The Aboveground Railroad

The Aboveground Railroad

Be ready for briars, flies, and mosquitoes, I was told, and wear good shoes, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt.  I had brought none of these with me to Dorchester County, Maryland, in August, 1988, expecting temperatures in the 90’s—I was not wrong about that.  I was writing a young adult biography of Harriet Tubman, who escaped from this county in 1849. I had never been to the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, a very different world than the Indiana I grew up in and the Pacific Northwest I live in.  I wanted to find traces of Tubman in the homeland she lived in and left.  I quickly bought jeans, a long-sleeved blouse, and socks to augment my sandals.

My search began on the front porch of the home of Addie Clash Travers, close to downtown Cambridge. Travers was known in the community as the keeper of local Black history.  Everyone who went by her house either waved, called out, or stopped to talk.  Her family had lived in the county since before the Civil War when many of her ancestors were enslaved.  She was in touch with the Rosses, the Pinders, and the Jacksons—other black families who received their names and sometimes land from the oldest white families in Maryland.  They wanted to reclaim that 300-year black history that is buried in the white. 

Travers learned about Tubman by talking to the “older folks.”  The history of slavery was not taught in the schools; it was invisible, underground.  “They don’t want to own it, that their forebears were slaveholders,” I was told.  It was a troubled history; Tubman, whose family name was Ross, spirited away droves of valuable enslaved people from the county in the 1850s.

Facing official indifference but determined to keep that history alive, Travers started an annual Harriet Tubman Day celebration in 1967, at an old church in the countryside.  “It’s hard to believe she did what she did, coming from here,” Addie said, and she wanted it known.  Only a few members of her family came  the first year.

I wanted to see the church, the farm where Harriet was enslaved, the countryside she knew.  Travers walks with a cane, so she could not guide me around, but Herbert Sherwood passed by her porch as we were talking and offered to be a guide.  He brought along a last-minute recruit, Monroe William Charles Edward Pinder, otherwise known as Buddy.  Buddy was the seventh generation of Pinders in Dorchester County.  He traced his height to a Choptank Indian chief, his blue eyes to a white great-grandfather, and his light brown, freckled skin to his black relatives who had lived “the hardest.”  Buddy turned out to be a talker.   

Our goal was to find the foundations of Harriet’s cabin, which Buddy said he had seen five years before.  We started at the only public acknowledgement of Tubman in the county:  a lone historical marker which told her escape story escape in two sentences:  “Harriet Tubman, 1820-1913.  The ‘Moses of Her People,’ Harriet Tubman of the Bucktown District found freedom for herself and some three hundred other slaves whom she led north.  In the Civil War she served the Union Army as a nurse, scout, and spy.”  The 300 number was closer to 70 as I discovered in further research. 

From the marker, we turned down a grass driveway through a field on what used to be the Brodess farm.  We alighted into the heat and crossed a ditch, which brings water from the area’s many creeks and rivers.  We high stepped over rows of soybean planted after the winter wheat was cut and reach the woods in back.  The Brodess house and slave cabins were right up against the Greenbriar Swamp.  Locals hunted deer there, for which nearby Bucktown is named. 

We didn’t find the foundations of Harriet’s cabin, just some crumbling bricks which Pinder and Sherwood said were brought from England at least a century before.  They vowed to come back in the winter when the vegetation would be sparse.  If we had kept traipsing through the woods, along the edge of the field, we could have followed the path slaves took to get to Sunday morning worship.As we drove out Greenbriar Road, passing farms and houses, Buddy told me who lived there and whether the family had owned slaves.  He pointed out land that was given by Harriet’s owner to his paternal grandmother, one acre for each of the three children she had by him. There was talk of how titles to the land were lost through forgeries or non payment of taxes.  His maternal grandmother, he said, was sold to a plantation in Georgia. 

We passed the Bucktown store where Harriet was hit in the head with a two-pound weight thrown by an overseer.  It was intended for a field worker but hit 15-year-old Harriet who was blocking the door.  The injury nearly killed Harriet and left her susceptible to sudden stupors throughout her life, a risk in the underground work she did. 

Down another weedy lane, we found a ramshackle frame house and gravestones dating to 1792. Pinder pointed out The Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, where his grandchildren used to roam before there was an entry fee.  We visited Scott’s Chapel on Bucktown Road where the Brodess family were members of the congregation.  Harriet’s family, the Rosses, may have worshipped at this site, too, in the balcony or at the back of the church.  White burials are behind the church, and the markers of Pinders and others across the road.  Early graves of enslaved blacks are unmarked, underneath 20th century vaults and stones. 

