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Tubman, Harriet

Tubman, Harriet

c. 1820
March 10, 1913

The abolitionist, nurse, and feminist Harriet Rosslater Harriet Ross Tubmanwas one of eleven children born

to the slaves Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green. She was born about 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Although she was known on the plantation as Harriet Ross, her family called her Araminta, or Minty, a name given to her by her mother.

Early Years

Like most slaves, Ross had no formal education and began work on the plantation as a child. When she was five years old, her master rented her out to a neighboring family, the Cooks, as a domestic servant. At age thirteen, Ross suffered permanent neurological damage after either her overseer or owner struck her in the head with a two-pound lead weight when she placed herself between her master and a fleeing slave. For the rest of her life, she experienced sudden blackouts.

In 1844 she married John Tubman, a free black who lived on a nearby plantation. Her husband's free status, however, did not transfer to Harriet through marriage. Between 1847 and 1849, after the death of her master, Tubman worked in the household of Anthony Thompson, a physician and preacher. Thompson was the legal guardian of Tubman's new master, who was still too young to operate the plantation. When the young master died, Tubman faced an uncertain future, and rumors circulated that Thompson would sell slaves out of the state.

In response, Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849, leaving behind her husband, who refused to accompany her. She settled in Philadelphia, where she found work as a scrubwoman. She returned to Maryland for her husband two years later, but John Tubman had remarried.

Underground Railroad

Tubman's successful escape to the free state of Pennsylvania, however, did not guarantee her safety, particularly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which facilitated southern slaveholders' efforts to recover runaway slaves. Shortly after her escape from slavery, Tubman became involved in the abolitionist movement, forming friendships with one of the black leaders of the Under-ground Railroad, William Still, and white abolitionist Thomas Garrett. While many of her abolitionist colleagues organized antislavery societies, wrote and spoke against slavery, and raised money for the cause, Tubman's activities were more directly related to the actual freeing of slaves through the Underground Railroad. She worked as an agent on the railroad, assuming different disguises to assist runaways in obtaining food, shelter, clothing, cash, and transportation. Tubman might appear as a feeble old woman or as a demented, impoverished man, and she was known for the rifle she carried on rescue missions, both for her own protection and to intimidate fugitives who might become fainthearted along the journey.

Tubman traveled to the South nineteen times to rescue approximately three hundred African-American men, women, and children from bondage. Her first rescue mission was to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1850 to help her sister and two children escape. Her notoriety as a leader of the Underground Railroad led some Maryland planters to offer a $40,000 bounty for her capture. Having relocated many runaways to Canada, Tubman herself settled in the village of Saint Catharines, Canada West (now Ontario), in the early 1850s. She traveled to the South in 1851 to rescue her brother and his wife, and returned in 1857 to rescue her parents, with whom she resettled in Auburn, New York, shortly thereafter.

Tubman's involvement in the abolitionist movement placed her in contact with many progressive social leaders in the North, including John Brown, whom she met in 1858. She helped Brown plan his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, but illness prevented her from participating. Tubman's last trip to the South took place in 1860, after which she returned to Canada. In 1861, she moved back to the United States as the last of eleven southern states seceded from the Union.

Civil War and Thereafter

When the Civil War broke out, Tubman served in the Union army as a scout, spy, and nurse. In 1862 she went to Beaufort, South Carolina, where she nursed both white soldiers and black refugees from neighboring plantations. Tubman traveled from camp to camp in the coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, using her nursing skills wherever they were needed. Tubman also worked as a scout for the Union army, traveling behind enemy lines to gather information and recruit slaves. She supported herself by selling chickens, eggs, root beer, and pies. After returning briefly to Beaufort, Tubman worked during the spring and summer of 1865 at a freedman's hospital in Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

After the war ended, Tubman eventually returned to Auburn to care for her elderly parents. Penniless, she helped support her family by farming. In 1869 Tubman married Nelson Davis, a Civil War veteran. That same year, she published Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, written for her by Sarah H. Bradford and printed and circulated by Gerrit Smith and Wendell Phillips. Tubman received some royalties from the book, but she was less successful in her effort to obtain financial compensation for her war work. She agitated for nearly thirty years for $1,800 compensation for her service as a Civil War nurse and cook. In 1890, Congress finally awarded Tubman a monthly pension of $20, not for her own work but because she was the widow of a war veteran.

Tubman's activism continued on many fronts after the Civil War. She was an ardent supporter of women's suffrage and regularly attended women's rights meetings. To Tubman, racial liberation and women's rights were inextricably linked. Tubman formed close relationships with Susan B. Anthony and other feminists. She was a delegate to the first convention of the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1896 (later called the National Association of Colored Women). The following year, the New England Women's Suffrage Association held a reception in Tubman's honor.

While living in Auburn, Tubman continued her work in the black community by taking in orphans and the elderly, often receiving assistance from wealthier neighbors. She helped establish schools for former slaves and wanted to establish a permanent home for poor and sick blacks. Tubman secured twenty-five acres in Auburn through a bank loan but lacked the necessary funds to build on the land. In 1903, she deeded the land to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and five years later the congregation built the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent and Aged Negroes, which continued to operate for several years after Tubman's death and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974.

Tubman died on March 10, 1913, at the age of ninetythree. Local Civil War veterans led the funeral march. The National Association of Colored Women later paid for the funeral and for the marble tombstone over Tubman's grave. A year after her death, black educator Booker T. Washington delivered a memorial address in celebration of Tubman's life and labors and on behalf of freedom. In 1978, the United States Postal Service issued the first stamp in its Black Heritage series to honor Tubman.

Tubman was called the Moses of her people and had attained legendary status in the African-American community within ten years of her escape to freedom. Perhaps more than any other figure of her time, she personified resistance to slavery, and she became a symbol of courage and strength to African Americans, both slave and free. The secrecy surrounding Tubman's activities on the Underground Railroad and her own reticence about her role contributed to her mythic status. Heroic images of the rifle-carrying Tubman have persisted into the twentieth-first century, when she continues to be the leading symbol of the Underground Railroad.

See also Abolition; National Association of Colored Women; Runaway Slaves in the United States; Slave Narratives; Still, William; Underground Railroad


Bradford, Sarah. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1886). New York: Corinth Books, 1961.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004.

Conrad, Carl. Harriet Tubman. Washington, D.C.: Associated, 1943.

Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York: Ballantine, 2004.

Litwack, Leon, and August Meier. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

louise p. maxwell (1996)
Updated bibliography

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