I’D kayaked about a mile up the Transquaking River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore before Susan Meredith told me she was a native American.
“Yup. Chippewa Wicomico on my mother’s side. Everyone thinks that just because I’m blonde...” she laughs.
She loves this job, she says, guiding people on the backwaters of the small slow-flowing rivers that meander west into the Chesapeake Bay, pointing out the turtles basking in the sun on fallen logs or the bald eagles soaring across the blue sky. And because she’s so good at it, and because it’s a paradisical early autumn morning, I ask her if there’s any downside to it, because as I paddle slowly behind her, I can’t think of one.
She thinks hard, as if no-one has ever asked her that. “Once or twice, really not often at all, you get people coming into the store, African Americans from outside the state, and they say ‘What are you doing here? This should be an African-American place. It shouldn’t be run by whites.’ And I find that upsetting, and I tell them it’s not as though the Nanticoke tribe had it easy, and that back in the day we often helped them escape. But those days are long gone. If you really want to do something about slavery now, I tell them, make a donation to those charities that stop women trafficking.”
The store she’s talking about is a yellow-painted clapboard building on a quiet country road a dozen miles south of the East Shore town of Cambridge. The Merediths – her husband is related to George Washington’s wife Martha and they have owned the place for four generations – keep the kayaks around the back. Although they’re planning to refurbish the store, right now it’s easy to imagine it as it might have been nearly two centuries ago. It’s dusty, unpainted, its shelves filled with bric-a-brac that is not for sale. It’s no longer used as a shop, just a place where kayakers wait for Susan to take them to the river. It’s not a museum, though that may be what the out-of-state African Americans expected it to be.
Why? Because of Harriet Tubman. You mightn’t have heard of her, but she is an increasingly famous figure in African-American history. Tubman was a teenage slave in the store the Merediths now run when, one day in 1835, an overseer told her to help him arrest another slave. She refused, and he threw a 2lb weight at her, catching Tubman on the temple and nearly killing her. It was her first act of defiance, though there would be many more.
In 1849, Tubman escaped to freedom in Philadelphia. But she kept coming back to rescue her family and friends from slavery, guiding them to safety with the help of a secret network of sympathisers, both white and black, known as “the Underground Railway”. In all, she returned 13 times, at enormous personal risk. In the Civil War she became the first woman to lead a Union raid in an attack on South Carolina plantations that freed a further 750 slaves. She was known as the Moses of her people by the time she died on 10 March 1913.There have been a couple of films about her, but it was only when some people in nearby Cambridge started a historical discussion group about her ten years ago that her legacy was properly acknowledged. Today, there’s a 125-mile tourist trail, a state national park, visitor centre and museum devoted to her.
There are so many things to do and see in Annapolis and Maryland’s Eastern Shore that I could easily have written this without mentioning Harriet Tubman – or even history. On the food alone, for example, I could fill a whole article rhapsodising about soft shell crabs: I’d never had them before and can’t understand why they’re not treated as a delicacy instead of a regular snack at county fairs. In Annapolis, I’ve eaten both as well and as much (that’s you, Chuck and Ruth’s Delly, with your jumbo lump crab cakes and massive milkshakes) as I ever have in my life.
The Chesapeake Bay – at 200 miles long, America’s biggest estuary – produces 500 million pounds of seafood every year, and you’re missing out if you don’t even try to put a dent in that stat. There are plenty of waterfront restaurants where you can do so in style, whether in the surprisingly upbeat Suicide Bridge Restaurant at Hurlock on the Eastern Shore or, back in Annapolis at Carol’s Creek restaurant, where the scallop starter is just so perfect that I strongly suspect I may never eat better.
Whatever you’re planning to do in Maryland, you must visit Annapolis. The British influence is strong (it’s named after Queen Anne, after all) and there are more Georgian buildings than anywhere else in America. As well as boasting of itself as “America’s sailing capital” – check out the plutocrats’ powerboats and yachts on that part of the dockside locals call Ego Alley – it has been the state’s capital since 1695 and, in 1783, became the nation’s first peacetime capital too.
So for a smallish (38,000 population) city there is a disproportionate amount of big-ticket American history here. The state house is where the Treaty of Paris that ended the War of Independence was signed and where George Washington finally resigned his commission. The naval academy is where the Scottish rebel commander John Paul Jones is buried, and where Jimmy Carter, Ross Perot, John McCain and thousands of others trained to be officers. This is where all four of the state’s signatories of the Declaration of Independence lived, and you can still tour their houses.
Annapolis is just 30 miles from DC and 26 from Baltimore: near enough to support a vibrant nightlife and a year-round calendar of festivals and important enough for its politics to matter: Governor Martin O’Malley is widely talked about as a likely candidate for the Democrats if Hillary Clinton decides not to run.
Yet drive the four miles over the Bay Bridge and Maryland changes. The pace of life slows. The Eastern Shore is a place of unspoiled tidal marshlands, creeks, islands, wildlife reservations and charming small towns such as Easton and St Michaels. The land is fertile but low-lying, the roads empty.
This is Harriet Tubman country, and at night you don’t have to try too hard to imagine those small groups of slaves moving north through forests and across streams or east across the Mason-Dixon line to Delaware. Looking for the codes of lights in the bedrooms of friendly houses where they might sleep in the outhouses. Meeting freed black boatmen or sympathetic captains to ferry them up the Chesapeake. Crossing open fields, guided by the North Star or the moss on the bark of trees.
Looking out across the waters of the Choptank river from the verandah of my B&B in Cambridge, I think of Harriet, married to a free black man but running away because their children would still belong to her master, because she herself was still the property of another man. And I think of something she said, looking back on her life, about the first time she crossed into Philadelphia and freedom: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees and over the fields and I felt like I was in heaven.”
British Airways (www.ba.com) offers return flights including taxes from Edinburgh to Baltimore from £502 per person. For further information on the Capital Region USA visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk