‘Love Stories at Buttons Creek’ is an excerpt from my book, Tubman Travels: 32 Underground Railroad Journeys on Delmarva. It’s the second of three chapters in the book devoted to one of the most famous of the escapes engineered by conductor Harriet Tubman. Each chapter in the book is a self-contained story that’s linked to a place you can visit today in Delaware or on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but the stories are also perfectly fit for armchair reading in the comfort of your home.
BIG PICTURE: Hopeless in Love
Back in Harriet Tubman’s day, there was a farm along Buttons Creek in Dorchester County, Md. that was home to an enslaved woman named Jane Kane. The twists and turns in the story of her escape from bondage match the meandering course of the creek, which is what makes this pull-off near the mouth of the creek a perfect place to stop and think about how complicated matters of love and marriage could get in slavery times.
At the age of 22, Jane was in love with a guy named Ben. He was a slave, too, but he had a different owner and lived on a different farm. Their prospects for a happy life together were pretty dim. Jane belonged to a cruel man named Horatio Jones. He had once beaten her so mercilessly that blood poured as if from a faucet from both her mouth and her nose. On another occasion, he had whipped Jane’s brother to the point where his back looked like a side of raw beef.
As Jane’s owner, Jones had the power to decide whom she could marry. When it came to Ben, he said no. If he bothered to give Jane a reason for this refusal, it has not been recorded in history books. But a bit of educated guesswork might get us in the neighborhood of the way Jones’s mind was working.
Slavery was a matrilineal affair, with legal rights to the ownership of newborn children passing through the mother and having nothing at all to do with the father. Slave owners like Jones often took a keen interest in the love lives of their female slaves during childbearing years. There seems to have been a whole pseudoscience popular with his set about which body types in a father should be matched with which types in a mother so as to generate children who would grow up into the strongest possible laborers and fetch the highest possible price tags.
Jones might also have regarded Ben as a risky character who might sweet talk Jane into running away. Ben had tried to run off once before, after all, though he had returned voluntarily out of fear of getting caught. There was also the matter of his sister, who had run off without returning. Her name was Harriet Tubman.
I haven’t come across any reports that Ben was ever beaten the way Jane and her brother were, but his situation at the end of 1854 was pretty hopeless as well. He was owned by Eliza Brodess, a widow who had inherited Ben and his siblings after the death of her husband five years before. Eliza now found herself mired in financial difficulties, and the solution she devised involved cashing in on Ben and two of his brothers.
In a newspaper ad that December, Brodess announced that Ben, Robert, and Henry Ross would be going up on the slave auction block in Cambridge on the day after Christmas.
STORY: Love Stories at Buttons Creek
That newspaper ad was a terrible blow for Ben’s brother Robert, too. He was already married. He and his wife, Mary, had two young sons, John and Moses. A third child was on the way. Few stories along the Underground Railroad are as heart-wrenching as what Robert and Mary endured on the night before Harriet Tubman led her brothers on a run for freedom.
By this point, Harriet Tubman was living in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, just across the Canadian border from Buffalo, New York. There is some speculation among historians that she was already at work on plans to rescue her brothers when she received word through the Underground Railroad grapevine that they were about to go up on the auction block. Now there was no time to spare. She arranged for a coded message to be sent in a letter to a free black friend, Jacob Jackson. Jackson then alerted the three Ross brothers that their sister was on the way, and that they should be ready to get on board “the good old ship of Zion.”
When Tubman arrived in the area, she sent word along that grapevine about the place and time for a rendezvous. Robert would end up being late to that gathering, but for good reason. His wife, Mary, had gone into labor with their third child. First, he had to find a midwife for her. Then he decided to wait and make sure everything went all right with the delivery. After that, he still had a world of trouble trying to tear himself away from her bedside, and from his new daughter. He and Mary agreed to name that baby Harriet.
All we have from their time together that night is a snippet of conversation recorded years after the fact by Harriet Tubman’s biographer, Sarah Bradford. Mary sensed a restlessness in her husband. She grew worried that he was going to run off.
What was in her mind in this moment? Could she have been unaware that Robert was about to go up on the auction block? Was she gambling on the chance that a local buyer might scoop her husband up, allowing them to remain together? Or was she simply so consumed by the emotions of giving birth that she couldn’t get her head around the sheer impossibility of her husband’s predicament—that he could either run today or be sold the day after tomorrow. He would almost certainly be gone either way.
