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Walk in the Footsteps of Freedom Seekers in Maryland

Walk in the Footsteps of Freedom Seekers in Maryland

freedom seekers in Maryland

Besides bravery and stealth, legendary Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman had to know how to survive in nature, points out Angela Crenshaw, director of the Maryland Park Service. “As a young, enslaved girl, Harriet Tubman learned to navigate inhospitable terrain, mimic the sounds of birds, trap animals, and utilize plants for both medicine and food—the ultimate outdoorswoman,” she explains. 


It wasn’t until Crenshaw moved to the Eastern Shore and “started diving deep into Harriet Tubman’s life” that she realized that, despite her career as a park ranger, she still had a lot to learn about being an outdoorswoman. 

“Watching the sun set over her birthplace and spending so much time in that beautiful swampy area changed my outlook on Tubman and her life,” Crenshaw said. “I really have very little understanding of aspects of nature that she used to survive and to rescue her family and friends from the institution of American slavery.” 

Although Tubman never operated in Carroll, Frederick, and Washington counties—which make up today’s Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area—the role of these counties in the Underground Railroad was significant due to their shared border with Pennsylvania, a free state and destination for freedom seekers in Maryland. 

Neither underground nor a railroad, the Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved African Americans to escape into free states and Canada. Today, visitors can explore several Network to Freedom Underground Railroad sites in the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area that tell the stories of the courageous enslaved people who navigated nature to seek freedom. 

Catoctin Furnace

A young, enslaved Harriet Tubman honed her naturalist skills under her father’s tutelage while working the timber fields on the Eastern Shore. Her father, a highly respected timber foreman, assigned her to haul wood and drive a team of oxen. Along the way, he taught her to forage, read the landscape, and be comfortable outdoors.

In the Catoctin Mountains north of Frederick, the enslaved of the Catoctin Furnace were doing similar work—chopping trees and hauling them to a hulking furnace churning out pig iron. Today, the historic stone furnace serves as an open-air museum, alongside several iron workers’ houses and ruins of the iron master’s house. 

Catoctin Furnace in Thurmont, MD
Catoctin Furnace in Thurmont, MD. Photo Credit: Catoctin Furnace Historical Society

Exhibits at the site’s Museum of the Ironworker explain the process of making molten iron and document village life during the Furnace’s operation. In the center of the museum, forensic facial reconstructions of two enslaved iron workers buried in the site’s African American cemetery make a compelling display.

Walking the African American Cemetery Interpretive Trail immerses you in nature while educating you on the people who once lived and worked at the furnace. The path connects you to additional trails in the Cunningham Falls State Park, where you can boat and fish in Hunting Creek Lake or hike to the popular Cunningham Falls waterfall.

Cunningham Falls State Park
Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland. Photo Credit: Charissa Hipp

Freedom seekers who took flight through the nearby woods had absorbed naturalist skills while laboring, just as Tubman did. They knew the trees held secrets to help wanderers survive. As you hike, look for moss growing on the north sides of trunks that pointed the way to freedom or a dead trunk that could be camouflaged with dead branches to make a hiding hole. 

C&O Canal

Stretching along the Maryland shore of the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, the C&O Canal and its towpath appear repeatedly in the narratives of freedom seekers. For runaways from the deep south, crossing the Potomac was a milestone in a terrifying, exhausting journey.

Today, visitors to the C&O Canal National Historical Park can hike or cycle the 184.5-mile-long towpath lining the Potomac, much of which retains a landscape of forests and waterways that Tubman would have been familiar with.

Cyclists along a canal
Cyclists along the C&O Canal by Lockhouse 28 in Jefferson, Maryland. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Visit Frederick

There are now cleared trails for hikers wishing to journey off the towpath; freedom seekers in Maryland would have navigated treacherous terrain, thick underbrush, and swampy wetlands. Tubman’s experience in outdoor conditions made her an ideal guide. 

