Tubman, Harriet 1820(?)–1913
Harriet Tubman 1820(?)–1913
Abolitionist, social reformer
In 1869, the famous ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote to Harriet Tubman, another ex-slave who was also actively involved in black Americans’ struggle for freedom: “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism…. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you.” The “improbable” heroism that Douglass referred to was Tubman’s involvement in the Underground Railroad.
Tubman’s work was a part of a larger loosely organized network called the Underground Railroad organized by abolitionists, or “agents” who dedicated their lives and energies to bringing enslaved black people out of the southern United States into freedom in the northern United States and Canada. It has been estimated that as many as 75,000 blacks were assisted by Underground Railroad “stations,” as the safe houses along the way were called.
After her escape from slavery in 1849, Harriet Tubman defiantly reentered the slave-holding south approximately 19 times to lead more than 300 men, women, and children, to freedom in the North and Canada. During the Civil War, Tubman served the North’s Union Army as a nurse, scout, and spy, and in her later years, founded a home for older, impoverished black people. Because of her daring and courage, Tubman became known as the “Moses” of her people.
Tubman was born Araminta Ross c. 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland; she was one of Benjamin and Harriet Green Ross’s 11 children. Both of her parents were enslaved full-blooded Africans and lived on the plantation of Edward Brodas. It is widely accepted that her parents were Ashanti, a West African warrior people. Sometime during her childhood, Araminta (“Minty”) Ross changed her name to Harriet.
Although many of Tubman’s brothers and sisters were sold to plantations in the deep south, Harriet was to have a home base with her parents throughout their lives. Nonetheless, she suffered greatly as a child growing up in the system of slavery. When she was only five years old, Brodas began “renting” the young Harriet to neighboring families where she performed such work as winding yarn, checking muskrat traps, housekeeping, splitting fence rails, loading timber, and nursing children. Tubman eventually came to prefer field labor over domestic duties. In her early childhood she inevitably displeased her employers and was frequently sent home in
Born Araminta Ross, c. 1820, in Dorchester County, MD; later changed first name to Harriet; died of pneumonia March 10, 1913, in Auburn, NY; daughter of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green (slaves); married John Tubman, a free black, c. 1844; married Nelson Davis, a Union Army soldier, 1869.
Underground Railroad conductor; Civil War scout, spy, Union Army nurse; founder, The Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People, Auburn, NY, incorporated 1903.
Member: New England Anti-Slavery Society; National Federation of Afro-American Women, conference delegate, 1896; National Association of Colored Women; New England Women’s Suffrage Association.
between jobs, often sick and beaten, needing the nursing care of her mother, “Old Rit.”
A particularly violent incident occurred when Tubman was around 15 years of age. She was caught in the middle of an altercation between an overseer and a man who was attempting to escape from slavery. The overseer threw a two-pound lead weight after the running man, but it hit Tubman in the head instead. Although her mother nursed her as best she could, Tubman was in a coma for weeks and her forehead remained dented and scarred throughout her life. It is speculated that she suffered a fractured skull and severe concussion. From this incident, she began to have what she called “sleeping fits,” and for the remainder of her life she would fall asleep without warning, often several times a day. Sometimes during these narcoleptic episodes, Tubman would experience strange dreams.
After this incident, Brodas planned on selling Tubman along with two of her brothers, but he died before the plans could be fulfilled. Tubman attributed his death to her prayers. Tubman was thus again “rented”, this time to a local builder from whom she learned the timber business and who allowed her, for $50 each year, to hire herself out. Around 1844, Harriet Ross married a free black man, John Tubman, who lived near the Brodas plantation. During this time, she found out that she was not really a slave because her mother had been freed by a previous owner but had never been told this. A lawyer, however, advised Tubman that the courts would not hear her case because so much time had elapsed.
Even though she was married to a free man, Tubman was still forced to retain the status of slave, and in 1849, he threatened to be sell her “down the river” into the Deep South, a possibility that had terrorized many of her dreams and waking thoughts. Tubman left her husband in the middle of the night, afraid he would carry through his threat to betray her, and with the assistance of people involved in the Underground Railroad, she made her way to Philadelphia, which was second to Boston as a center of abolitionist activity. Tubman described her arrival in Philadelphia to her biographer and friend Sarah Bradford: “I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to freedom…. I was a stranger in a strange land.” She also told Bradford of her resolve to free her family and to make a home for them in the North.
