Chesapeake underground, charting a course toward freedom

Map from Cambridge to Bodkin Point

by Vincent O. Leggett

In 1959, I began attending Columbus Elementary School in Baltimore. We would study the story of Christopher Columbus more than anyone else, because our school was named after him. Since that time I have always had a love for geography, sailing, history, biographies and autobiographies.

While there, I also developed a fondness for art. My favorite things to draw and paint were maps, mostly because of the beautiful blue water. Living in Maryland, my colorful drawings had a lot of blue water representing the Chesapeake Bay and the many rivers and streams leading into the Atlantic Ocean.

In our classes, we learned about many of Maryland's famous people; Francis Scott Key, Edgar Allen Poe, Betsy Ross and others. Then, for one week of the school year, we studied noted Negroes in Maryland like Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker and Harriet Tubman.

It was the amazing story of Harriet Tubman that most captivated my imagination. For me she was as famous and as important as Christopher Columbus. There was something special about Harriet Tubman, beyond the fact that her picture looked like my grandmother, Bessie Smith, who is now 102 years old. It was then that I recall first hearing the term Underground Railroad.

We had a school play about Harriet Tubman and I wanted to play the title role, since I knew more about her than anyone else in our class. The teacher, however, would not permit it; because Harriet Tubman was a woman the part went to a girl in our class.

I also believed Harriet Tubman should travel by boat just like Christopher Columbus but the teacher again disagreed, telling us, Blacks did not sail boats, nor were they explorers.

After that, I taught the little girl everything I knew about Harriet Tubman. The play went on it was a success and everybody enjoyed it, but I was still angry.

At one point, the teacher told us to pretend we were escaping from slavery by crawling through the woods on our hands and knees, with Harriet Tubman in the lead. While I did as instructed, I simply could not see how Harriet Tubman could have made it all the way to Canada without using a boat; every map I saw of Maryland's Eastern Shore had water all over the place.

Little did I know that nearly 35 years later I would be writing a book about Harriet Tubman and how she used the Chesapeake Bay as an integral part of the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It was, instead, an informal network that helped thousands of slaves escape to the freedom of the Northern States and Canada from 1830 until 1860. The system was dubbed the Underground Railroad because of the swift, secret way in which people were moved traveling by any means possible, almost entirely at night, and hiding out during the day.

The most famous black leader of the Underground Railroad was, of course, Harriet Tubman, herself a runaway slave from Maryland. Following her own escape, she would return to the South 19 times, engineering daring rescues that would help more than 300 Blacks escape to freedom, including members of her own family. Ultimately, she became one of the most pursued leaders of the underground movement, with a bounty of $40,000 advertised as reward for her capture.

Chesapeake Station
Due to the landscape's geography and topology, the primary mode of travel and trade in Maryland during the mid-1800s was by water. It should come as no surprise then that Delmarva's Underground Railroad routes comprised streams, creeks and rivers that flowed into the Bay, and onward to the Atlantic Ocean. Hence, the runaway slave network here became known as Chesapeake Station or the Chesapeake Underground.

As I had suspected in grade school, Harriet Tubman who was born on the Eastern Shore did indeed travel by water. She once instructed a companion to rent a fishing boat in Cambridge and meet her at Bodkin Point, on the Bay's western shore near Baltimore.

Further evidence of the water's import to the slave network are many accounts of safe houses with tunnels leading to creeks and rivers. Several of these accounts have been documented in Baltimore City, Anne Arundel County and all along the Eastern Shore.

Among the many slaves who would benefit from the Bay and its meandering water trails in escaping from bondage was another famous Marylander, Frederick Douglass. In his autobiography, he recalls watching ships with full white sails traveling on the Chesapeake Bay as a young boy from his Talbot County home.

In his youth, Douglass even predicted the significance the Chesapeake Bay would have in his life as he wrote, this very bay shall yet bear me to freedom.

And so it did, along with thousands of others.

Vincent O. Leggett is a local writer and historian specializing in African American maritime history and culture. He works as a special project coordinator in DNR's Office of Education, Chesapeake Bay Policy and Growth Management and serves as president of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, Inc.

His book, Chesapeake Underground, is a historical account of local watermen using their boats and vast knowledge of the Bay and its tributaries to ferry runaway slaves to freedom.

Recent increased interest in the Abolitionist Movement, has led the National Park Service (NPS) and the Maryland Historical Society to begin documenting Underground Railroad sites. Vince Leggett is in the process of identifying a number of key sites along Maryland's waterways for further research through the EPA's Chesapeake Gateways and Water Trails Program.

Natural Resource main page
DNR Home