Harriet Tubman

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Harriet Tubman in 1880

Harriet Tubman (c. 1822 – March 10, 1913) was an abolitionist. As a self-freed slave, she worked as a lumberjack, laundress, nurse, and cook. As an abolitionist, she acted as intelligence gatherer, refugee organizer, raid leader, nurse, and fundraiser, all as part of her efforts to end slavery and combat racism. After the underground railroad helped her to freedom she became an active leader in its ranks.

Although she lacked a formal education, Tubman became a leader based on her belief that God had given her a mission. She transcended barriers of both race and gender at a time when those barriers seemed insurmountable. Acting with simplicity and heroic selflessness, she exemplified the biblical dictum that "you must lose your life to gain your life." While others worked on the sidelines she risked her life time and time again as a frontline strategist and activist.

Early life

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. Recent research has revealed that she was born in late February 1820, in an area south of Madison, Maryland, called Peter's Neck. Born Araminta Ross, she was the fifth of nine children, four boys and five girls, of Ben and Harriet Greene Ross. She rarely lived with her owner, Edward Brodess, as she was frequently hired out to other slave owners. She endured cruel treatment from most of the slave owners, including an incident where an overseer, whom she had prevented from capturing a runaway slave, hurled a two-pound (1 kg) weight at her, striking her head. Harriet was only 12 years old at the time. As a result of the severe blow, she suffered from narcolepsy for the rest of her life. During this period, Brodess sold three of Harriet's sisters, Linah, Soph, and Mariah Ritty. When she was a young adult she took the name Harriet, in honor of her mother. Around 1844, she married John Tubman, a free black who lived in the area.

Underground railroad conductor

Edward Brodess died in March 1849, leaving behind his wife, Eliza Brodess, and eight children. To pay her dead husband's mounting debts and to save her small farm from seizure, Eliza decided to sell some of the family's slaves. Fearing sale into the Deep South, Tubman took her emancipation and liberation into her own hands. In the fall of 1849, she escaped northward, leaving behind her free husband who was too afraid to follow. On the way she was assisted by sympathetic Quakers and other members of the Abolition movement who were instrumental in maintaining the underground railroad.

By working as a cook, laundress, and scrubwoman in Philadelphia and Cape May, New Jersey, Tubman was able to finance the first of her famous expeditions into the South. She made at least nine trips during the 1850s to rescue relatives and friends from plantations near Cambridge. Philadelphia eventually became unsafe, so she began to transport her charges to Canada, mainly to the area of St. Catherines, Ontario.

She met with John Brown several times during 1858-59 and raised money for his Harpers Ferry raid. She considered Brown to be a kindred spirit and he referred to her as "General Tubman." According to Brown she was, "one of the best and bravest persons on the Continent." Tubman would have been at Harper's Ferry with Brown had she not been ill. She, like Brown, believed God had given her a divine mission to work for the liberation of slaves.

Frederick Douglass wrote of the "General,"

The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Except for John Brown, of sacred memory, I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony to your character and your works.

Shrewd strategist

During the American Civil War, Tubman was sent by Governor Andrew of Massachusetts to the South at the beginning of the war, to act as spy and scout and to be employed as a hospital nurse when needed. After arriving in Beaufort, South Carolina, in May 1862, she spent three years working as a nurse and cook for the Union forces and as a spy. She served with the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a black unit involved in guerrilla warfare activities. In 1863, Tubman led a raid at Combahee River Ferry in Colleton County, South Carolina, allowing hundreds of slaves to escape to freedom. This was the first military operation in U.S. history planned and executed by a woman. Tubman, in disguise, had visited plantations in advance of the raid and instructed slaves to prepare to run to the river, where Union boats would be waiting for them. Union troops exchanged fire with Confederate troops and casualties were suffered on both sides.

