5:48 AM PDT, May 16, 2021
Archaeologist Dr. Julie Schablitsky describes what it was like to locate an important piece of history: the childhood home of Harriet Tubman. “It’s this Eureka moment, that ‘We got it, we have it,’” she explains. Specifically, her team found the remains of the cabin of her father, Ben Ross.
The recent discovery comes after months of searching, digging and sifting in a swamp on the Eastern shore of Maryland. “When we’re in the ground, we’re beginning to pull these artifacts out of the soil. It’s a powerful moment because when you pick out a pipe stem, you think to yourself, ‘I’m the first person to touch this in almost 200 years, and this may have been smoked by Ben Ross, or Harriet Tubman even,'” Dr. Schablitsky said.
She was excited to share her discovery with the world — and with some individuals in particular: descendants of Harriet and Ben.
Ernestine Tina Martin Wyatt, the great, great, great grand-niece of Harriet Ross Tubman, and the great, great, great, great-granddaughter of Ben Ross, Sr., explains that when she was young, she and her grandmother would often visit Harriet.
“So, she knew her personally. She talked about her, but it wasn’t in the way that you all know her and that you’re putting her; she’s an icon and things like that,” she said. “We knew her just as Aunt Harriet, member of the family, did something nice for people, and that’s how we knew her.”
Douglas Mitchell is a descendant of one of Harriet’s four brothers and explains that he didn’t always know a lot about her lineage. But as he got older, he became interested in his legendary family member. He’s also been able to connect with other people in the Tubman/Ross family. “I’ve been able to track down a few family members that are living in various parts of the country and make contact with them,” he said.
Throughout Schablitsky’s digging, she’s kept in constant contact with Tina and Douglas. She sent updates and photos of her findings, which brought the family together and helped them to learn more about their ancestors. Douglas explains, saying, “It certainly adds depth and dimension to our family story, these tantalizing new facets of Harriet Tubman’s life.”
Ernestine Tina Martin Wyatt talks about Ben Ross and adds, “Seeing those artifacts, I was able to connect with him more, who he was as a person. I read about some things about him helping out on the underground railroad and the relationship between he and Aunt Harriet and the other siblings. But to actually see his things that he used, remnants of artifacts that he used on a daily basis, humanized him more for me.“
Although the findings are exciting and educational, they all also speak to the horrors of slavery. “Their days in slavery, their escape from slavery, their life living on the plantations or when Ben escapes, just off the plantation. I can only imagine that it must have been very, very, very difficult, “ Douglas said. “It just must have been terribly, terribly, terribly difficult to have been a slave and to have been afraid of being sold off to a new owner, to take the beatings you take, to take the abuse you take every day from the world’s worst boss.”
Luckily, Harriet and Ben’s family are able to use this moment to appreciate what they have in life. “Many of us will come home from work and maybe have complaints about our day,” Douglas said. “When in retrospect, relative to others like Harriet Tubman, our life is a cakewalk.”
It’s also been a way for the family to make new bonds with each other. Douglas explains, saying, “This discovery acts as a wonderful kind of bridge that spans the ages bringing together multiple generations of the Ross family members. Many of us would never have met before and have not met before, and doubtlessly never would have if it hadn’t been for this.”
According to Julie, the quest to learn even more from the site is a race against time, but also against climate change. “We want to know more,” she said. “We want to see what else is left in that space. Also, we have a problem because the sea level rise is causing the regular inundation of this site. So we don’t have a lot of time left to be able to rescue this story from this wetland.”
Lastly, for Douglas, finding Ben Ross and Harriet Tubman’s home serves as a powerful reminder to do one thing. “This is a one-word answer, remember. To learn, to grow, to understand, to comprehend, to connect with both the past and those who have passed on, such as Harriet and her father, and to connect with those still alive. If you don’t remember it, it doesn’t exist. What you don’t remember may as well not exist. So the answer is remember.”