The canal is an excellent spot for bird watching. It is home to bald eagles, ospreys, and woodpeckers and is part of the Atlantic Flyway. During your visit, note the migratory patterns of the Park’s transient birds; freedom seekers could determine the direction they were traveling from these winged friends. 

While you are bird watching, pay attention to bird calls. Tubman is known to have used the barred owl’s call to signal it was safe to emerge from hiding, a sound that would have blended in with the forest cacophony if you weren’t listening for it. To help you decode bird songs, use the mobile app Merlin, which will identify each song it hears and tell you about the birds around you. 

Point of Rocks, Brunswick, Frederick, Williamsport, and Hancock are quaint towns that sprung up to support both canal and railroad commerce. Today, they’re part of the Canal Towns Partnership. Each destination is ready to welcome you into its unique shops and charming restaurants. In Williamsport, be sure to ride a canal boat over the Conococheague Aqueduct, a unique experience only available on the C&O Canal.

A canal boat on Cushwa Basin in Williamsport, MD. Photo Credit: Mark Crilley


Victoire Vincendière, whose family came to Frederick County from what would become Haiti, enslaved 90 men, women, and children on her Frederick County plantation, L’Hermitage, making her one of the largest slaveholders in the area. 

Today, part of the Monocacy National Battlefield, L’Hermitage (now the Best Farm) is a Network to Freedom site that features hiking trails and exhibits on the area’s substantial Civil War history.

A number of hiking trails will lead you through the forested and agrarian land on which the 1864 Battle of Monocacy was fought. Along the way, consider how nature can support human life when you know which plants and animals can be consumed. Tubman’s experience in the wilds of Dorchester County made her an expert in trapping animals and using plants as both food and medicine. The mobile app iNaturalist or a trusted guidebook can help you identify the flora and fauna you encounter on the trails.

Best Farm in Frederick, Maryland (formerly L’Hermitage). Photo Credit: Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area

Bordering the river that gave it its name, Monocacy National Battlefield is part of the 41.8-mile Monocacy Scenic River Water Trail, with a put-in for boats at Gambrill Mill. Water lovers can paddle the Monocacy River and toss in a fishing line to see what’s biting. 

Two of the three documented freedom seekers who escaped from L’Hermitage did so in November or December. Their choice to escape in the winter months was likely not an accident – Tubman also traveled when the longer nights allowed her to cover more ground undetected. Although the outcome of their flights is unknown, the two gentlemen very likely followed the Monocacy River north into Pennsylvania, using the river and the North Star as guides.

Tubman also had a maritime background, which prepared her to lead over 70 freedom seekers to freedom by celestial navigation. Monocacy National Battlefield, Catoctin Furnace, and the C&O Canal are among the places in the heritage least impacted by light pollution. Visitors can look for opportunities to take part in telescope programs and night hikes. The Junior Ranger Night Explorers program is an excellent way for children to learn about night navigation.

Frederick County By Erik Drost
Freedom seekers navigated the night sky in Frederick County, MD, to plan their escape north. Photo Credit: Erik Drost

Several other Heart of the Civil War Heritage sites share stories about Maryland’s role in slavery and the Underground Railroad, including Kennedy Farm, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and Antietam National Battlefield. As you visit these sites, enjoy their scenic beauty, but also take time to contemplate the legacy of slavery in our country as you walk in a freedom seeker’s footsteps.


This article is sponsored by the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area. Maryland’s Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area is Carroll, Frederick, and Washington Counties’ certified Heritage Area. We highlight the region’s historic places and diverse stories, welcoming visitors as they engage meaningfully with the past and make lifelong memories.

Feature Photo Credit: Courtesy of Visit Frederick

About the Author

Heidi Schlag

Heidi Glatfelter Schlag is a marketer, history lover, and traveler who can often be found exploring museums, parks, small towns, and farms. She founded Culture-Link Communications, where she helps local nonprofits and small businesses build their brands. Heidi lives in Frederick, MD, with her husband and two dogs.

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