“Where are you going?” Mary asked.
Robert made up a weak story about hiring himself out as a laborer the next day. With the Christmas holiday at hand, no farmers in the area would be doing any last-minute hiring. He walked out after telling that fib, but he came back into the cabin at the sound of his wife’s tears. Mary saw that he remained as restless as ever.
“Oh [Robert]! You’re going to leave me! But wherever you go, remember me and the children.”
He left again, this time for good. I find it impossible to imagine what might have been going on in his heart as he made his way through a driving rain storm, desperately trying to catch up with his sister and brothers before they departed Poplar Neck, where his parents had a one-room cabin.
Robert’s love affair with Mary may have been ending that night, but another affair would move forward into freedom at the same time. After getting word that his sister Harriet was coming, Ben Ross set about bringing Jane Kane along on his run to freedom. He knew that it would be no easy feat for Jane to just up and walk away from property owned by a master as strict as Horatio Jones, so he set Jane up with a gender-bending disguise, arranging to have a new suit of men’s clothes hidden somewhere in a garden on the Jones farm.
The morning of Christmas Eve, Jane sneaked down to the garden and donned that change of clothes. Almost immediately, the news that she was missing spread through the farm, but no one on the lookout for her that day caught on to the fact that the well-dressed young man who came strolling up from Buttons Creek and then walked right past the farm might be anything other than he appeared to be.
POSTSCRIPT: The End of the Affairs
Jane Kane and Ben Ross did find a measure of happily ever after in freedom, but it was short-lived. They were married in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, where they took the adopted names of James and Catherine Stewart. They had a son, Elijah, and a daughter, Hester. Ben/James died young, however, in 1862 or 1863. Jane/Catherine would move to upstate New York, eventually, where she would remarry and have a third child before becoming a widow for a second time. In the census of 1870, she was described as a “servant.”
The night their little Harriet was born was probably the last time Robert and Mary ever saw each other. A couple of historians have speculated that Mary and her children were the targets of a later Tubman rescue mission, but by that point Mary had been moved to another farm in another town. She had remarried by this point as well, and she was pregnant again.
I haven’t come across any definitive account of what became of the infant Harriet, but I can say that Robert kept the promise he made to Mary on the night he left, that he would remember their children. After the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, their boys John and Moses found themselves trapped in a complicated apprenticeship program that had been rejiggered by a white farmer back in Maryland to work pretty much like slavery did, only without the name.
Once he got wind of this, Robert (who took the name John Stewart in freedom) called on an old friend for help. That friend, John Bowley, liberated the boys from that farm and helped them make it up to Auburn, New York, where they were reunited with their father.
TESTIMONY: ‘Why Does the Slave Ever Love?’
Harriet Jacobs wrote one of the most dramatic slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The book details her odyssey through a sexual harassment ordeal at the hands of a depraved, obsessive master and into an astonishing stretch of seven years spent hiding from him in a cramped attic while waiting for the chance to flee her native North Carolina. At one point in the book, she looks back with great sadness at the adolescent memory of the first genuine inkling of love she ever felt toward a young boy.
“Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence? When separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in resignation, and say, “Not my will, but thine be done, O Lord!” But when the ruthless hand of man strikes the blow, regardless of the misery he causes, it is hard to be submissive. I did not reason thus when I was a young girl. Youth will be youth. I loved and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate.”
Jacobs found her way to freedom eventually and lived to the age of 83. The inscription on her headstone at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts says, “Patient in tribulation, fervent in spirit serving the Lord.”
–written by Jim Duffy; posted on June 29, 2018
–Copyright 2018 Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
This is an excerpt Tubman Travels: 32 Underground Railroad Journeys on Delmarva. Learn more about the book, including where to buy a copy, here.
NOTES: Travel Info & Resources
(1) I have split the famed Christmas Escape into three parts. The first part is in Chapter 5. The second part is this chapter. The third part is in Chapter 14. Also, long before he rescued Robert Ross’s children after the Civil War, John Bowley had joined forces with Harriet Tubman to rescue his wife, Kessiah, and their children from the auction block in Cambridge. That story is in Chapter 2.
(2) Information about things to do and places to go in and around Dorchester County is available from Dorchester County Tourism.
• Dorchester Visitor Center, 2 Rose Hill Place, Cambridge, Maryland
(3) The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway runs through both Dorchester and Caroline counties in Maryland and then on into Delaware.
• Delaware: TubmanBywayDelaware.org