Later, to avoid flies which swarm and bite, I drove with Addie off the road and across weeds to get close to a different one-room frame church.  The church was built in 1911 on the site where enslaved peolpe gathered on Sunday morning for worship, walking through the woods from their cabins.  Addie had been unable to raise public funds to restore the building, but Sherwood regularly mowed the grass and weeds around it. 

The next day I roamed downtown Cambridge, noting small frame houses on Court Lane dating from the early 1800s and the steps of the courthouse from which, I was told, slaves were auctioned.  That’s why Harriet left—she had seen two sisters sold to the plantation-cotton factories of the Deep South, and she feared she was next.

This was a history begging to be told but kept alive only in oral history, unacknowledged by the predominant culture.  I went on to write and publish the Tubman biography, the first non-fiction account of her life  since the 1930s. 

Thirty years later, I reprise my trip with the aid of the Internet and feel like Rip Van Winkle.  The landscape hasn’t changed, but the attitude has. The underground railroad history in Dorchester County has risen, pushed up by the perseverance of people like Travers, Pinder, Sherwood, and Rev. Edward Jackson and the next generation—Joyce Banks, Sherwood’s daughter; Donald Pinder, Pinder’s son;  Rev. Linda Wheatley, also a daughter of a Pinder, John Creighton, a local white historian who did extensive research on Tubman, and James McGowan, who edited The Harriet Tubman Journal in the 1990s. Since my book was published in 1990, three adult biographies have been published. The movie Harriet, filmed in Virginia, brought her story to film in 2019.  People are ready not only to acknowledge the conflicted history but to celebrate those who challenged the status quo. 

Today Harriet’s legacy and name is everywhere in Dorchester County.  Her story is told in a small Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge, in a building purchased in 1992 by those determined to keep her history alive. This is not to be confused with the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, in the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument and National Historical Park, a partnership between state and national park services. It was opened in 2017 with a ceremony that included the governor, the lieutenant governor, and a senator from Maryland.  The center and garden facing north, the direction of freedom, are based in Church Creek, Maryland, a formerly black community adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Nearly 100,000 visitors came to the center the first year it was open. 

The visitor center is the gateway to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, 125 miles of driving to 45 sites significant to Tubman and the Underground Railroad.  In 1988 I tried to track Harriet’s journey north from Bucktown on her first trip to freedom in 1849.  She followed the Choptank River 67 miles upstream to where it trickles over the Delaware border, then ran a gauntlet of towns.  She  crossed closely watched bridges to Wilmington, then crossed another state border to Philadelphia, a trip of more than 200 wandering miles when Harriet walked it.  Now you can drive it with ease with all the important sites pointed out

The people who first saved African-American history when it was underground have died.  Newcomers have moved in and bought the land the locals have been unable to retain. But Bazzle Church now attracts hundreds to the Harriet Tubman Day celebration.  The fourth generation proprietors of the Bucktown Store give tours.  The same historical marker, with the consistent with every other roadside marker in Maryland, still stands on Greenbriar Road, still claiming 300 fugitives helped.  The Brodess farm, now in private hands, is on the scenic byway.

And the foundations of Harriet’s cabin?  Slave cabins don’t last; the lives they sheltered lived only in memories through the generations.  That community in time has moved on, entrusting the history to interpretive organizations who make it visible and visitors who embrace it. 




Walking Nearby History

 Staying home and walking more in your neighborhood?  There’s more underfoot than you may realize.  Cities are rich in layers of history, some visible, some not. 

Heading out my side door, I find a clothesline pole still standing between my house and the condo building next door, trailing vines instead of drying sheets. A half-mile away is a monument marking the landing of the Denny-Low-Terry party at Alki in 1851. Those are the obvious finds.

Less obvious is the median sloping downhill in front of our house, separating two narrow one-way streets.  When we moved here 16 years ago, the hillside was overgrown with weeds.  One lone plum tree drooped with fruit each fall. In the early 1900s children walked to the neighborhood school along a one-lane dirt road paralleling a meadow. “We frequently preferred the trail along Chilberg Avenue,” recalled one resident, “to enjoy some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the open fields and leading up into ‘the woods,’ the hillside forest.” Pleasant memories for troubled times.

