BIG PICTURE: God Works in Mysterious Ways
This is the truism that will likely end up first and foremost in your mind on a visit to the little Bucktown Village Store, which stands at the countryside crossroads of Greenbrier, Bucktown, and Bestpitch Ferry roads in Dorchester County–near the farm where young Harriet Tubman lived back in the 1830s.
Have you heard the legend about the old-time bluesman Robert Johnson? He is the one who supposedly went down to a “Cross Road” where he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar like no one else. Sometimes I think of this crossroads in Bucktown as the other side of that coin, as the place where young Harriet Tubman found her God.
“I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul,” observed her friend Thomas Garrett, a famed Underground Railroad conductor in his own right. “She has frequently told me that she talked with God, and he talked with her, every day of her life.”
Faith is a topic of paramount importance in the story of Harriet Tubman. Hers was a faith of the up-close-and-visceral variety, full of intense visions and strange voices and even sudden lapses into unconsciousness. Asked later in life why she made this or that or another of the countless fortuitous decisions she made while leading her charges to freedom on the Underground Railroad, Tubman would invariably respond that it was God telling her what to do, every step of the way.
The story of what happened to young Harriet at the Bucktown store raises questions that are really unanswerable in the end. Were the visions Harriet saw and the voices she heeded really gifts from God? Or were they instead the result of an illness brought on by the brain injury she suffered at these crossroads? Were they, perhaps, a combination of both?
STORY: The Weight
The Bucktown Village Store isn’t all that much to look at, really. It’s small and squat, with plain weatherboard siding and a basic wood-shingled roof. But it still ranks as a rare, special survivor from Tubman’s time. Most buildings still standing from back then are glittery affairs—mansions, courthouses, and churches.
This store is different. It’s a tangible remnant of the day-to-day routine of people in Harriet’s time, a place where the squeaking of the floorboards can feel like an echo from the past. Some historians put the date on the building as 1860, so it might have been an earlier, similar building at these same crossroads that Harriet visited in the 1830s.
Her family had relocated to Bucktown from Peter’s Neck, a distance of about 10 miles, shortly after her birth. The story behind that move involves legal proceedings of mind-numbing complexity pitting Edward Brodess, the young owner of Harriet, her siblings, and her mother, against the older Anthony C. Thompson, the owner of Harriet’s father and a man who had served as the legal guardian for some Brodess family property while Edward was still a boy.
The move separated Harriet and her siblings from their father, at least in the day-to-day sense. Young Harriet found herself in situations that are hard for our modern-world minds to grasp—could she really have been serving long days at the age of five as the caretaker for younger siblings while her mother was working in the fields?
“It was late nights [be]for my mother’s git home,” she once said, “an’ when [one of the babies would] get [to] worryin’ I’d cut a fat chunk [of] pork an’ toast it on de coals an’ put it in his mouf. One night he went to sleep wid that hangin’, an’ when my mother came home she thought I’d done kill him.”
A few short years after that, she was being hired out to neighboring farms as a laborer. She was most likely between 10 and 12 years old on that day in the early 1830s when she and an enslaved cook ventured out to the Bucktown store to pick up some supplies.
There, young Harriet landed right in the middle of quite a ruckus. A slave had run off his post on a nearby farm. An overseer was in hot pursuit and caught up with that slave at the store. The overseer then asked Harriet and several others for help in tying the slave down.
Harriet refused—as far as we know, that was her first public act of defiance against the powers of slavery. That slave managed to wriggle free and make a run for the door of the store. The overseer picked up a two-pound metal weight and threw it at the fleeing man. He missed his target. The weight struck Harriet square in the head.
Later, in telling this story, Harriet would recall how she had been assigned in the days around that event to the dirty job of breaking flax in the field. She hadn’t combed her hair in forever. It stood out “like a bushel basket.” It was her embarrassment about the state of her hair that led her to cover her head with a shawl before going to the Bucktown store that day.
“I expect that thar hair saved my life,” she said later.
The weight crashed through her skull, driving pieces of the shawl deep into her head. By all accounts, she very nearly died. She was mostly worthless as a laborer for a period of recovery that stretched into years. Brodess tried to sell Harriet during this period, but no one else wanted such a small, sickly girl.
Tubman was never the same after that injury. She did gain the full measure of her strength and health back, but it was her mind that changed forever. She developed a strange sleeping sickness, dropping off at quite unpredictable times. Friends and acquaintances throughout her long life would marvel over the way Harriet would nod off in mid-conversation, then snap out of it a few minutes later and finish off a thought or a sentence as if no time at all had passed.
Vivid dreams and strange visions flooded her mind after what happened in the Bucktown store. She started to hear strange voices as well. To Tubman, these things all amounted to God’s presence in her heart and head. On the Underground Railroad, she often followed paths and strategies laid out in accord with those visions and voices.
