The former home site of Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, was confirmed found on land purchased for the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland's Eastern Shore, officials say.
The discovery promises to inform the historic legacy of Tubman, an abolitionist, Underground Railroad conductor and among the most legendary of Marylanders, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration said in a press release.
Lt. Governor Boyd K. Rutherford joined archeologists, historians and officials Tuesday to announce the major historic find.
The 10-acre home site is located in a 2,500-acre parcel of land called Peter’s Neck that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased for $6 million last year.
Ross was given the land and granted his own freedom five years after slaveholder Anthony Thompson’s death in 1836.
Tubman, born Araminta Ross in March 1822, would have spent time at this home site.
“The importance of discovering Ben Ross’ cabin here is the connection to Harriet Tubman. She would’ve spent time here as a child, but also she would’ve come back and been living here with her father in her teenage years, working alongside him,” said MDOT SHA chief archeologist Julie Schablitsky.
Schablitsky and her team found signs they were on the right track in November. In March, her team found artifacts dating to the 1800s that proved to be a breakthrough, Boyd said.
Photos: Home Site of Harriet Tubman's Father Confirmed Found in Maryland
A button, pottery fragments, nails, brick and glass are among evidence that archeologists found. They say the artifacts indicate a former home.
Douglas Mitchell, Ross' great-great-great-grandson, called the artifacts found "spellbinding."
"On this joyous occasion, more than 160 years after Ben Ross departed his humble cabin never to return, all freedom-and-justice-loving Americans are Ross kin, celebrating this immensely important archaeological discovery and the priceless revelations it is destined to offer," Mitchell said.
No structure stands today, but frequent flooding at the site means artifacts were not far underground, Schablitsky told NBC Washington during a visit to the dig site.
Historians say Ross taught Tubman to navigate and work in the area’s forests, marshes and waterways as a child. Years later, those skills likely helped her lead about 70 friends and family through difficult terrain, out of enslavement and to freedom in the north.
“This view offers a powerful experience that really allows you to appreciate how well Tubman knew the terrain and how she used it to help others to freedom,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio.
The landscape today looks similar to how it did in the nineteenth century, although rising sea levels and climate change threaten several historic sites in the area, NBC Washington and Climate Central found.
The site will be added to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a collection of more than 30 historic sites related to her life, MDOT SHA says.
Tina Wyatt, Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece and Ross’ great-great-great-great-granddaughter, says the findings can also shed light on the lives of enslaved people on the Eastern Shore.
“Discovering the location of patriarch Ben Ross Sr.’s home and artifacts he used has humanized a man responsible for giving us a woman of epic proportions, Harriet Ross Tubman,” Wyatt said.
Peter’s Neck was purchased “as a critical addition” to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which is expected to change over to marshland by 2100 due to rising sea levels.
“When we protect vulnerable habitats, we help preserve the stories of those who came before us, like Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross,” said USFWS Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System Cynthia Martinez.