WHO IS HARRIET TUBMAN?
Harriet Tubman (c. 1822 – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and during the American Civil War, a Union Spy. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made about thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era struggled for women’s suffrage.
Harriet Tubman’s name at birth was Araminta Ross. She was one of 11 children of Harriet and Benjamin Ross born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. As a child, Ross was “hired out” by her master as a nursemaid for a small baby. Ross had to stay awake all night so that the baby wouldn’t cry and wake the mother. If Ross fell asleep, the baby’s mother whipped her. From a very young age, Ross was determined to gain her freedom.
As with many slaves in the United States, neither the exact year nor place of Araminta’s birth is known, and historians differ as to the best estimate. Tubman’s year of birth was listed as 1822, based on a midwife payment and several other historical documents, including her runaway advertisement while others say that “the best current evidence suggests that Tubman was born in 1820, but it might have been a year or two later.” Yet it has been noted that Tubman reported the year of her birth as 1825, while her death certificate lists 1815 and her gravestone lists 1820. In her Civil War widow’s pension records, Tubman claimed she was born in 1820, 1822, and 1825, an indication, perhaps, that she had only a general idea of when she was born.
In 1844, Ross married a free black named John Tubman and took his last name. She also changed her first name, taking her mother’s name, Harriet. In 1849, worried that she and the other slaves on the plantation were going to be sold, Tubman decided to run away. Her husband refused to go with her, so she set out following the North Star in the sky to guide her north to freedom and reached Philadelphia. There she found work as a household servant and saved her money so she could return to help others escape.
As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten by masters to whom she was hired out. Early in her life, she suffered a severe head wound when hit by a heavy metal weight. The injury caused disabling epileptic seizures, headaches, powerful visionary, and dream experiences, which occurred throughout her life. A devout Christian, Tubman ascribed the visions and vivid dreams to revelations from God.
Harriet Tubman was a runaway slave from Maryland who became known as the “Moses of her people.” Over the course of 10 years, and at great personal risk, she led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses where runaway slaves could stay on their journey north to freedom. She later became a leader in the abolitionist movement, and during the Civil War she was a spy with for the federal forces in South Carolina as well as a nurse. She became so well known for leading slaves to freedom that Tubman became known as the “Moses of Her People.” Many slaves dreaming of freedom sang the spiritual “Go Down Moses.” Slaves hoped a savior would deliver them from slavery just as Moses had delivered the Israelites from slavery
Although not a traditional railroad, the Underground Railroad was a critical system of transporting slaves to freedom in the mid-1800s. One of the most famous conductors was Harriet Tubman. Between 1850 and 1858, she helped more than 300 slaves reach freedom.
During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union army as a nurse, a cook, and a spy. Her experience leading slaves along the Underground Railroad was especially helpful because she knew the land well. She recruited a group of former slaves to hunt for rebel camps and report on the movement of the Confederate troops. Tubman played other roles in the war effort, including working as a nurse. Folk remedies she learned during her years living in Maryland came in very handy. Many people in the hospital died from dysentery, a disease associated with terrible diarrhea. Tubman was sure she could help cure the sickness if she could find some of the same roots and herbs that grew in Maryland. One night she searched the woods until she found water lilies and crane’s bill (geranium). She boiled the water lily roots and the herbs and made a bitter-tasting brew that she gave to a man who was dying-and it worked! Slowly he recovered. Tubman saved many people in her lifetime. On her grave her tombstone reads “Servant of God, Well Done.”
After Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery, she returned to slave-holding states many times to help other slaves escape. She led them safely to the northern free states and to Canada. It was very dangerous to be a runaway slave and there were rewards for their capture. Whenever Tubman led a group of slaves to freedom, she placed herself in great danger. There was a bounty offered for her capture because she was a fugitive slave herself, and she was breaking the law in slave states by helping other slaves escape.
Tubman made 19 trips to Maryland and helped 300 people to freedom. During these dangerous journeys she helped rescue members of her own family, including her 70-year-old parents. At one point, rewards for Tubman’s capture totaled $40,000. Yet, she was never captured and never failed to deliver her “passengers” to safety. As Tubman herself said, “On my Underground Railroad I never ran my train off track and I never lost a passenger.”
