Tubman, Harriet 1820(?)–1913
Harriet Tubman 1820(?)–1913
Abolitionist, social reformer
Civil War Activities
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.
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, “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
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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
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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. (April 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet
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March 10, 1913
The abolitionist, nurse, and feminist Harriet Ross—later Harriet Ross Tubman—was 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.
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.
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.
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)
"Tubman, Harriet." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet
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For more than twenty years before the American Civil War (1861–65), there was a secret system for helping runaway slaves escape to freedom in the northern states or in Canada. Called the Underground Railroad , it was neither underground nor a railroad. It got its name from the railroad terminology that was used to describe the secret activities of the system. The slaves were called “passengers,” those who aided them were “conductors,” escape routes were “lines,” and stopping places of safety were “stations.”
Lines in the Underground Railroad went from Kentucky and Maryland to stations in New England and Canada. While most conductors were Quakers (whose religion forbids slavery) and abolitionists (northerners who fought against slavery), some conductors were free blacks or former slaves who themselves had been passengers on the Railroad. Harriet Tubman (1820–1913) was an escaped slave who single-handedly led over three hundred slaves to safety in the years 1850 to 1860.
Tubman was born on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, one of the eleven children of Benjamin and Harriet Ross. As a young girl, Tubman was often hired out to work for other families. Unlike many slaves, she had the chance to return to her family between jobs, but she did not escape the brutalities of slavery: the permanent scars on her back testified to the many whippings she received while growing up.
Slave uprising spurs desire to escape
When Tubman was about thirteen, a fellow slave attempted to escape. The overseer (slave supervisor) tried to pursue the runaway, but Tubman blocked his path. Enraged, the overseer hurled a two-pound weight at the fleeing slave, only to strike Tubman in the forehead. The injury left her skull permanently pressed against her brain, and she experienced sudden unconscious spells for the rest of her life. She made up her mind to try to escape one day. In 1849 she decided the time was right. With the help of conductors along the Underground Railroad, she made her way north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania .
Tubman supported herself by working as a cook and as a household servant. Within a year, she returned to Maryland to start freeing her relatives. She then began a decade-long campaign of conducting runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Known by the name of “Moses” (after the Hebrew prophet who led his people out of slavery in Egypt in 1400 bce), Tubman would appear in slave cabins on a Saturday night disguised as a man or as an old woman. She would then lead a group of passengers to safety the following morning, knowing slave owners were less likely to pursue slaves on a Sunday.
Leads “passengers” to safety in Canada
Soon after Tubman had begun her work on the Railroad, Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1850. It required all runaway slaves, even those in the free states of the North, to be returned to their owners without the benefit of a jury trial. Anyone caught helping a slave was heavily fined. Because she feared for the safety of her passengers in the United States, Tubman began to guide them to the small town of Saint Catherines in Ontario, Canada. Since slavery was outlawed in Canada, slaves were immediately free once they crossed the border. Saint Catherines also became her temporary home.
By 1857 Tubman had rescued her entire family. She then decided to risk settling in Auburn, New York, a strongly abolitionist community. There she met and worked with other reform-minded individuals like the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and the women's rights movement leader Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906). Perhaps the most famous of her associations was with the antislavery crusader John Brown (1800–1859; see Harpers Ferry Raid ). She helped him plan a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in November of 1859. Luckily, Tubman was too ill to take part in the unsuccessful raid in which Brown's sons were killed and he was captured and later executed.
Nurses Union soldiers
During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse for sick and wounded Union soldiers. She also acted as a spy, gathering information for the Union. On one occasion, she even organized and led a group of eight black men on a scouting assignment along the coast of South Carolina .
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn to care for her parents and to continue to work for women's rights and other reform movements. Concerned about the poor condition of newly free black children, she raised money for clothing and schools. In 1908 she helped the elderly by opening the John Brown Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People (later renamed for her). Tubman lived her last two years in this home, dying in Auburn on March 10, 1913.
"Tubman, Harriet." U*X*L Encyclopedia of U.S. History. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet-0
"Tubman, Harriet." U*X*L Encyclopedia of U.S. History. . Retrieved April 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet-0
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Harriet Tubman, heroine of the Underground Railroad, personally escorted as many as seventy or eighty former slaves to freedom in the North after her own daring flight from slavery in 1849. Frederick Douglass, whose Rochester, New York, home served as an Underground Railroad station, wrote to her in 1868, "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" (Bradford, 1869). During the Civil War, she again risked her life in the antislavery cause by joining the Union Army in coastal South Carolina and Florida as a spy, scout, and nurse. Less well known but equally heroic was her postwar work, managing a small subsistence farm to support a large extended family in Auburn, New York. In her later years, she created a facility for the impoverished elderly in Auburn and found both private and church funding for it.