Tubman relied heavily upon the closely knit black community in Maryland to help her bring away family and friends. She was careful not to meet her charges near their owner's plantations or property. She sent messages so they could meet at a secret location. Tubman was also a master of disguise. She once took the precaution of carrying two chickens with her. When she felt in danger because she recognized a former master, she released the chickens and chased them to recapture them. This amused the master, who never realized the ineffectual chicken chaser was, in fact, a determined slave liberator.

Once, at a train station, Tubman found that slave-catchers were watching the trains heading north in hopes of capturing her and her charges. Without hesitation, she had her group board a southbound train, successfully gambling that a retreat south would not be anticipated by her pursuers. She later resumed her planned route at a safer location.

Tubman often timed her escapes for Saturday, which gave her the maximum amount of time to move her charges north before the slave escape was advertised in the newspapers. In addition, Tubman had a strict policy that, while any slave could turn down the risk of going north, anyone who did decide to go north but then wanted to turn back halfway would be shot dead to prevent betrayal of the group and network. Apparently Tubman never had to resort to such measures.

Called "Moses" by those she helped escape on the underground railroad, Tubman made a total of nineteen trips to Maryland, before and during the war, to help other slaves escape. According to her estimates, and those of her close associates, Tubman personally guided more than 300 slaves to freedom. She was never captured and, in her own words, "never lost a passenger." She also provided detailed instructions to many more who found their way to freedom on their own. Her owner, Eliza Brodess, posted a $100 reward for her return, but no one ever knew that it was Harriet Tubman who was responsible for rescuing so many slaves from her old neighborhood in Maryland.

After the war, it was reported that there had been a total of $40,000 in rewards offered for her capture. She was successful in freeing her parents and her four brothers; Ben, Robert, Henry, and Moses, but failed to rescue her sister Rachel, and Rachel's two children, Ben and Angerine. Rachel died in 1859, before Harriet could rescue her.

Post-Civil War life

Did you know?
Harriet Tubman was buried with full military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York

After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, New York, where she had settled with her parents in 1858. She raised money for freedmen's schools, collected clothing for destitute children, and aided the sick and disabled. In 1903, she built a building on her property and turned it into the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent People. She also lectured throughout the east, worked with black women's groups and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, advocated women's suffrage, and served as a delegate to the first annual convention of the National Association of Colored Women (1896).

With Sarah Bradford acting as her biographer and transcribing her stories, she was able to have an exaggerated story of her life published in 1869 as Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. This was of considerable help to her financial state because she was not awarded a government pension for her military service until some 30 years after the war. Even then it was awarded based on the service of her second husband, Nelson Davis. They met in South Carolina while both were in Union Army. He was also a former slave and ten years her junior. She married him in 1869, and they lived together in the home she purchased in Auburn, New York, from her friend, United States Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Eventually, because of arthritis and frail health, Tubman moved into the same Home for the Aged and Indigent that she had helped found. She died in 1913, at the age of 93 and was given a full military burial. In her honor, a memorial plaque was placed on the Cayuga County, New York Courthouse, in Auburn. Today, Harriet Tubman is honored every March 10, the day of her death.

In 1944, a United States Liberty ship named the SS Harriet Tubman was launched. The ship served in the United States Merchant Marine until it was scrapped in 1972.


  • "If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more."
  • "I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other."
  • "Now do you suppose He (God) wanted me to do this just for a day, or a week?"
  • "I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that I was free. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold thru the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."
  • "But to this solemn resolution I came: I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there."
  • "I am sitting under the old roof 12 feet from the spot where I suffered all the crushing weight of slavery. Thank God the bitter cup is drained of its last dreg. There is no more need of hiding places to conceal slave Mothers. Yet it was little to purchase the blessings of freedom. I could have worn this poor life out there to save my Children from the misery and degradation of Slavery."

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hopkins, Sarah. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. Bel Air, CA: Hesperides Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1443735483
  • Humez, Jean. Harriet Tubman: The Life and Life Stories. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. ISBN 0299191206
  • Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004. ISBN 0345456289

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2017.


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