Last fall a team of archeologists dug hundreds of small holes in a marshy, forested and buggy area of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. But there were no obvious signs of the historical site they’d set out to unearth. Frustrated, Julie Schablitsky, the chief archeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation, grabbed a metal detector and began scanning an area along an old road.
“I got this beep, beep, beep,” she recalled, expecting it to be just another buried shotgun shell. “I dug, and what came up was this coin.”
Not just any coin. It was a 50-cent Liberty coin, dated 1808 ― the year that American abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s parents, Benjamin and Harriet Greene Ross, were married and started a family in this remote area along Maryland’s shore, reports the Huffington Post. It’s also the year that the U.S. officially banned the importing of humans who would be forced into chattel slavery.
The coin ultimately led Schablitsky’s team to what they’ve concluded are the remnants of a cabin and homesite that Tubman’s father owned. It is where Tubman spent part of her childhood before she escaped and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
State and federal officials announced the discovery Tuesday at a small event at the visitor center of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park.
Along with the coin, the initial seach last year turned up other small artifacts, but Schablitsky’s team ran out of time and money for the year, she said. They returned this March and began a more thorough excavation. They unearthed nails, bricks, chunks of glass and painted pottery, a drawer handle, a piece of a chamber pot, a pipe stem and even a porcelain button. Experts have since dated many of the items to the first half of the 19th century.
The discovery helps Tina Wyatt, a descendant of Harriet Tubman and Ben Ross, imagine what her ancestors were like. She wondered if the 1808 coin could have been a wedding gift that her great-great-great-great-grandfather dropped accidentally. She pictures Ross smoking a pipe at the end of a long day of work.
“It means so much to the family to be able to see all of this,” Wyatt said at Tuesday’s event. “It’s so important, not just for family, but for the world to understand about our history, to know what happened.”
The homesite is in an area of the refuge known as Peter’s Neck, not far from where the Blackwater River snakes its way past what was once the plantation of Anthony Thompson, where Tubman was born into slavery around 1820. Though she and her mother were enslaved by a different family, Tubman — then Araminta “Minty” Ross — would have spent time as a young child and a teenager at the homesite, experts said Tuesday. Her enslaved father, Ben Ross, logged and sold timber to be used for shipbuilding in Baltimore. He was freed five years after Thompson’s death and given a 10-acre piece of land in the 1840s.