By 1850, however, Tubman lost her status of “free” and became a fugitive when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 as part of the Missouri Compromise. With passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, no black person was secure in the North because the testimony of any white could send a black to the South and enslavement, regardless of his or her prior status. After this law was passed, Tubman began visiting the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which was organized by James Miller McKim and William Still to assist fugitive slaves. William Still’s careful records of the escaping slaves who passed through the committee’s office was published in 1872, as The Underground Rail Road and is now recognized as one of the most valuable records of this time period of U.S. history.
It was in the Vigilance Committee’s office that Tubman made plans to assist in her first escape. She later learned that the young woman and two children she had agreed to guide from Baltimore to Philadelphia were her own sister Mary and Mary’s kids. The next year, in the spring of 1851, Tubman returned to her birthplace in Dorchester County and began the perilous work of bringing her family to freedom.
Because conditions in the North became increasingly dangerous, Tubman left Philadelphia for St. Catharines, Canada, a small city with a large community of escaped blacks. While living in St. Catharines from 1851 to 1857, she made two trips each year into the South, assisting people to safety. In later years, Tubman noted with pride: “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.” And indeed, none of the fugitives she guided was ever captured.
One of the most meaningful and innovative escapes Tubman arranged was that of her aging parents in 1857. Biographer Earl Conrad later described the incident: “Harriet’s abduction of her parents was an event in Underground annals. It was significant, not only because rarely did aged folks take to the Road, but because Harriet carried them off [in a ‘patched together wagon’] with an audaciousness and an aplomb that represented complete mastery of the Railroad and perfect scorn of the white patrol. Her performance was that, at once, of the accomplished artist and the daring revolutionary.”
John Bell Robinson, a pro-slavery Philadelphian, however, described the same incident in his 1860 Pictures of Slavery and Freedom as “a diabolical act of wickedness and cruelty.” He considered taking her elderly parents away “from ease and comfortable homes… as cruel an act as ever was performed by a child towards parents.” Nonetheless, Tubman took her parents to live at her home in Auburn, New York, which she had purchased with the help of William Seward, an abolitionist.
In 1907, the New York Herald described a typical escape led by Tubman: “On some darkly propitious night there would be breathed about the Negro quarters of a plantation word that she had come to lead them forth. At midnight, she would stand waiting in the depths of woodland or timbered swamp, and stealthily, one by one, her fugitives would creep to the rendezvous. She entrusted her plans to but few of the party…. She knew her path well by this time, and they followed her unerring guidance without question. She assumed the authority and enforced the discipline of a military despot.”
Tubman employed many tactics to keep her groups moving to freedom—she drugged crying babies with paregoric, an opium derivative; boarded southbound trains to confuse slave hunters; assumed various disguises; leading the weary and frightened fugitives in singing spirituals; and threatened to kill escapees who tried to go back by pulling out her revolver and shouting at them, “move or die!” At one time a $12,000 reward was offered for Tubman. John Marszalek reported that in 1858 a group of Maryland slaveholders put a price of $40,000 on her head. Tubman made her last Railroad trip in 1860, after South Carolina seceded from the Union and before civil war broke out in the United States.
During the 1850s, Tubman came in contact with many leading abolitionists, including Thomas Garrett, Wendell Phillips, Frank Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Wells Brown, and John Brown. In the late 1850s she spoke at a few anti-slavery meetings and in 1860 at a women’s rights meeting, where her oratorical skills were praised.
By the time the Civil War began, Tubman had already been involved in helping John Brown plan the “ill-starred” raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, a strategic base in Virginia, where he believed the revolution to end slavery in the United States would begin. Brown was a white abolitionist who believed he had been ordained by God to “strike at slavery.” As his biographer, Benjamin Quarles stated, Brown felt himself to be an “instrument of the Almighty” for the “deliverance of those in chains.” Brown had solicited the help of Tubman and Frederick Douglass, whom he considered to be the leading abolitionist figures of the time. He was so impressed with Harriet Tubman’s ability to “command her army” of escapees that he dubbed her “General” Tubman. Tubman fell seriously ill, however, and was unable to join Brown on the raid.