In 1844, while still a slave in Maryland, Harriet Tubman married John Tubman, a free black man. She had no children of her own, which was an advantage when she began to think of escape to the North, in 1849. When her legal owner, Edward Brodess, died, it seemed likely that she would be sold South and she decided to flee. She may have been helped initially by neighbors with anti-slavery sympathies—a white woman took her in and provided information leading to her next hiding place.
Tubman escaped alone to Philadelphia, where, aided by a strong abolitionist community, she found work and began to plan a return South for her family. John Tubman had remarried in 1851 and refused to join her. This personal blow may have intensified her belief that she had a mission to rescue her remaining kinfolk from slavery.
After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), the Northern states were no longer safe havens for fugitive slaves and Tubman extended her route to Canada, guiding parties of up to ten or eleven to Saint Catharines, where a growing community of African Canadians welcomed newcomers to freedom.
Stories of the daring rescues by the "colored heroine" began to appear in the letters of her admiring abolitionist associate Thomas Garrett, a Quaker based in Wilmington, Delaware, who helped provide transportation, lodging, and funds for several thousand fugitives over his long Underground Railroad career.
In 1858 she met the antislavery crusader John Brown, then fresh from bloody guerrilla fighting against proslavery forces in the territory of Kansas. Knowing her skills, courage, and connections in the African-Canadian community, Brown sought her aid in recruiting former slaves as fighters for his forthcoming military action against slavery. She did not participate directly in the assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 that led to Brown's death and martyrdom.
When the Civil War broke out, Tubman, along with other abolitionists, was disappointed in President Lincoln's failure to commit the Union to an explicitly anti-slavery policy. Nevertheless, in early 1862 she responded with enthusiasm when recruited by antislavery friends in Massachusetts to join the Union Army encampment in the federally occupied South Carolina Sea Islands. Although her assignment was ostensibly to perform humanitarian service work among the former slaves, she also served as a Union Army spy behind Confederate lines.
In South Carolina, Tubman recruited a small band of African-American men as spies and scouts, providing vital intelligence about Confederate capabilities and plans. She played a central role in the Combahee River Raid of June 1863, helping to destroy massive amounts of Confederate property and supplies.
Tubman's Civil War service also included the less glamorous but equally vital work of nursing. She nursed the wounded survivors of the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner by an African-American regiment from Massachusetts led by the abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw, who died in the battle. She also nursed Union troops in Florida who were suffering from dysentery, using a traditional root-based remedy.
Tubman was proud of her Civil War service, but because of her informal status (she was never officially enlisted) and gender she never received back pay, recognition as a veteran, or a veteran's pension, despite the repeated efforts of influential friends after the war, including Secretary of State William Seward. As an elderly woman, she was finally awarded a pension, but only as the widow of a veteran—her second husband.
At the war's end, Tubman returned to Auburn, New York, where she lived until her death. Immediately after the war, she raised funds for schools for the newly emancipated African Americans. Her major concern over the next fifteen years, however, was her own economic self-sufficiency and maintaining the home she shared with her elderly parents and an extended family of relatives and boarders. In her later years, she developed a new mission: raising funds for a home for the impoverished elderly. The Harriet Tubman Home opened under the auspices of the AME Zion church in 1908.
Rediscovered in the early twentieth century after many years of obscurity and poverty, Tubman again became an important symbol of heroic African-American womanhood. In the later twentieth century, the home evolved into a national shrine to Tubman's memory. She serves as an important symbol of slaves' intense desire for freedom and the bravery of those like her who risked their lives to achieve that freedom.
Bradford, Sarah. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Auburn, NY: W. J. Moses, 1869.
Cheney, Ednah. "Moses." Freedmen's Record 1 (March 1965): 34–38.
Conrad, Earl. General Harriet Tubman. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1943.
Humez, Jean M. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of An American Hero. New York: Ballantine, 2003.
Sanborn, Franklin B. "Harriet Tubman." (Boston) Commonwealth, July 17, 1863.
Jean M. Humez
"Tubman, Harriet." Americans at War. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/tubman-harriet
"Tubman, Harriet." Americans at War. . Retrieved April 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/tubman-harriet
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Born c. 1820
Dorchester County, Maryland
Died March 10, 1913
Auburn, New York
"I was a stranger in a strange land."
