Be sure to include Auburn in your summer travel plans to visit the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park. Located on State Route 34/South Street, HT-NHP is the former homestead of Harriet Tubman Davis, the remarkably courageous 19th century African American freedom-fighter. Tubman’s multifaceted life story is one of great historical significance for many reasons.
She is internationally renowned for having selflessly risked her life on numerous occasions to lead African Americans out of Southern enslavement during the decade leading up to the American Civil War (1861-1865). What most people probably don’t know about Tubman were her various wartime roles in service to the Union army; one of which was as an undercover spy employing unique tactical skills previously honed as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad (1780-1862) was a covert support network of safe houses and businesses working in tandem with both black and white abolitionists. Using a variety of coded communications, African American freedom-seekers—often hiding in plain sight—found their way from Southern slave-holding states to Northern free states where enslavement was illegal. Typically travelling in spring or fall when nights were longer, “conductors” led them on treacherous journeys covering hundreds of miles on foot or by boat through unfamiliar landscapes and waterways under the cover of darkness, guided by the stars. At “stations” or “depots” along the way, they were given new clothes, food to eat and a hiding place to rest during the day.
Upon reaching their destination—usually a large city, such as Philadelphia, New York or Boston—vigilance committees helped them get settled with lodging, food and money, and provided letters of recommendation to find work. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act forced resettled African Americans to flee yet again; the Underground Railroad redirected freedom-seekers through the state of New York along major waterways to Canada to avoid capture by rabid bounty hunters.
The HT-NHP Visitor Center houses a fascinating interpretive exhibit featuring descriptive text illustrated with historical images. A timeline wall provides a thorough orientation to the adjacent walls and free-standing panels that contextualize and articulate Tubman’s core values: family and community, abolition and freedom, church and stewardship, suffrage and civil rights, and much more. Born in 1822, Harriet Tubman successfully escaped in 1849 from enslavement in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. After two years, she decided to join the underground freedom fighters.
Called the “Moses of her People,” Tubman made 13 arduous trips, personally rescuing 70 enslaved family and friends, and providing instructions for over 50 others, with St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada as their ultimate destination. She led her final run in November of 1860. When the Civil War broke out, Tubman joined the Union army as a cook and a nurse. Eventually working incognita as a spy within enemy territory, she laid the groundwork for the Union raid she led on three plantations that freed 700 enslaved African Americans.
In 1859, fellow abolitionist US senator William Seward (later US Secretary of State), whose Auburn residence now operates as Seward House Museum, offered Tubman a seven acre farm property that she eventually bought from the Seward family. In the 1890s she purchased an adjacent 25-acre property at auction to fulfill her dream of creating a retirement home for the elderly in need of health care facilities.
The 32-acre HT-NHP was renamed in January 2017 to reflect the new operational and visitor services partnership between the National Park Service and The Harriet Tubman Home, Inc.—a non-profit founded in the 1890s by Tubman with the Thompson Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. According to Reverend Paul Gordon Carter, HT-NHP’s site manager and excellent tour guide, the NPS currently provides a park ranger for one of the three daily public tours (Tuesday–Saturday: 10am, 12pm, 2pm; closed on Sunday and Monday). Tours begin with a 15-minute orientation in the Visitor Center before heading outside for a tour of the furnished Tubman Home for the Aged. The Tubman Residence is currently undergoing a $1.7 million restoration scheduled for completion in a few years. Tubman’s house of worship can be visited (exterior only) and her grave is located in Fort Hill Cemetery.