In 1861, Tubman returned to the south to assist “contraband” soldiers, enslaved blacks who left home and attached themselves to the Union Army. The next year, she responded to a call from the Union Army and traveled first to Beaufort, South Carolina, to be a nurse and teacher to the many Gullah people who had been abandoned by their owners on South Carolina’s Sea Islands. She then went to Fernandina, Florida. In the spring of 1863, at the request of Union officials, Tubman organized a scouting service of black men and began leading expeditions into enemy territory seeking strategic information. But perhaps her most dramatic service to the Union Army was her leadership of the Combahee River expedition in July of 1863.
Described by historian Lerone Bennett as the “most remarkable of all Union spies,” Tubman was also recognized as “the first and possibly the last woman to lead U.S. Army troops in battle.” Tubman was also at Fort Wagner when the all-black infantry, the 54th Massachusetts led by Robert Gould Shaw, was defeated. Ironically, despite Tubman’s repeated requests and the intervention of then Secretary of State William Seward and other military officials such as Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson and General Rufus Saxton, the U.S. government refused to pay Tubman her rightfully earned military wages or to grant her a military pension in recognition of her services to her country.
After the war ended, Tubman returned to Auburn, New York, and continued to care for her aging parents. In 1869, she married Nelson Davis, a much younger man whom she had met at a South Carolina army base. Tubman spent the years in Auburn writing her autobiography with the help of Sarah Bradford and participating actively in organizations for black women such as the National Association of Colored Women and the National Federation of Afro-American Women. She was also a supporter of suffrage, or voting rights for women and was often affiliated with one of the cause’s leading figures, Susan B. Anthony.
One of Tubman’s life-long dreams was to have a home for the poor, elderly, and disabled. She began fulfilling this dream when she purchased 25 acres in 1896. In 1903, the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People was founded after Tubman deeded the land to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. It formally opened in 1908, and in 1911, two years before her death, the approximately 91-year-old Tubman became a resident.
Tubman died on March 10, 1913, of pneumonia. She was given a military service by Civil War veterans of Auburn. One year later, educator Booker T. Washington led a memorial service for her, and in 1932 the town of Auburn erected a plaque in honor of Tubman’s work. Although her own country never gave her the recognition she deserved, Queen Victoria sent Tubman a silver medal and invited her to visit England. In the 1980s, Macon, Georgia, opened the Harriet Tubman Historical and Cultural Museum. As Columbus Salley has written, Harriet Tubman, “like no other woman, has come to symbolize the indomitable spirit of blacks in their quest to be against the peculiar institution of slavery, with its intent and design to destroy their spiritual essence as human beings.”
Bradford, Sarah, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People, 1886, reprinted, Corinth, 1961.
Conrad, Carl, Harriet Tubman, Erickson, 1943.
Davidson, Nancy A., “Harriet Tubman ’Moses’,” Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Gale, 1992, pp. 1151–155.
Epic Lives: 100 Black Women Who Made A Difference, Visible Ink Press, 1993.
Hall, Richard, Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War, Paragon House, 1993.
Heidish, Marcy, A Woman Called Moses, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
International Library of Afro-American Life and History: I Too Am American, Documents from 1611 to the Present, edited by Patricia W. Romero, The Publisher Agency, Inc., 1976, p. 164.
Quarles, Benjamin, Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Quarles, Benjamin, “Harriet Tubman’s Unlikely Leadership,” Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 42–57.
Salley, Columbus, The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans, Past and Present, Citadel Press, 1993, pp. 48–51.
Siebert, Wilbur H., The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, 1898, reprinted Russell and Russell, 1967.
Essence, October 1993, p. 90.
Instructor, January 1992, p. 49.
Jet, January 22, 1990, p. 18.
Library Journal, June 1, 1992, p. 195.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright
"Tubman, Harriet 1820(?)–1913." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tubman-harriet-1820-1913
"Tubman, Harriet 1820(?)–1913." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tubman-harriet-1820-1913
Tubman, Harriet 1822–1913
Born Araminta “Minty” Ross on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822, Harriet Tubman was one of nine enslaved children of Harriet “Rit” Green and Benjamin Ross, both slaves. During the mid-1820s, Thompson’s stepson, Edward Brodess, took Rit and the children ten miles away to his own farm in Bucktown after he inherited them from his deceased mother. Over the next twenty-five years, Tubman endured painful separations from her family while being hired out to cruel masters who beat and starved her. Brodess sold several of her sisters, permanently tearing apart her family.
While working as a field hand as a young teen, Tubman was severely wounded by a blow to her head from an iron weight thrown by an angry overseer at another fleeing slave. This left her suffering from headaches and epileptic seizures that affected her for the rest of her life. About 1844 she married a local free black named John Tubman, shedding her childhood name in favor of Harriet.