Troubled times are nothing new.  As I researched Walking Washington’s History:  Ten Cities, I often found conflict.  I had read about the Everett Massacre of 1914 when striking millworkers in the city were supported by Wobblies who arrived on boats from Seattle. The Wobblies were met with gunfire.  The dock where the clash occurred is long gone, but as I walked the waterfront in 2017, I found wreaths made out of dried cedar hung on a wire fence, each commemorating one of the 12 men killed. 

At the Chinese Reconciliation Park in Tacoma, the haunting figures of Chinese workers expelled from the city in 1885 are painted on stone, an attempt to remember and acknowledge.

There were moments of pleasure, too, when I found the cool bubbling spring behind the Bigelow House in Olympia, which supplied drinking water to the early residents.  Vancouver has not just one but three statues of women:  a pioneer mother, a Native American woman, and a World War II welder.

Where history is less visible, interpretive art recalls the work of ordinary people.  A sculpted fruit-picker’s bag sits on a square in Yakima. 

To find history underfoot, look closely as you walk, and ask why.  Then visit the local historical society when it opens again; you may find an oral history or memories that recall experiences like a walk to school.


Today the meadow along that old dirt road has been reclaimed by community volunteers with plantings of more fruit trees, native shrubs, and wildflowers. Some of the forest above remains, on a hillside too steep for development.  Walkers passing the wildflowers on this relatively quiet street are in good historic company.   



Lost and Found in History

            As often happens in the writing life, authors may be immersed in a new book but recalled to another.  That was the case with Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master this week when I was interviewed by Rob Smith for his podcast, which showcases stories from Olympia, Washington. 

            The free boy in question, Charles Mitchell, lived in Olympia from 1855 to 1860 when he escaped on a mail steamer to Victoria Island in what is now British Columbia.  Mitchell was 13, a child of mixed race, living in the household of James and Isabella Tilton, and owned by them.  Slavery was legal in Olympia because territories did not have the right to declare themselves slave or free.  James Tilton was the Surveyor General of Washington Territory, an important job mapping the new territory so that incoming settlers could claim land.  Tilton brought the young boy to Olympia from a plantation in Maryland owned by Tilton’s mother’s family.  Mitchell’s father was an unknown white man, and his enslaved mother died of cholera when the boy was three.  Tilton promised to educate Charles, to train him for a job as a ship’s steward, and to free him when he turned 18.

            When given the chance to be free before then, Charles didn’t wait.  He was encouraged and aided by free blacks in Victoria who visited Olympia and by James Allen, the cook on board the steamer.  Allen hid Charles in the lamp room, and although he was discovered on board before the Eliza Anderson docked in Victoria, he was brought off the boat through a writ of habeas corpus and declared a free boy by a British judge. This was his moment of fame.  And then he vanished into history, after a brief appearance in a school for boys.

            That was the story Lorraine McConaghy and I wrote in Free Boy, published by the University of Washington Press in 2013, an inspiring story of a young boy yearning for freedom and the Victoria blacks who engineered his freedom.

            But then what?  The Civil War began months after Mitchell escaped, and by its end in 1865, he would have been free.  Did he ever come back to the United States?  Did he ever find his father or family in Maryland?  Did he have a successful life?  Lorraine and I did not know when we finished the book.  We could only speculate about which of many Charles Mitchells he might have been in the Pacific Northwest. 

            In fact, Mitchell roamed farther than we thought.  Inspired by his story, a researcher dove into the mystery.  With only Mitchell’s name, race, place of birth, and approximate birth date, Thomas Blake delved into census tracks, voter records, city directories, pension applications, marriage and death certificates.  He found that:

  • Mitchell returned to the United States right before the end of the Civil War and enlisted in a California infantry company that was stationed at Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River, named after Isaac Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory—and a friend of James Tilton’s.
  • After that Mitchell worked as a ship’s steward, a cook, waiter, and all-around crew member, the job he had been trained for, on ships based in San Francisco.
  • He married twice, first to a mulatto woman named Elsie L. Browne.  They had a son, Charles, born in May 1870.  She died in 1885; the fate of their son Charles is unknown. 
  • At the age of about 40, Mitchell married a young white woman named Sarah Frederick in Liverpool, England.  Mtichell brought Sarah back with him to the United States, along with his mother-in-law, and they had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood.  Their household in San Francisco was variously described as white or mulatto. 
  • He broke both knee caps in falls related to his work.  He also broke both ribs in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, injuries that eventually earned him an invalid pension from the military.
  • He died in 1910 in the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, at the age of about 60. 
  • He has no known living descendants.  His one known grandchild died in 1999 in Paradise, California and had no known children.   

