US Coins

Coin from 1808 plays key role in Maryland search

The November finding of an 1808 Capped Bust half dollar provided a key clue in an archeological search for the Maryland homestead of Ben Ross, Harriet Tubman’s father.

All images courtesy of Maryland Department of Transportation.

A team of archaeologists led by Dr. Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist of the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, has found the homesite once owned by Ben Ross, the father of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and a coin was key to the discovery.

The search project began in early 2020 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased land in Dorchester County that included the 10 acres that had been bequeathed to Tubman’s father, Ben Ross.

“The land deed records provided the general area where we would search,” said Dr. Schablitsky. “Then COVID hit and we could not get started until August. The land was swampland, which is not ideal for an archaeological search due to saturated conditions.”

In November 2020, Schablitsky took a team of 12 archaeologists, who began to work an area by doing section digs for the presence or absence of artifacts. After about 1,000 efforts, the team had no significant evidence. Schablitsky took a metal detector and began to sweep the area along an isolated road. “I got a signal of something that was aluminum or brass or even a coin,” she said. “I found the coin, which was larger than a quarter and cleaned it up and saw the date of 1808.” Schablitsky said the coin was about a foot below the surface.

The coin, an 1808 Capped Bust half dollar, let the team know they were in the right area for the time period they were seeking remnants from (Tubman’s parents were informally married in 1808). Subsequent digs led to a few more artifacts, but the project had reached the end of its two-week schedule. The team returned in the spring of 2021. “We found more artifacts, but we needed something to determine that it was a building site and not a dump site,” said Schablitsky. “We started finding pieces of bricks and nails and other signs that this was a building site.

“The importance of discovering Ben Ross’ cabin here is the connection to Harriet Tubman. She would’ve spent time here as a child, but also she would’ve come back and been living here with her father in her teenage years, working alongside him,” said Dr. Schablitsky. “This was the opportunity she had to learn about how to navigate and survive in the wetlands and the woods. We believe this experience was able to benefit her when she began to move people to freedom.”

Schablitsky said that coin findings provide great clues for archaeologists. “When you find a coin, it’s helpful, not for the monetary value, but for other information, like the date. Coins are carried around. They can be easily lost. They’re recognizable since everyone knows what a coin is.

“I think when this coin gets exhibited, people are going to wonder ‘who lost it’ and think about what it may have been used for.”

A portrait of Tubman is expected to replace that of President Andrew Jackson on the next generation $20 Federal Reserve note, anticipated for release around 2030.

Legislation pending before Congress seeks commemorative coinage honoring Tubman.

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