They Called Her Moses
By MARGARET BARTON DRIGGS
Photos by AARON LEVIN
likened her to Joan of Arc for her charisma and simple faith. She had
dreams and visions, and extraordinary things happened to her. She led
a charmed life through incredible dangers.
John Brown called her “General”; Frederick Douglass felt humble in her
presence; Queen Victoria
honored her with an invitation to
England and the gift of a silk shawl.
The Quaker Thomas Garrett said of her, “If she had been a white woman,
she would have been heralded as the greatest woman of her age.” To
her own people she was, simply, “Moses”, and their haunting
spirituals—veiled messages – enlarged the metaphor to sing of Jordan
and the Promised Land.
Harriet Ross Tubman was an illiterate slave born in the Bucktown
district of Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She
escaped to freedom, alone, in 1849. For the next 11 years she returned
to the South 19 times to lead more than 300 slaves north across the
Mason-Dixon Line and sometimes into Canada.
Lake, a fellow slave and friend of
Harriet Tubman, took another path, one that led him north to freedom
and south again to the plantation he had worked in slavery. He left a
slave and returned to become master of the land. Descendants of Martin
Lake and of other Bucktown
slaves, living links to the courage of Harriet Tubman, gather in
Bucktown twice a year to commemorate their forebears and recall their
the junction of Bucktown, Green Briar, and Bespitch Ferry Roads, 12
miles southeast of Cambridge, stands a quaint country store. Beside
the dot on the map the word Bucktown appears. Bucktown is not really a
town, but a farming district, and the store’s only patrons seem to be
the great white roosters and gray guinea hens that huddle in its lee
on a winter’s day.
Across the road, long ago, stood another store, once the scene of a
terrible drama played out between slaves and master–perhaps not an
uncommon scene for its age, but one which, unlike so many others, did
not escape history. The heroine was a 16-year- old slave girl named
Harriet, destined to become as a Moses to her people.
marker placed by the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission stands
in a field on Green Briar Road just a mile west of the store. Oral
tradition has it that this is the site of the Brodess plantation where
Harriet Tubman was born in 1820. Her parents, Benjamin and Harriet
Green Ross, then slaves of Edward Brodess, were the grandchildren of
Negroes who had come shackled from Africa in 1725. They were Ashanti,
of the region by that name in what is now Central Ghana on the west
coast of Africa.
was a fall evening in 1835, and the slaves were cleaning up wheat and
husking corn. Jim, the slave of a farmer named Barnett, seeing the
chance for escape, ran to the Bucktown store. Harriet followed him. So
did McCracken, the overseer. McCracken cornered Jim and demanded that
Harriet help capture and tie up the runaway. Harriet refused. Instead,
as Jim went out the door, she closed it and stood against it, blocking
The enraged overseer picked up a 2-pound weight from the counter and
hurled it at her, hitting her in the forehead. The blow nearly killed
her, and disabled her for months. She was left with an ugly scar, and
she was never afterwards free of a strange affliction that caused her
to have sudden, unexpected sleeping seizures.
Harriet had reason enough to be bitter already. She had seen her
sisters Linah and Sophy sold off the plantation just the year before.
She herself was only seven when she was sent away from her family to
care for a baby. “I was so little,” Harriet remembered, “that I had to
sit on the floor and have the baby put in my lap, and that baby was
always in my lap except when it was sleep or when its mother was
feeding it.” She balked at working in the house, resented whippings,
and became known as a sullen, insolent girl, good only for work in the
fields. The idea of escaping took hold early.
Dr. Virgie Lake Camper, of Cambridge, a descendant of several slave
families, recalls that her grandfather, Martin Lake, many times heard
Harriet say that she planned to escape. But it was not until 1849,
after five years of marriage to John Tubman, a free man, that she
For years she had hoarded her meager earnings from hiring out, and
selling vegetables with the idea of buying her freedom, only to find
that her value had increased far beyond her ability to pay.
