A life-size bronze sculpture inside the visitor center of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park depicts her performing work she was forced to do as a child. Tubman, who was born enslaved in 1822, was first put to work at age 5 checking muskrat traps in the cold winter waters of Dorchester County.
The sculpture reflects accounts of how Tubman’s labor included trapping muskrats in the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay — doing that work barefoot, even in freezing weather. But in detail, the sculpture has her grabbing a muskrat by the tail – a tiny girl capturing an animal on her own. She was a child forced to endure risks from the harsh conditions and from the animals.
In an article published in the Journal of Mammalogy in August 1937, John Bailey wrote, “While timid and nervous and quick to take alarm, [muskrats] are just as ready to attack in self-defense, and will fight to a finish with any enemy, large or small, if escape is not feasible. Their large, keen-edged incisors, backed by strength and quickness, are very effective weapons that have left deep scars on the hands of trappers, the noses of dogs and other large enemies.”
The muskrat industry in Maryland consisted of trapping, harvesting and capturing the aquatic rodents. During the 19th century and into the 20th century, the industry was seen as an important resource for the state.
“Good muskrat marshes are as valuable as any farm land,” Bailey wrote. “There is a good demand for live muskrats for stocking marshes that have been unwisely depleted, or for starting new muskrat farms, and the price of live muskrats usually is several times greater than for skins.”
The muskrat industry, like most other industries upon which Maryland’s economic development relied historically, profited off the labor of enslaved people at every stage of their lives. Tubman, who was given the name Araminta by her parents, Ben and Rit Ross, endured painful separations from her family when she was put to work checking muskrat traps on the Little Blackwater River and doing domestic labor for various families, according to a Maryland Department of Natural Resources article.
Later, she began working in the timber fields of Dorchester County with her father, a skilled timber foreman. “Young Harriet would have been one of a few, if not the only woman hauling wood and driving a team of oxen,” according to “Harriet Tubman: The Ultimate Outdoorswoman,” by Angela Crenshaw, a Maryland park ranger who previously served as as assistant manager at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park. The state and the National Park Service jointly operate the visitor center.
Tubman learned how to find food in the natural environment, navigate by the stars, read the landscape and protect herself from the elements. While working in the swampy wetlands and upland forests, she learned how to mimic the sounds of birds, trap animals and use plants for both medicine and food. She developed the skills that she would need to survive when she escaped slavery at a Maryland plantation in 1849 and traveled north to Pennsylvania.
“Tubman gained the expert naturalist skills that helped her guide herself and more than 70 enslaved people to freedom through the Underground Railroad,” Crenshaw wrote.
Becoming a naturalist was vital to the survival of Tubman and many other African Americans, whether enslaved, escaping or free. They learned to read the land and its cycles, navigate by the stars, detect the changing tides, predict the weather and sense approaching danger by watching the reactions of wildlife, according to “The Hidden Chesapeake: Slavery and Freedom Through Harriet Tubman’s Eyes,” published by the Maryland Office of Tourism.
Tubman’s years laboring in the Chesapeake Bay region’s fields and marshes made her familiar with its thickets, wetlands and coves, and aware of places to hide, food to gather, and pathways to secretly meet up with loved ones and other enslaved people seeking to escape.
Tubman and many of those whom she later helped to freedom knew what the region had to offer to keep them fed and safe. They fished, crabbed, tonged for oysters, trapped muskrats and hunted waterfowl. The region’s shoreline forests produced acorns, berries and botanicals that Tubman valued for food and medicine.
Archaeologists who have researched the lives of enslaved people in the region that has become known as Harriet Tubman Country have found evidence of what they ate to survive and often to supplement the insufficient food provided by their enslavers. That evidence is in the remains of fish and crab from the Choptank River and game including muskrat, deer, skunk, raccoon, possum, woodpecker, pigeon, goose and turtle.
For Harriet Tubman, the connection she formed with the natural world, and what she learned about survival while enslaved, helped her feed, heal and protect the dozens that she would guide to freedom.
Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s opinion editor.