            In some ways, Charles Mitchell lived a fairly ordinary life.  He married, had children, and worked hard at physical jobs that left him partially disabled.  His adult life as a free man was not as dramatic as his brief moment of fame as a youth, but his work as a mariner took him around the world, and he briefly enlisted in the cause he had left Olympia for, the cause of freedom for youth like him.  His courage at 13 earned the right to determine his own life.

Harriet Tubman photograph

A startling new photograph of Harriet Tubman has been discovered, a portrait of her as a younger woman in her 40s.  When I wrote the young adult biography of Tubman in 1990, the available photos of her were pictures dating from 1894 and an early 1900s photo showing her with white hair, decades past her most active years as an underground railroad conductor and spy in the Civil War.

The new photo has emerged in an album kept by Emily Howland, an abolitionist in upstate New York.  Howland lived in Sherwood, not far from Auburn, where Tubman settled after the Civil War.  Cayuga County was a nest of abolitionists, including William Seward who helped Tubman purchase land there in 1859 for a home she shared with anyone in need.  The new photograph is an 1860s carte de visite, a small (typically 2 1/2″ x 4″) photograph mounted on a calling card handed out to family and friends, which suggests there might be more of the cards in existence.  They were particularly popular among soldiers during the Civil War, as described by Andrea Volpe in an article in The New York Times.  

The discovery of the new photograph was brought to my attention by Grace Bentley, my 98-year-old mother-in-law who lives in upstate New York.

Newport High School orchestra

Newport High School Orchestra Performs Free Boy: Secret Voyage

Tone Poem for Charles Mitchell’s Flight to Freedom on the West’s Underground Railroad

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Newport High School orchestra, the Newport Philharmonic, will be performing the world premiere of “Free Boy: Secret Voyage,” a piece commissioned by award-winning composer Tim Huling, at the All-Northwest Music Educators Conference, on Feb. 17 in Bellevue, WA.

The piece is inspired by the nonfiction book “Free Boy,” written by local authors Lorraine McConaghy and Judith M. Bentley, and was commissioned by the school with support from the Bellevue Schools Foundation and Newport’s PTSA.  The book is about a thirteen-year-old boy who is born into slavery and escapes from the Washington territory to freedom in Canada by way of the West’s underground railroad.

Newport’s orchestra conductor, Christine Gero, decided to embark on this project as part of the school’s music history unit on contemporary music.  The intent is to work with a living composer and create a piece of music with a Pacific Northwest hero as the inspiration for the work.  Gero began the unit by asking how many students have lived somewhere other than Bellevue, and nearly the entire class raised their hands.  Gero herself is also a transplant to the Pacific Northwest, so together she and her students are learning about the Pacific Northwest’s history through the book “Free Boy.”

“In some ways Bellevue is very global,” said Gero.  “A lot of people in the community were not born here, so this has been such a great opportunity for us to learn about this place we live in and its history.”

Throughout the unit, students have met the authors, historians and even gave input to Huling on the composition of the piece.

“To actually see the students getting to interact with historians, authors and a composer and hear not just about the past, but how it plays into the present – and how they are able to take part in that to create something that is hopefully lasting and meaningful – I think that has been exciting for everyone involved,” said Gero.

For more information about the All-Northwest Conference:

For more information or to schedule a visit to see the orchestra rehearse please contact Christina Wilner at (425) 456-4

Walking Washington’s History


am working on a new book, a history of Washington told through the history of the state’s major cities.  I’m doing a lot of walking, early in the morning when the homeless are still huddled under blankets on benches, on rainy afternoons when awnings are welcome, and sometimes along a sunny waterfront.  I am visiting museums, historical societies, libraries, and coffee shops, talking to anyone I encounter.
Yesterday, a friend and I roamed Tacoma in the rain, finding solidity among the mists in stone statues.  Here are two with some historical significance.  The lion guards the entrance to Fuzhou Ting, a pavilion given by the city of Fuzhou and built at the Chinese Reconciliation Park on the waterfront east of Old Town.  The park recalls through art and words the expulsion of Chinese from the city once the railroads were completed and their labor was no longer needed.  The Goddess of Commerce is a new statue replacing an older one in the Old City Hall district.  She is replete with the symbols of commerce that have driven Tacoma’s economy, including crane earrings, not the peace cranes but the dock kind.