Tubman had to travel by night, guided by the North Star, and trying to avoid slave catchers, eager to collect rewards for fugitive slaves. The “conductors” in the Underground Railroad used deceptions for protection. At an early stop, the lady of the house ordered Tubman to so sweep the yard as to seem to be working for the family. When night fell, the family hid her in a cart and took her to the next friendly house. Given her familiarity with the woods and marshes of the region, Tubman during the day likely hid in these locales. Tubman only later described her routes because other fugitive slaves used them.
Particulars of her first journey remain shrouded in secrecy. She crossed into Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled the experience years later: “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 like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.
Because the Fugitive Slave Law had made the northern United States more dangerous for escaped slaves, many began migrating to Southern Ontario. There is evidence to suggest that Tubman and her group stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglas. In his third autobiography, Douglass wrote: “On one occasion I had eleven fugitives at the same time under my roof, and it was necessary for them to remain with me until I could collect sufficient money to get them on to Canada. It was the largest number I ever had at any one time, and I had some difficulty in providing so many with food and shelter.” The number of travelers and the time of the visit make it likely that this was Tubman’s group. Douglass and Tubman showed a great admiration for one another as they struggled together against slavery. When an early biography of Tubman was being prepared in 1868, Douglass wrote a letter to honor her. It read in part: “You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting 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.”
One admirer of Tubman said: “She always came in the winter, when the nights are long and dark, and people who have homes stay in them.” Once she had made contact with escaping slaves, they left town on Saturday evenings, since newspapers would not print runaway notices until Monday morning.
Her journeys into the land of slavery put her at tremendous risk, and she used a variety of subterfuges to avoid detection. Tubman once disguised herself with a bonnet and carried two live chickens to give the appearance of running errands. Suddenly finding herself walking toward a former owner in Dorchester County, she yanked the strings holding the birds’ legs, and their agitation allowed her to avoid eye contact. Later she recognized a fellow train passenger as another former master; she snatched a nearby newspaper and pretended to read. Since Tubman was known to be illiterate, the man ignored her.
Her religious faith was another important resource as she ventured repeatedly into Maryland. The visions from her childhood head injury continued, and she saw them as divine premonitions. She spoke of “consulting with God,” and trusted that He would keep her safe. Thomas Garrett once said of her, “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.” Her faith in the divine also provided immediate assistance. She used spirituals as coded messages, warning fellow travelers of danger or to signal a clear path.
Tubman spent her remaining years in Auburn, tending to her family and other people in need. She worked various jobs to support her elderly parents, and took in boarders to help pay the bills. One of the people Tubman took in was a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis. He began working in Auburn as a bricklayer, and they soon fell in love. Though he was 22 years younger than she was, on March 18, 1869, they were married at the Central Presbyterian Church. They spent the next 20 years together..
In her later years, Tubman worked to promote the cause of women’s suffrage. A white woman once asked Tubman whether she believed women ought to have the vote, and received the reply: “I suffered enough to believe it.” Tubman began attending meetings of suffragist organizations, and was soon working alongside women such as Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. Tubman traveled to New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. to speak out in favor of women’s voting rights. She described her actions during and after the Civil War, and used the sacrifices of countless women throughout modern history as evidence of women’s equality to men. When the National Federation of Afro-American Women was founded in 1896, Tubman was the keynote speaker at its first meeting. This wave of activism kindled a new wave of admiration for Tubman among the press in the United States. A publication called The Woman’s Era launched a series of articles on “Eminent Women” with a profile of Tubman. In 1897 a suffragist newspaper reported a series of receptions in Boston honoring Tubman and her lifetime of service to the nation. However, her endless contributions to others had left her in poverty, and she had to sell a cow to buy a train ticket to these celebrations.
By 1911, her body was so frail that she had to be admitted into a rest home named in her honor. A New York newspaper described her as “ill and penniless,” prompting supporters to offer a new round of donations Surrounded by friends and family members, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913. Just before she died, she told those in the room: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
Harriet Tubman, widely known and well-respected while she was alive, became an American icon in the years after she died. A survey at the end of the 20th century named her as one of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War, third only to Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. She inspired generations of African Americans struggling for equality and civil rights; she was praised by leaders across the political spectrum.