that nature. We didn't actually see a foundation because the ground in that location has been so disturbed, but we know based on primary source documents and what was found out there during the dig that this is the location.

Jennifer Errick: In the future, Paterra hopes to make the Ben Ross home site open to the public and perhaps even offer an augmented reality experience so that visitors can better envision the cabin that once stood there. Paterra has organized interpretive walks to the site, but it will take time before this marshy parcel will be ready for general visitors.

Dana Paterra: The Ben Ross home site is largely inaccessible. The access road just to get to that point is hazardous. When we did our interpretive walks, unfortunately one of our vans that we were transporting people with, it got stuck. So we certainly have a lot of work to do before we can ready that experience to the general public, but I think at some point as we look into the future, that is certainly something that will become a priority.

Jennifer Errick: In the meantime, Paterra is proud that the park will have artifacts from the Ben Ross home site on display this month, along with the midwife record of Tubman's birth as part of a large commemoration at the park. Tubman's 200th birthday party will include a guest list that Paterra describes as the who's who of Harriet Tubman. Historians, including Kate Clifford Larsen, will give presentations, as well re-enactors, living history interpreters, members of the archeology team that discovered the Ben Ross home site, the architect who designed the site's impressive Visitor Center, and an archivist with expertise on the history of slavery in Maryland, among others.

Even for those who can't make the events, which kick off this Friday, March 11th, visiting the park is a powerful way to experience Tubman's history.

Dana Paterra: I think especially as we all start to emerge from the pandemic, it is nice to be able to link the story of Harriet Tubman and other freedom seekers with nature and really make that connection so that when people come here to Maryland to her Homeland they can look out and see a landscape that is largely reminiscent of the 19th century, and the fact they are seeing what Tubman saw when they come here to Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Jennifer Errick: Some park highlights include the home site of Jacob Jackson, a free Black man who was a friend of Tubman's, and who passed coded messages to her family, playing a critical role in her rescues. Visitors can see Stewart's Canal, a seven mile waterway that free and enslaved Black people dug by hand over a period of 20 years.

The park also features the Bucktown General Store, the actual building where an overseer hit Tubman in the head with a lead weight when she was just a teenager causing her to have severe headaches and seizures for the rest of her life. The store, one of the few architectural structures that still exist from Tubman's time, is restored to its 1830s appearance.

The park is part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a self-guided tour of 45 sites spanning 125 miles from Maryland's Eastern Shore to Philadelphia. Visitors can download maps and site descriptions on the Byway's website, which will include in the show notes, as well as a phone app with extensive audio interpretation that you can listen to on your drive.

Dana Paterra: When you look out across the landscape and you see this historic view that would be familiar to Harriet Tubman and other people from 150 years ago, it creates an important connection with people, a sense of place is powerful. As people are traveling the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, they can visit these exact sites in locations where significant events happened to Harriet Tubman and other freedom seekers. I mean, that is powerful. When you can go visit, say Stewart's Canal and you can still see the hand-dug straight line through the marsh that was dug by both free and enslaved people, that still exists today. And when you look out over the marsh, you can see what it would've looked like historically. It's incredible to be able to go visit these sites and locations.

Jennifer Errick: Paterra is also quick to point out that the park is free, and it has an excellent Junior Ranger Program.

Dana Paterra: You can travel in her footsteps and you can see what Tubman saw, and you can really have this immersive multi-day experience traveling Byway. And if you start at the Visitor Center, then you've got a good solid foundation for what you're going to experience along the way.

Jennifer Errick: Alan Spears considers the remarkably intact condition of the park to be a fortunate accident.

Alan Spears: I think the area is an accident of preservation because we haven't seen as much of the modern development encroaching on that landscape as we've seen in other places on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Jennifer Errick: Spears also notes the area's beauty and how out of step it might feel with Tubman's history.

Alan Spears: The area is bounded by water, and it is a very low lying area, and so the views in this region are fantastic. Just forest and waterways and canals and rivers and streams.

It is bucolic. It remains rural. There are small intrusions of the modern world, so you will find towns and communities and hotels and interstates, but not a lot down there to interfere with the vision of that landscape. If you catch it at the right time in the right place, it can be incredibly quiet. It's a great place to go to look at and listen to wildlife, especially birds in the area. It's just an incredibly beautiful place. It can be very serene.

And then there is that odd juxtaposition between that serenity and the history that took place there related to the Underground Railroad, slavery and Tubman's life.

Jennifer Errick: Spears emphasizes how Tubman's history is about more than Tubman.

Alan Spears: One of the things that's important about Tubman's legacy is that maybe she speaks for all the other people that will remain anonymous on the Underground Railroad. We will never know their names. We will never know their birth dates, their death dates, who they got married to, how many children they had, how they thrived, stories about the pain that they suffered. They will remain forever anonymous. And so what I attached to Tubman's legacy is it's also an opportunity to examine the other people who will never be named, and I think that's really important.

Jennifer Errick: Everyone I spoke with shared such poignant information about Tubman and the world that she lived in, but the person who I felt was best suited to channel Tubman's voice was Dr. Larsen. And so I asked her, how do you think Tubman would react to her 200th birthday celebration?

Kate Clifford Larsen: Well, I think she would be very proud and very happy. She'd probably have some witty joke because she was a jokester. She had a very dry sense of humor. And she would call on everybody to be more active. Like she told those abolitionists back then; do better, be better, do more, fight harder, do the right thing and support those in your community that deserve and need the support. That's what she would do.

Jennifer Errick: And that's a message that as timeless as Tubman herself.


Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode nine, An American Hero Turns 200, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with moral and technical support from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Vanessa [inaudible 00:31:19]. Original theme music by Chad Fischer. Natural sounds from the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic site by Ismael Gama Jr. Learn more at

Jennifer Errick: For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks, and we're proud of it too.

Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is overseen by Amy Hagovsky, who said if I worked really hard she'd prepare a special bonus for me.

Dana Paterra: Fragments of bricks, a drawer pull, a button, some glass from windows.

Jennifer Errick: You can join the fight to preserve Harriet Tubman's legacy and all our national parks. Learn more and join us at