F or millions of people from Europe, and later Asia, the United States was a beacon of freedom and opportunity. For millions of African Americans living in the United States from 1619 to 1863, however, the United States was a prison, a place of enslavement from which the only escape in the middle of the nineteenth century was Canada. Harriet Tubman was the most prominent African American who helped slaves make the dangerous journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Tubman made an estimated twenty round trips from the North to the South, and back north to Canada during the 1850s, a time when escaping slaves were subject to arrest and forced return to bondage, even in the nonslave states of the North. For several years, Tubman, herself an escaped slave, lived in Canada where she could be safe from arrest. A large reward was offered in the South for her capture, but she later boasted: "I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger."
Life in bondage
Harriet Tubman was the daughter of slaves, Harriet and Benjamin Ross. Her name at birth was Araminta, but she later adopted her mother's name. Unlike her ten siblings, Harriet was not sold off, and remained with her parents into her adulthood. (Later, her parents were among the first slaves Harriet brought North.)
By most accounts, Harriet did not adapt well to the life of a slave. She preferred working outside to being a house slave, and was often rebellious. As a teenager, Harriet was accidentally involved in an incident involving a slave who had stopped working early. As his overseer was about to whip him, the slave ran away and the overseer threw a two-pound weight at him. The weight accidentally hit Harriet in the head; from then on, she was subject to seizures, events involving involuntary brain activity that often result in brief unconsciousness. "I grew up like a neglected weed," she once told an interviewer. In 1844, she married John Tubman.
Living in Maryland, Tubman was not far from Pennsylvania, which did not allow slavery. Tubman realized that her journey from Maryland to freedom in Pennsylvania was relatively short. (She had once consulted a lawyer to see whether the death of her mother's white master might entitle her and her mother to freedom under the law. The lawyer told her that she would have had a good case at the time, but that too much time had passed since the former owner's death to expect a court to grant her freedom.) In 1849, when she learned that her master was considering selling her, she made the move. She made her way alone to Philadelphia, where she found a job as a cook. She was free but lonely for her family. She resolved to return to Maryland and bring her relatives back with her to Pennsylvania, the start of her long career sparking a migration to freedom.
In one important respect, Harriet Tubman's story was unusual in the middle of the nineteenth century. For Tubman, freedom and opportunity meant leaving the United States, even as millions of Europeans were arriving in search of new freedom of opportunity in the land where, according to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal."
The national debate over slavery
In the decade of the 1850s, a long national debate over slavery gathered speed in the United States. Many people in the North had actively opposed slavery since the late eighteenth century, and abolitionists, people who thought the federal government should ban slavery everywhere in the country, had been active for decades. During the 1850s, several events occurred that heightened the debate and had a major impact on Tubman's career as a "Moses," as she was called for leading her people to freedom. (In the Bible, Moses is the man who led the enslaved Jewish people out of Egypt to freedom in Israel.)
As part of the national debate over whether to allow slavery in newly populated western territories, the U.S. Congress in 1850 passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This law meant that escaped slaves would not be free when they reached a northern state, such as Pennsylvania, that did not recognize slavery. For escaped slaves like Harriet Tubman, the law meant that they could not find freedom anywhere in the United States unless their owners acted to set them free.
In 1856, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a slave who had been taken to the free state of Illinois, and then back to the slave state of Missouri, was not entitled to freedom based on living in Illinois. In the famous Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court went further and ruled that slaves were not entitled to human rights; under the law, they were property and could do nothing to free themselves.
These two legal developments, coming at a time when increasing numbers of people in the North felt that slavery violated the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence ("We believe these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…."), created an exodus of people out of the United States in search of their freedom. Slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, which included Canada, in 1833, making Canada the destination of escaping slaves from the southern states. People who actively opposed slavery helped people escape by forming what was known as the Underground Railroad, a secret network of houses where escaping slaves could safely be hidden on their way to Canada.
Conductor on the Underground Railroad
The Fugitive Slave Act directly affected Harriet Tubman, who was in danger of being seized and sent back to Maryland as a slave. For six years, from 1851 to 1857, her
main residence was in St. Catherines, Ontario. From there, she reentered the United States to help liberate slaves in the American South.
After her own lonely escape, Tubman became the most renowned "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. On an average of twice a year during the 1850s, Tubman traveled into the slave states, where she was widely known and where a reward was offered for her capture, to guide slaves northward to Canada. It was a dangerous task. Slave owners were highly aware that their slaves might run off, and groups of black people on the move created suspicions. Tubman became famous for outwitting slave owners. On at least one occasion, she bought railroad tickets heading south, further into slave territory, to make her party of escaping slaves seem like innocent travelers.