Upon Brodess’s death in 1849, Tubman determined to take her own liberty rather than risk being sold to settle Brodess’s debts. She tapped into an Underground Railroad network operating on the Eastern Shore of Maryland: Using the North Star and assistance from white and black helpers, she found her way to freedom in Philadelphia. Once safely there, Tubman worked as a domestic to support herself and save enough money to help family and friends escape from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Through a variety of familial, social, and abolitionist networks, Tubman was able to exploit secret and reliable communication and support systems and craft her own Underground Railroad networks to freedom. These networks included many free and enslaved African Americans and antislavery whites who lived and worked near crucial access points to food, transportation, and shelter in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York. Unable to read or write, Tubman also used a variety of disguises and ruses to affect her multiple escape missions. In spite of debilitating seizures, Tubman returned about thirteen times during the 1850s, bringing away roughly seventy friends and family members, while giving instructions to scores more who found their way to freedom independently. Miraculously, Tubman was never betrayed and never “lost a passenger.”
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 left many runaway slaves vulnerable to recapture. Tubman brought numerous freedom seekers to safety in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, where they became part of a growing community of refugees from slavery. Her dangerous missions won her the biblical name “Moses” and the admiration of abolitionists throughout the North, including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Gerrit Smith, and Susan B. Anthony, among others, who supported her and sought her counsel. Tubman collaborated with the legendary John Brown as he planned for an attack on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859.
During the Civil War (1861–1865), Tubman traveled to Port Royal, South Carolina, to support Union activities. She nursed wounded black soldiers and conducted important spying missions behind Confederate lines. She became the first woman to command an armed military expedition when she guided Colonel James Montgomery and his black troops on a successful raid in June 1863.
After the war, Tubman moved to Auburn, New York, where William Henry Seward, President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, had sold her a home and where she had settled her aged parents and other family members. There, she intensified her fight for women’s rights and civil rights for African Americans. After John Tubman died in Maryland, Harriet Tubman married Nelson Davis, a veteran, in 1869. She struggled financially the rest of her life. Denied her own military pension, she eventually received a widow’s pension and, later, a Civil War nurse’s pension.
Rising above social, economic, and physical adversity, Tubman continued her humanitarian work with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in 1908 in Auburn. She continued to appear at local and national suffrage conventions until the early 1900s. She died at the age of ninety-one on March 10, 1913, in Auburn.
Since her death, Tubman has been memorialized and commemorated in many ways, including the naming of schools, roads, nonprofit social-service organizations, and state days of recognition. In 1944 the U.S. Maritime Commission launched the Liberty ship SS Harriet Tubman, and in 1978 and again in 1995 the U.S. Post Office issued postage stamps in her honor. Tubman has earned international acclaim as a symbol of the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice from oppression and discrimination, and has become one of America’s most enduring historical figures.
SEE ALSO Slavery
Humez, Jean M. 2003. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Larson, Kate Clifford. 2004. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York: Ballantine.
Kate Clifford Larson
"Tubman, Harriet." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/tubman-harriet
"Tubman, Harriet." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/tubman-harriet
Harriet Tubman, c.1820–1913, American abolitionist, b. Dorchester co., Md. Born into slavery, she escaped to Phildelphia in 1849, and subsequently became one of the most successful
on the Underground Railroad. Returning to the South more than a dozen times, she is generally credited with leading more than 300 slaves (including her parents and brother) to freedom, sometimes forcing the timid ahead with a loaded revolver. She became a speaker on the anti-slavery lecture circuit and a friend of the principal abolitionists, and John Brown almost certainly confided his Harpers Ferry plan to her. During the Civil War, Tubman attached herself to the Union forces in coastal South Carolina, serving as a nurse, cook, laundress, scout, and spy, and in 1863 she played an important part in a raid that resulted in the freeing of more than 700 slaves. At Auburn, N.Y., her home for many years after the war, the Cayuga co. courthouse contains a tablet in her honor.
See biographies by S. Bradford (1869, new ed. 1961), E. Conrad (1942), C. Clinton (2004), J. M. Humez (2004), and K. C. Larson (2004).
"Tubman, Harriet." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet
"Tubman, Harriet." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet
"Tubman, Harriet." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet
"Tubman, Harriet." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet