Above: Delores St. Armand as Harriet Tubman at 1978 National Portrait Gallery exhibit “Portraits in Motion.” Map courtesy Seaford Museum.
Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) made no less than 19 trips to the south between 1850 and 1860, freeing 300 slaves during that fruitful decade. None were ever recaptured.
Between 1852 and 1857 Tubman only conducted two escapes. Her activities had aroused the wrath of slaveholders, who put a bounty on her capture, dead or alive.
In October 1856, she organized what is considered by Tubman scholars to be “one of her most complicated and clever escape attempts.” Working at the request of a fiancé who had escaped to Canada eight years prior, Tubman located a slave named Tilly in Baltimore. Tilly learned that her master intended to have her marry another of his slaves, and this pressed her to make her break.
Tubman knew she couldn’t bring a black woman from Baltimore to Philadelphia without paying a bond of $500 or producing a certificate of freedom of some sort. She had neither.
Harriet Tubman was not a person to be deterred by such obstacles. “Whatever I found to do,” she said years later in an 1897 interview, “I swung my shoulder to the wheel and carried it out.” Her abolitionist friends fondly referred to her as General Tubman.
Tubman decided she and Tilly would travel on the sidewheeler steamboat ‘Kent’ to Seaford, first sailing 40 miles south down the Chesapeake Bay, then up the Nanticoke River. But when they went to board the boat in Baltimore, the clerk eyed the two suspiciously, and said “You just stand aside, you two; I’ll attend to your case bye and bye.”
Tubman knelt down off in a corner, away from the line. “Oh Lord! You’ve been with me in six troubles,” Tubman prayed, “don’t desert me in the seventh!” The Tilly escape was her seventh trip. Tubman fervently repeated her prayer three or four times.
At length the clerk came over, and touched Tubman on the shoulder (Tilly thought that was it, they’d be taken away now). But instead he said “You can come now and get your tickets.” They passed their first hurdle.
Tilly was astonished that Tubman’s prayer paid off. What changed the clerk’s mind? “Don’t I tell you, Missus, ‘twasn’t me, ‘twas the Lord!” Tubman said to Tilly (as reported to her biographer Sarah H. Bradford decades later). “Just so long as he wanted to use me, he would take care of me, and when he didn’t want me no longer, I was ready to go; I always told him, I’m going to hold steady on to you, and you’ve got to see me through.”
Modern historians suggest that Tubman was able to get the certifying letter from the Kent’s captain because Tubman was carrying a similar letter from a steamboat captain in Philadelphia identifying her as a free black woman. That letter is what had allowed her to travel to Baltimore. The two captains knew each other.
When the steamboat landed, most likely at Seaford’s present-day Riverwalk, Tubman and Tilly “boldly went to the Hotel & called for supper and lodging,” according to a letter detailing the escape sent by Thomas Garrett to British underground railroad supporter Eliza Wigham. Wilmington-based Garrett had been raising money for Tubman and helping her any way he could since 1845.
Slave traders had been tracking Tilly and Tubman, eager to collect the $40,000 reward offered for apprehending Tubman, and they nearly arrested the two the following morning. Accounts note that the hotel landlord intervened on behalf of the women.
Tubman and Tilly walked 8 miles to Bridgeville, where they caught a train to Camden. William Brinkley, who’d befriended Tubman earlier, transported them by carriage fifty miles to Wilmington. There, Thomas Garrett gave Tubman $25 that Eliza Wigham had sent to back Tubman’s efforts. Tubman and Tilly both needed new shoes, so the funding was timely.
Tilly reunited with her fiance in Philadelphia, probably in the office of William Still, an underground operator.
“In point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-men, by making personal visits to Maryland among the slaves, she was without equal,” said Still of Tubman.
Tilly’s story is the only documented escape led by Harriet Tubman at the headwaters of the Nanticoke, which border her home county of Dorchester, Maryland. The Tilly escape site was included in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom by the National Park Service in September 2013.