Using money she earned as a cook and laundry worker in Philadelphia, Tubman staged her first rescue within a year, traveling to Baltimore to meet her sister and two of her children and guide them to freedom in the North. Eventually, by 1857, she guided her entire family north.
Tubman began her crusade alone but later came into contact with leaders of the growing antislavery movement in the North. What started as a personal mission to rescue her family expanded to include many other slaves who wanted to immigrate to freedom. Tubman was short (just five feet tall) and hardly looked like a Moses of her people. She often disguised herself as an old woman to avoid being captured in the South. Whatever she lacked in physical stature, she more than made up in mental fortitude.
Tubman often carried a rifle, and she sometimes threatened the escaping slaves she was with if it seemed they were about to endanger the whole group. Like most slaves, Tubman was never taught to read and write; she had to rely on her memory. She used a complex code in communicating with the people she was leading to freedom, one based on biblical stories and slave songs. Her code also served as a measure to protect her "passengers" from capture. Her methods were effective: in a decade of leading slaves to freedom, she later boasted, she never lost a single one to professional slave hunters. Altogether, she led over three hundred slaves to freedom.
Eventually the governor of New York, William Seward (1801–1872), sold Tubman a house in Auburn, New York. Auburn is not far from Seneca Falls, New York, the site of the meeting that produced the first declaration of women's rights from the new and growing movement for female equality. Seward, who eventually became secretary of state during the administrations of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) and Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), was a strong supporter of Tubman and her work on the Underground Railroad.
Civil War and emancipation
The outbreak of the Civil War (1861–65) in April 1861 changed the character of Tubman's work, but not her goal. The war did not break out over the issue of slavery; it broke out over the issue of preserving the union of states that had come together to form the United States. President Lincoln himself declared that if he had been able to preserve the union half slave and half free, he would have done so. Nevertheless, victory for the North over the South—the Confederate States of America—seemed vital to the cause of freeing African Americans from bondage.
Consequently, Tubman started a second career as a spy for the North, a career for which her decade of risky travels in the South had prepared her. She also served as a nurse in conquered areas of the South.
As a spy, Tubman organized African American men to help the Union army scout ahead in South Carolina in preparation for Union attacks. On at least one occasion, she personally accompanied an army unit in South Carolina and came under fire, a highly unusual activity for a woman in the nineteenth century. In another role, Tubman helped care for newly freed slaves, teaching some of the basic survival skills they would need as free men and women.
After the war
After the Civil War, Tubman returned to her home in Auburn, New York. Despite her direct aid to the Union army as a spy, and her fame as a liberator of about three hundred slaves, Tubman was never rewarded in her lifetime. Her application to the government for the benefits enjoyed by other fighters for the Union cause was denied.
Nevertheless, she devoted her life to helping her fellow African Americans, caring for her aged parents, and raising funds for schools dedicated to former slaves. In 1896, she was able to buy land near her house, where in 1908 she opened the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. Two years later, Tubman herself moved into the home, where she lived for three years until she died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913.
—James L. Outman
For More Information
Bentley, Judith. Harriet Tubman. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.
Bradford, Sarah H. Harriet: The Moses of Her People. New York: G. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886. Multiple reprints.
Carlson, Judy. Harriet Tubman: Call to Freedom. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989.
Conrad, Earl. Harriet Tubman. New York: Eriksson, 1969.
Ruchames, Louis, ed. The Abolitionists; a Collection of Their Writing. New York: Putnam, 1963.
Bennett, Lerone Jr. "Free for Christmas: Harriet Tubman Leads Slave Escape and Gives the Greatest Gift of the Holiday Season." Ebony (December 1966): p. 80.
Donnelly, Matt. "Black Moses." Christian History (May 1999): p. 24.
Winkler, Peter. "Eyewitness on the Underground Railroad: History Owes a Lot to William Still." National Geographic Explorer (January-February 2002): p. 13.
"Aboard the Underground Railroad." National Park Service.http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground (accessed on March 26, 2004).
"National Underground Railroad Freedom Center." http://www.undergroundrailroad.org (accessed on March 26, 2004).
"The Underground Railroad." National Geographic.http://www.nationalgeographic.com/features/99/railroad (accessed on March 26, 2004).
"Tubman, Harriet." U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet
"Tubman, Harriet." U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library. . Retrieved April 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tubman-harriet