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Location Of Harriet Tubman's Home Discovered

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Most Americans are familiar with the name and heroism of Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War spy Harriet Tubman. But until recently, no one knew where she grew up. So Maryland Department of Transportation archaeologist Julie Schablitsky set out to find the lost site in Dorchester County, Md.

JULIE SCHABLITSKY: Well, when we first started out in November, I thought, we're going to find this. It's not going to be hard. It's going to be easy. The soil's shallow. We should be able to find this site, you know, within a week or so.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For two weeks, a dozen archaeologists traipsed through the muddy swamps of Maryland's Eastern Shore, looking for Ben's 10 - a 10-acre plot of land left to Ben Ross, Harriet Tubman's father. He was an enslaved lumberjack and timber foreman who, after the death of his slaveholder, was granted his freedom, the house he lived in and a 10-acre piece of land. But finding Ben's 10 turned out to be harder than Schablitsky predicted.

SCHABLITSKY: I got a little scared and a little frustrated because I didn't know why we weren't finding it. We were finding absolutely nothing but muddy holes.

SHAPIRO: A thousand muddy holes - but Schablitsky wasn't deterred. She whipped out an archaeologist's best friend - a metal detector.

SCHABLITSKY: What I was trying to do is just simply find some rusty nails that might be linked to some old site or an old slave quarter of some type. But I wasn't finding anything of that. But after just even five or 10 minutes out there alongside the road, I got a great hit.

KELLY: Now, when metal detectors detect something brass or copper, it's usually aluminum foil or an old shotgun shell. But what Schablitsky's hit was a Lady Liberty 50-cent coin from 1808.

SCHABLITSKY: And interestingly enough, that was the year that Ben Ross and his wife, Rit Green, Harriet Tubman's mother - that's the year that they were married. And that's the year that they began a family.

SHAPIRO: The discovery energized the team, and this past March, they came across more 19th century domestic artifacts like old buttons, broken medicine bottles and tobacco pipes.

SCHABLITSKY: Based on the types of ceramics we had, based on the types of personal artifacts, we dated this site to the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s. And that would have been the exact time when Ben Ross was there. And also, it included the time period where Harriet Tubman was living there with him.

KELLY: Descendant Tina Wyatt was elated to hear the news.

TINA WYATT: I am a great-great-great-grandniece of Harriet Ross Tubman and a great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Ben Ross Sr.

KELLY: She says the news has her thinking more about her ancestors and the lives they lived. Like, how did Ben Ross end up on this plantation? Who were his parents? What conditions was he subjected to? It's a conversation Wyatt's family wants to have if they get the 2022 family reunion organized.

WYATT: We have been trying to do it for the last five years, trying to find other descendants and have a family reunion because we feel like that would be important to Aunt Harriet as well.

SHAPIRO: A reunion for descendants who now have a little bit more information about where they came from. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.