Historians and medical scientists have a pretty good explanation for this seemingly strange turn of events. The dreams, the voices, the sleeping sickness—they all point to a medical condition called temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), which can be caused by the kind of trauma to the head that Tubman endured.
The best and most detailed account of this TLE business is in Kate Larson’s wonderful book, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. It’s a nifty bit of detective work she serves up, but it still leaves unanswered the deeper questions raised by the role that voices and visions played in Tubman’s life.
For Harriet, those voices and visions were the manifestation of a faith that was a wondrous force in her life, delivering in one moment of need after another the strength and wisdom and trickery and good luck and financial assistance that she had asked God to deliver. Whether or not the experts are right to give her a retrospective diagnosis of TLE, that doesn’t really change the way a visit to this crossroads in Bucktown is likely to leave you thinking about the fact that God really does work in mysterious ways.
TESTIMONY: The Lord is never mistaken.
On one of her last missions on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman set out to rescue her parents from their cabin on Poplar Neck, in Caroline County. As she was preparing for that trip, she receieved instructions from God about where she should go in order to find the money she would need to execute her plan.
Here is how Tubman’s biographer, Sarah Bradford, describes what happened next:
When she received an intimation in some mysterious or supernatural way that the old people were in trouble and needed her, she asked the Lord where she should go for the money to enable her to go for them.
She was in some way, as she supposed, directed to the office of a certain gentleman, a friend of the slaves, in New York. When she left the house of the friends with whom she was staying, she said: “I’m gwine to Mr. ———’s office, an’ I ain’t gwine to lebe dere, an’ I ain’t gwine to eat or drink, till I get money enough to take me down after de ole people.”
She went into this gentleman’s office.
“How do you do, Harriet? What do you want?” was the first greeting.
“I want some money, sir.”
“You do! How much do you want?”
“I want twenty dollars, sir!”
“Twenty dollars! Who told you to come here for twenty dollars!”
“De Lord tole me, sir.”
“He did; well I guess the Lord’s mistaken this time.”
“No, sir; de Lord’s nebber mistaken! Anyhow I’m gwine to sit here till I get it.”
So she sat down and went to sleep. All the morning, and all the afternoon, she sat there still; sometimes sleeping, sometimes rousing up, often finding the office full of gentlemen; sometimes finding herself alone. Many fugitives were passing through New York at this time, and those who came in supposed her to be one of them, tired out, and resting.
Sometimes she would be roused up with the words: “Come, Harriet! You had better go; there’s no money for you here.”
“No, sir; I’m not gwine to stir from here till I git my twenty dollars!”
She does not know all that happened, for deep sleep fell upon her; probably one of the turns of somnolency to which she has always been subject; but without doubt her story was whispered from one to another, and as her name and exploits were well known to many persons, the sympathies of some of those visitors to the office were aroused; at all events she came to full consciousness, at last, to find herself the happy possessor of sixty dollars, the contribution of these strangers.
She went on her way rejoicing to bring her old parents from the land of bondage.
–Posted on Jan. 17, 2017. Written by Jim Duffy. Copyright 2017, Secrets of the Eastern Shore. All rights reserved.
• NOTE #1: This is the second in the series of “Tubman Tales” I’m working on. You can read the first tale, about the famed Christmas Escape of 1854, here. If you want to keep up with this series, please sign up to get the monthly Secrets newsletter in the box at the top of this page. Also, I would really appreciate hearing any feedback you have about this project! You can chime in where it says “Leave a Comment” at the bottom of this page.
NOTE #2: The Bucktown Village Store, 4303 Bucktown Road in Cambridge, is owned by Jay and Susan Meredith, a local couple with deep roots in the area and a bottomless dedication to preserving our local stories. As of this writing, the store is open for guided visits only by appointment (410.901.9255) or chance. If you do make an appointment, please do me a favor and be as generous as you can at the donation box–Jay and Susan have set up a nonprofit to help preserve this building and tell the stories of its connections to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
NOTE #3: If you would like to get a map and guide to the “Harriet Tubman Byway” on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, contact the Dorchester County Tourism Department, 410.228.1000 or info@VisitDorchester.org. If you haven’t heard yet, there is a big new museum-style Harriet Tubman Visitors Center that will be opening up in the countryside outside of Cambridge in March 2017.
NOTE #4: I would like to personally thank historian Kate Clifford Larson for making a comment below alerting me to a careless mistake that I made in mixing up the name of the owner of Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross. That has been now been corrected in this draft. Ms. Larson is the author of the best and most authoritative of the Tubman biographies, Bound for the Promised Land. You can find it here on Amazon.