by guest contributor Barbara Joy Cooley
My friend Yvonne Hill recently convinced Sanibel’s Island Cinema to show the movie “Harriet.” This superb movie is full of riveting moments and inspiring drama. The setting for much of the action was a land that is much like parts of the western half of Sanibel: mostly flat, interspersed with brackish tidal waters and marshy woodlands.
How did Harriet Tubman survive, traveling through that tough wilderness, I wondered? The movie, wonderful as it is, does not really cover this subject.
Even on a small, 3.5-acre tract of upland and lowland wetland woods that my husband and I once owned on Sanibel, we would become disoriented as we wandered through the dense foliage. What kept us from becoming completely lost was the sound of traffic on Sanibel-Captiva Road.
But Harriet had no traffic noise to orient her. Instead, she relied upon her knowledge of nature.
The place where she was enslaved as a child is now in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of Maryland. The area was infested with mosquitoes, just like Sanibel was, back in the 19th Century.
Harriet’s father was a lumberjack who passed along his knowledge of the woods to her. He taught her how to navigate by the stars, and how to find fresh water. He showed her how moss grows on the north side of trees and other plants. Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson said that “While the woods were rich with resources like sassafras, black cherry, and paw-paw, not everything was safe to eat. One of the [Underground Railroad] conductor’s chief duties was finding nourishment – those slaves who didn’t have the benefit of a conductor were on their own. One slave recalled wandering through the woods all day eating acorns.”
The movie showed the free Harriet working as a housekeeper, performing tasks like making beds, but an NPR article states that she was also a professional cook. She used her job to help fund her travels into the south to free people from slavery. In fact, her mother had been a cook as well.
Many times the Underground Railroad expeditions had to be conducted in December, before enslaved people were to be sold off at the end of the year. Foraging was more difficult in the winter up north. (It would have been easier in Sanibel’s marshy woods and wetlands at that time of year!) Some food was left by Quakers and other abolitionists in sacks hidden in hollow trees, and consisted of basics like hardtack biscuits. Harriet was resourceful and could provide fresh food even in winter; for example, she could kill muskrats with her bare hands. For some reason, that was not in the movie.
The movie does spectacularly show Tubman leading an armed expedition during the Civil War. But she had other jobs, too, during the war time that she spent in Beaufort. One of them was selling food that she made to Union soldiers.
After the war, Harriet started the first nursing home for elderly African Americans. Next door to that nursing home in Auburn, NY, she lived simply, and ate food that she grew in her own garden. By the way, the land where she lived in Auburn until her death in 1913 was sold to her by then Senator Seward, in 1859. At that time, black people were denied the right to own land in this part of Florida and in many other parts of the country.
Harriet lived to be 91. I wish she had been able to write a cookbook, one that would teach us all how to be strong, stay strong, and have the faith to lead others.