A Historical Dig Sheds Light on the Food of the Underground Railroad

ON NOVEMBER 4, 1857, A notice appeared in the Cambridge Democrat, the local newspaper of Cambridge, Maryland. Submitted by one Dr. Alexander Hamilton Bayly, it offered a $300 reward for anyone who could locate and kidnap a 28-year-old woman named Lizzie Amby, whom Bayly had enslaved. She had fled Bayly’s house some days before, bound north, along with her husband, Nat; a bag of possessions; and Nat’s knife and pistol. The Ambys were just two members of a group of 16 who took part in that journey, led by the abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, who had herself fled Dorchester County to claim her freedom in 1849.

“That was a time when the Underground Railroad was on fire,” says archaeologist Julie M. Schablitsky, Chief of the Cultural Resources Division at the Maryland Department of Transportation. MDOT oversees several state historical sites, including the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a driving tour of significant sites related to Tubman. “People were leaving Cambridge by the dozens.” That strong connection to the Underground Railroad has earned Dorchester County, where Cambridge is located, the designation “Harriet Tubman Country.”

The house Amby escaped from still stands on a residential street a few miles from the Choptank River. In the 1800s, the plot was home to a garden, some livestock, and a handful of people, like Lizzie, whom Bayly enslaved. The house was owned by the Bayly family until 2003. Now, in the hands of a new owner, it is neatly maintained, painted yellowish-cream, with dainty shutters and a front porch frilly as a wedding cake. Its gentility is a haunting contrast to the reality that it was built from the forced labor of Black Americans.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Featured image: Harriet Tubman, Public Domain.