Interpreting Harriet Tubman’s Life on a Silent Landscape

By Special Contributor posted 10-13-2017 10:28


By Anne Kyle

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Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822, Harriet Tubman made the fateful decision to escape when she was about to be sold at auction in 1849. Traveling by night and hiding by day, she traversed open fields, rivers, marshes, and woodlands. Leaving Maryland, she headed north through Delaware, eventually reaching freedom in Philadelphia.

Tubman soon realized that she didn’t feel free without her loved ones close by. Pained by their separation, she returned to Maryland’s Eastern Shore about 13 times to rescue family members and friends. Tracked by slave catchers, Tubman risked her life to selflessly help more than 70 enslaved people find freedom.

Harriet Tubman, a petite, enslaved, and disabled woman who never learned to read or write overcame tremendous odds to escape oppression. She symbolizes freedom, courage, and self-determination and is near universally inspirational, and her story of hope and overcoming deserved recognition. For decades, visitors have traveled hundreds of miles to find Tubman’s homeland and kiss the ground in a sort of spiritual pilgrimage. Seeking a physical space in which to connect with their personal hero, visitors left wanting more. Inquiries about visiting and experiencing Tubman’s story flooded tourism offices.

Looking back to Choptank Bridge from Poplar Neck | Credit: Harriet Tubman Byway

The rural Eastern Shore of Maryland offered untapped potential to create a visitor experience around Tubman’s legacy. But the events that happened there had been hidden, and the landscape that witnessed the atrocities of slavery is silent.

The landscape did present an opportunity: it has few contemporary intrusions and looks much like it did in the 19th century. The untamed countryside evokes Tubman’s life experiences. Vast marshes, woodlands, fields, wide meandering tidal rivers, and other waterways provide a glimpse into the conditions of Tubman’s life working on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore. On the other hand, little remained of the historic built environment, which presented a challenge to interpreting its history.

View from the Harriet Tubman Byway. | Credit: Harriet Tubman Byway

Creating the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway

Grassroots interest from the local Harriet Tubman Organization, state and local agencies, and nongovernment organizations led to the creation of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway in 2000 as a state scenic byway. It became a federally designated byway as an All-American Road in 2008. The first step was documenting Underground Railroad history in order to present an accurate, authentic story.

Research by Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, served as the basis for tying stories of escape to specific places. Larson and others searched archives and courthouses for chattel records, wills, land records, court records, slave sales, runaway ads, letters, and reward notices. William Still’s journal from his time as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, which he published in 1872, provided more clues to unlocking the mystery. Sites were nominated to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom Program in recognition of their authenticity. Once Underground Railroad sites were located, state and local planners connected them together in a 125-mile driving tour, approximating a route that Tubman took northward to find freedom.


Local resident and community involvement was key to successfully planning the visitor experience. State officials organized the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Working Group, which included local citizens and Tubman family representatives. Since many of the sites were on private property, local governments needed easements for interpretive markers or landowner permissions for public access, so the corridor management plan included public and stakeholder input meetings. Then the route was nominated and recognized as a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road.

Bringing the Story to Life

A menu of interpretive media now offers layers of storytelling. Developing a printed byway guide and map was the first step in giving voice to the landscape’s hidden stories. The guide also helps visitors navigate between sites and provides information on visitor services and nearby recreational activities.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, which opened in March 2017, orients visitors to historic sites along the byway and engages them in Tubman’s life story. Programs and tours that the private sector has added to byway sites facilitate an interactive immersion in the landscape.

Totem-shaped byway interpretive markers designate key sites and serve byway travelers’ wayfinding needs. They also function as place-based interpretation, informing local residents and visitors about the sites’ significance. The panels provide orientation to the entire byway, connections to other sites and stories, and photos and images to help illustrate them.

 One of the markers on the byway route. | Credit: Harriet Tubman Byway

Telling the story digitally is critical to reaching a broad audience, and digital interpretation also allows for greater creativity and dramatic presentation. The byway website not only promotes the Tubman experience but it also includes an interactive map with historic information about each site, which can be used for trip planning. A promotional video entices guests with both stunning landscapes and footage of visitors enjoying fun, recreational activities.

But the most powerful and emotionally evocative interpretation is delivered through the audio tour and mobile app. The tour includes dramatic portrayals of historic events, sound effects, music, interviews, and narration, all of which give voice to the landscapes. 

Preparing the Community

Preparing the community to host visitors and provide tour and visitor services was an important ingredient in our success. Once the interpretive product and visitor experience were ready, it was time to prepare community residents and business owners for the influx of visitors.

The Maryland Office of Tourism provide Certified Byway Host Training wherein visitor service business owners and employees learn about Tubman history, the byway, customer service, and more in order to most effectively promote the byway. The goal is to create outstanding visits marked by welcoming and informed interactions with the community. Businesses also benefit, seeing increased visitation and sales.

The Maryland Office of Tourism also offered tour guide training. Local residents learned about Tubman and gained skills in leading programs so they could develop tours for their own sites or start their own tour guide businesses.

Looking Ahead and Building Success

Byway managers plan to develop an augmented reality mobile app that can be triggered by GPS or activated by scanning a graphic on location. As a user looks at the landscape through their smartphone camera, the app will overlay sketches, animations, or video of historic scenes. These visuals will present historic events onsite, enhancing visitors’ ability to imagine them.

There is visitor demand for guided group tours, which can be executed by step-on guides. Some historic sites would also benefit from guided tour services. Businesses, nonprofit organizations, or historical societies can fill this need by developing and marketing tours.

An oral history course at the historic site. | Credit: Harriet Tubman Byway

Through careful planning, public and community involvement, and creative interpretation, hidden stories have been brought to life on the landscape, and Harriet Tubman has gained renewed national recognition.

By researching and documenting history, you too can create dramatic, memorable media and interpretations that evoke emotion and cultivate reverence for special places. By creatively interpreting the past, we can inspire people to steward historic sites and reflect on their contemporary meanings. 

Anne Kyle is the product development manager for Maryland Office of Tourism Development. She worked on an interagency team to develop interpretation for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, Maryland.


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