John Tubman, whom Martin
Lake characterized as a weak, timid
man, had no interest in Harriet’s desire to be free. Ironically, it
was through John Tubman that she learned that she already had a
possible claim to freedom. A clause in the will of her mother’s former
owner, had left Harriet’s mother to a Mary Pattison “to serve her and
her issue” until the slave should become 45. The phrase seemed to
signify manumission (formal emancipation), but was not clearly enough
worded to be interpreted as such in the courts of that day. So
Harriet’s mother and all her children remained slaves. The knowledge
that the whole family could have been free but for a technicality,
rankled most in Harriet, who had already suffered so many indignities
and disappointments. Her bitterness and determination to escape
Then came rumors that Harriet and two of her brothers were to be sold
to a cotton plantation in the deep South. At last, Harriet fled but,
legend has it, not before stopping by a window of the house where her
parents were working to sing: “I’m bound to leave you/Bound for
Jordan’s other side.” With full knowledge of her meaning they went on
working as if nothing had happened, while their daughter slipped away.
the years before Edward Brodess had come of age, Harriet had served
his administrator, Dr. Anthony C. Thompson, who hitched her to a plow
and proudly showed her off to his friends as being strong as any man.
Now, she put this strength, as well as her knowledge of nature, to its
best use. She followed the North Star and observed on which side of
the trees the moss grew. With the guidance of an unknown Quaker woman
County, she found her way to
Philadelphia and freedom via
the Underground Railroad. Once there, she did not turn her back on the
past. Instead, she bent all her efforts toward rescuing those she had
was free and they should be free,” she said. “I would make a home in
the North and bring them there.” In the decade that followed, Harriet
returned to Dorchester County time and time again, swiftly and
silently empting the county’s plantations of their slaves.
When the chanting of “Steal Away,” “Go Down Moses,” and “I Looked Over
Jordan” went up among the slaves and continued for days, and spread
from hut to hut, from house to house and from plantation to
plantation, it was understood, but never said, that Harriet was on her
way. Those who could were to steal away to the designated spot on the
first of the month or at the new moon, and she would lead them away.
She had no chariot, not could she part rivers, but she had her own two
good legs and knowledge of the woods and the route, and of people who
helped along the way. She would come in the night, gather up her
charges and leave again quickly. It is said that she inspired the
great spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – words indeed well suited
for passing along the information that Harriet was making another
swing through the South.
her heart, Harriet carried the same kind of wrath that made Moses
break the tablets. She carried a shotgun with her on her missions, and
she would say to her charges, “If you don’t follow me when I go out,
I’m going to kill you. Go forward and live or turn back and die.”
They always went. Along the Underground Railroad it was boasted that
Harriet’s train never ran off the track and she never lost a
Echoing Patrick Henry’s denunciation of England’s rule in America,
Harriet said of herself and for all her race: “There’s two things I’ve
got a right to and these are death or liberty; one or the other I mean
to have. No one will take me back alive. I shall fight for my liberty
and when the time is come for me to go, the Lord will let them kill
me.” But by the grace of God and her own special genius, the time
1857, with the financial backing of Senator William Henry Seward, she
bought a farm in Auburn, New York, and settled her parents there.
Later, Seward, as Secretary of State, petitioned Congress in vain in
her behalf for compensation for her wartime services.
During the Civil War she served as spy, nurse, and liaison between the
Union Army and freed slaves. As a spy, she penetrated Confederate
lines, leading raids that destroyed Confederate property and liberated
slaves. As matron of the Colored Hospital at Fort Monroe,
Virginia, she improved sanitary
conditions, reorganized the kitchen, and expedited the flow of
After the war she returned to Auburn to establish a home for aged and
needy blacks. She participated in the establishment of the African
Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, supported the temperance movement,
and worked on behalf of women’s suffrage. Having given everything she
owned to help her people, she died penniless in March, 1913, at the
age of ninety-three, a free American, surrounded by people she had
delivered from bondage and helped to a better life. Her death made
headlines in newspapers around the world.
