Harriet Tubman's Owl Call That Led to Freedom
Updated: Feb 9
The landscape of Piscataway Park is fruitful with trees, marshy areas, shaded foliage, and a strong river. It's also home to many animals of the land and air—all elements describing the routes that Harriet Tubman traversed during her quest for freedom.
This Black History Month, we wanted to highlight the link between this landscape of Piscataway Park and the one that Harriet Tubman traversed. While she likely never led enslaved people from the Piscataway lands to freedom, we do know there were similarities in the environment and animals.
Born a slave around 1822—making this year the bicentennial of her birth—on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Araminta Ross, later known as Harriet Tubman, was an American abolitionist and political activist. She escaped and made some 13 missions to rescue roughly 70 enslaved people through the Underground Railroad, a network of antislavery activists and safe houses.
She was also a naturalist, known for using an owl call to guide her family and others in their escape from slavery.
Much of her early life was spent in nature, in landscapes like ours in Piscataway Park: wetlands, meadows, and woodland areas. There she developed skills that helped in her quest for freedom.
Working in timber fields, Tubman learned how to be comfortable in the woods, how to read the landscape, and became familiar with the sounds of nature. Those sounds became signals to those escaping and their allies on the Underground Railroad to know when it was or wasn't safe to come out of hiding.
Kate Clifford Larson, a historian at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, Maryland, wrote the biography "Bound for the Promised Land." Larson highlights that Tubman used calls from the Barred Owl, or "hoot-owl," because it would blend in with the sounds of the night and not raise suspicion. Below is a video clip of barred owls, if you have never heard their call.
Harriet Tubman used her skills and knowledge of the land for her mission. Visitors have the opportunity to come to Piscataway Park and embrace the landscape and sounds of nature throughout the year. Perhaps on your next visit, as you explore the trails, you can remember the bravery of Harriet Tubman and those who ran to freedom. If you listen closely, you just may hear the calls she heard and used centuries ago.