Benjamin "Ben" Ross (b.
circa 1787 - d. 1871)
MSA SC 5496-8445
Accomplice to slave flight, Caroline County, Maryland, 1857
Benjamin Ross was born the property of Anthony Thompson of Dorchester county around 1787. In 1803, Anthony Thompson married Mary Pattison, of the same county, becoming Pattison's second husband. At this time, Ben met Harriet "Rit" Green, one of Pattison's slaves. Although slave marriages were illegal, the two formed an informal marital union and had their first child, Linah, in 1808. The fourth of their nine children, Araminta, was born in 1822, and later became known as Harriet Tubman. 1
In 1836, Anthony Thompson died, leaving provisions in his will for Benjamin to be manumitted five years after his death. Thompson provided gradual manumission for many of his slaves in his will. For Ben, Thompson also requested that he receive a piece of land on his property, becoming a perpetual free laborer. 2 He eventually sold his piece of land to Dr. Anthony C. Thompson, the elder Thompson's son and a large landowner. Dr. Thompson's land ventures led him to Poplar Neck, an area in southern Caroline County, just outside of Dorchester County. He moved many of his inherited slaves, and free laborers like Ben Ross, to his new property. Ben would later remark that Thompson was "a rough man towards his slaves, and declared, that he had not given him a dollar since the death of his father." Furthermore, the Rosses had to endure seeing at least two of their children sold South by Rit's former owner, Edward Brodess.
As a free man, Ben was able to hire out his services within the maritime industries that predominated in this area of the Eastern Shore. He was employed as a timber inspector, with a level of expertise that might yield as much as five dollars a day in payment. This was a relatively priveleged position even for a free black laborer, and Ben used his earnings to free his wife. On June 11, 1855, Eliza Brodess filed a bill of sale in the Dorchester County Court for the sale of her slave, Harriet, to her husband Benjamin Ross. He paid $20 to secure her freedom. 3 It is possible, however, that Ben purchased his wife at least a year prior to when the official bill of sale was produced. 4 Harriet, being about 55 years of age at the time of sale, could not be legally manumitted by her new owner according to Maryland law. Nevertheless, she moved to Ben's home on Dr. Thompson's property in Caroline County.
After Edward Brodess' death in 1849, Ben's daughter Harriet
decided to make her escape from bondage in the state. She
was able to convince her younger brothers, Benjamin and Henry, to run
in the fall of 1849. However, Harriet's brothers were afraid of being
and turned back, but she made off again without them. Utilizing only
North Star and help from a local white woman, Harriet successfully made
it to Pennsylvania later that year. In Caroline County, the Rosses and
perhaps their children would have become familiar with the
neighboring Leverton's and Kelley's, who were members of the
Quaker denomination. It has been speculated that the local accomplice
may have been Hannah Leverton or Hester Kelley, whose families
admittedly participated in abolitionist activity. Arthur
was ultimately chased out of the state due to suspicions of aiding
slave flight in 1858. Proximity to these common escape paths, as well
as Harriet's growing influence in the area, led Ben Ross to become
directly and indirectly involved in the clandestine network of
According to accounts given by Tubman, Ben Ross was a contact for slaves that wanted her assistance in escaping from their masters. For instance, speaking to Sarah Bradford (one of Tubman's biographers) she recalls how Joe Bailey, who ultimately escaped from nearby Talbot County with three others, asked "Old Ben" to let him know the next time that "Moses come around". 5 He also unwittingly became involved in the escape of his sons Ben, Henry, and Robert. On Christmas day in 1854, Harriet and six runaways, including her brothers, arrived at Ben Ross' cabin in Caroline County. The holidays were an ideal time to escape, as masters often allowed their slaves to visit nearby family and enjoy a few days outside of direct supervision. The group chose to secrete themselves in the corn crib on Ben's property, careful not to alarm her parents. Tubman did not want her mother to know that she had helped her brothers escape because she knew Rit would try to talk them out of doing so. Once her mother left the grounds Harriet sent the other two fugitives, John Chase and Peter Jackson, to alert Ben of their presence. However, he did not want to actually see his children, knowing that if the authorities questioned him on the whereabouts of his missing sons, Ross could honestly say that he had not "seen" them. Thus, Ben gave the group of runaways food and clothing while keeping his eyes covered with a handkerchief. The next day the group moved into Delaware, and ultimately to free soil further north. 6
Suspicion of Ben's activity on the Underground Railroad began to mount as flight from the area reached unprecedented level. Eastern Shore slave owners, particularly in Dorchester County, were desperate to disrupt the sophisticated network of accomplices that had solidified significantly since the 1830's. In early March of 1857, eight runaways, Henry Predeaux, Thomas Elliot, Denard Hughes, Lavina Woolfley, James Woolfley, Bill Kiah, Emily Kiah, and one unknown person, fled from Cambridge. This group was decoyed by a man that was supposed to lead them to an agent on the Underground Railroad, but instead led them to a jail in Dover, Delaware. They managed to escape after a violent struggle with the sheriff, further outraging local planters. Much of their disgust was directed at free blacks, such as Ross and Samuel Green, who were seen as the primary agitators. 7 According to a letter written by Thomas Garrett, Ben Ross was suspected of aiding the "Dover Eight" early in their escape attempt. Although there is no evidence to document his impending arrest, Garrett believed that there was originally a ninth member of the party, who may have informed authorities of Ben's role. With their daughter's assistance and perhaps the advice of Dr. Thompson, the elderly Rosses chose to flee from Caroline County before any potential retribution could be exacted. 8
This must have been an emotionally and physically strenuous journey for the couple, who were in their seventies by that time. Ben and Rit arrived at William Still's office in Pennsylvania in June of 1857. Interestingly, he does not mention that the two elderly people that arrived in his office were Harriet Tubman's parents, or the circumstances behind their flight. Still's account of their escape contains several inaccuracies, including the contention that Ben himself was a slave. 9 He may have been purposely hiding their affiliations, so as not to implicate Harriet. Ben and Rit were initially taken to St. Catharine's where they reunited with other former Eastern Shore slaves. However, they struggled to adapt to the cold climate and economic instability that plagued many of the African-American fugitives. In 1859, Tubman transferred her parents to a house that she had purchased in Auburn, New York.10 Numerous occupants, including family and boarders, supported Ben and Rit in their old age. Harriet remained the primary bread-winner, and directed much of her meager earnings to the maintenence of the household where she also eventually settled. Ben Ross died in 1871, having lived long enough to witness the end of slavery and the establishment of his daughter's pivotal role in its destruction.
1 Kate Clifford Larson, Bound For The Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Random House, 2004), 10.
2 Ibid., 69.
3 DORCHESTER COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Chattel Records), Bill of Sale for Ritty, FJH 2, 163, MSA C692-2
4 Larson, 120.
5 Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet, The Moses of Her People (New York: Geo. R. Lockwood and Son, 1886), 41.
6 Ibid., 67-71.
7 Larson, 140.
8 James A. McGowan, Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005.
9 William Still, Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, etc. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coales, 1872) 395-396.
10 Larson, 163.
Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2011.
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