Harriet Tubman’s lifetime of courage reached beyond the slaves she
helped. Dr. Virgie Camper’s grandfather, Martin
Lake, inspired by Harriet’s
success, escaped on his own. Knowing the way himself, he did not wait
made at least three attempts before he succeeded. Usually after a
thwarted attempt, he would be whipped. Other slaves administered the
whipping so that they would learn a lesson from it. After the whipping
they were made to rub salt into the wounds. There were no hard
feelings, Martin told his sons, because slaves were forced to do what
“Now my granddaddy was a strong, big, sort of wicked man,” says Virgie
Camper. “He wasn’t afraid. Daddy used to tell us how his father would
walk at night and sleep during the daytime in culverts. A culvert
under a bridge was the only safe place to be. Once, he hid up in a
hollow tree. His pursuers trailed him to the foot of the tree with
dogs and built a fire at the bottom to smoke him out. He didn’t say
what he did so he wouldn’t sneeze, but he didn’t sneeze, and he stayed
in there.” His pursuers eventually gave up and left.
During the Civil
War Martin Lake served in the Union
Army. Afterwards he returned to Bucktown and settled there. He
married Amanda Camper who, born in 1858, was many years younger than
he. Their only son, Monroe Lake, was 12 years old when his father
died. “So my daddy,” says Mrs. Camper, “hired out and took care of his
mother and sisters. He hired out to the Brodess family faithfully
through a difficult period in their lives. “And as a result of that,
the Brodesses gave them each a little piece of land. I think they gave
each child an acre.” The land is on Green Briar Road, adjoining the
land where Harriet Tubman was born.
Monroe, too, sank his roots deep into Bucktown. He worked the Brodess
farm and surrounding land, buying up, whenever he could, land that
Martin and Harriet had worked in slavery. When he died in 1975, he
left a substantial amount of the Brodess plantation to his surviving
Left on the land now are few traces of the human struggle that took
place there in the last century. There are the Negro graves, separate
from the white, many of them unmarked and forgotten; the faces of the
living, with familial traces of those Pinders, Campers, Clashes,
Jacksons, Lakes, and others who worked side by side with Harriet;
there is the little church. And there is a tradition stronger than any
trace left on the land.
the third Sunday of every June, old residents of the Bucktown district
gather at Bazel’s Methodist Episcopal Church for a service in memory
of Harriet Tubman. It is one of the few times in the year that the old
church is open now that the black population, with the exception of
the Lake family, has moved away.
Addie Clash Travers, a retired businesswoman and civic leader,
established Harriet Tubman Day in 1970, after being inspired by
reading about Harriet’s heroism. Mrs. Travers, born in Bucktown in
1913, two months before Harriet died in Auburn, New York, is related
to Harriet through the Rosses.
Descendants of Martin
Lake, a fellow slave and friend of
Harriet Tubman, return twice each year to the Bucktown church in the
District where their forebears lived. From left are: Monroe Lake, Jr.,
Lake, Virgie Lake Camper, Addie Clash
Travers, and Victoria Lake Waters. OPPOSITE.
Photo of Harriet Tubman from the Enoch Pratt Collection.
A view today of the marsh at Scotland Creek, at the edge of the Lake
property which was once owned by the Brodess family, Harriet Tubman’s
masters. It was one of Harriet’s jobs as a child to guard muskrats
The Bazel Methodist Episcopal Church is the scene each June of a
memorial service for Harriet Tubman.
This historical marker stands at Bucktown for all to see and learn
about Harriet Tubman’s great contributions.
Maryland Magazine – Summer 1980
University of Maryland
515 W. Lombard Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
(410) 706 -7820
DORCHESTER COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY
303 GAY STREET
CAMBRIDGE, MD. 21613