Tubman, Harriet (1821–1913)

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Tubman, Harriet (1821–1913)

Legendary runaway slave from Maryland who, once free, returned to the South 19 times to guide as many as 300 enslaved African-Americans to freedom through the secret network known as the Underground Railroad. Name variations: Araminta "Minty" Ross; Harriet Ross. Pronunciation: TUB-mun. Born Araminta Ross in 1821 on the Edward Brodas plantation near Bucktown, Dorchester County, Maryland; died on March 10, 1913, in Auburn, New York; daughter of Harriet Greene and Benjamin Ross (slaves of Edward Brodas); married John Tubman, in 1844 (estranged 1848); married Nelson Davis, in 1869; no children.

Escaped from slavery (1849); planned and executed liberation excursions into slaveholding territory (1850s); settled in Auburn, New York (1858), after which she raised funds for John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia; moved to Beaufort, South Carolina (1862), where she worked for three years as a nurse, scout, and spy on behalf of the Union Army; Sarah Bradford published Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1868); was a delegate to the National Association of Colored Women's first annual convention(1896); opened her house as the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People.

Born in 1821, Araminta Ross—better known as Harriet Tubman—was the 11th child of Harriet Greene and Benjamin Ross. The family lived as slaves on Edward Brodas' plantation in Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Like most plantations of its time, the Brodas place was isolated, rural, and virtually self-sufficient. The nearest settlement, Bucktown, consisted merely of a cross-roads with a general store, a post office, a church, and eight or ten homes.

As was customary among slaveholders, Brodas both hired out and sold his slaves to other planters with some regularity. Tubman and her family did not escape the dislocation and cruelty of this practice. Two of her sisters were sold to plantations in the Deep South when Harriet was still quite young, and Tubman herself was first sent away from her family at age five. Forced to check muskrat traps in icy cold rivers, she quickly became too sick to work and was returned malnourished and suffering from exposure. Once she recovered, Brodas sent her to work as a house slave on a nearby plantation, where, despite her own youth, she worked as a nurse for the planter's infant child. It was here that Harriet, aged seven, first resisted the brutality of slavery. One morning, while standing by the breakfast table waiting to take the baby from its mother's arms, Harriet found her eyes wandering to a nearby bowl of sugar lumps. Just as she reached out to pinch a taste, her mistress turned and saw her. "The next minute she had the raw hide down: I give one jump out of the door, and I saw they came after me, but I just flew … I run, and I run, and I run." Although hunger forced her to return to her mistress, the episode marked the beginning of Tubman's lifelong opposition to slavery's dehumanization.

When she was 12, Tubman returned to work on her home plantation as a field slave. She continued to work in the fields for the rest of her teenaged years, and at one point sustained extensive physical injuries at the hands of an overseer, who dealt her such a blow to the head that she suffered from narcoleptic seizures for the rest of her life. Probably the most significant development at this time was the growth of her intense religious faith. Tubman described herself later as praying almost continuously about her soul, her work, and her family. As she matured, she began increasingly to identify the plight of slaves with that of the Israelites trapped in Egypt, waiting to be delivered into the land of Canaan. This religious sensibility fueled her desire for freedom.

When her master died in 1849, and she began to hear rumors that she and two of her brothers were to be sold to a chain gang, Tubman decided to act on her convictions. Many years later, she recalled walking through the slave quarters, singing a hymn to secretly enlighten her friends and family to her intentions. "When that old chariot comes/ I'm going to leave you/ I'm bound for the promised land/ Friends, I'm going to leave you." Late that same evening, she and her brothers crept away from the plantation, aware that at any moment their owner, or a slave patrol made up of local whites, might be alerted to their flight and pursue them. After a short distance, Tubman's brothers decided they could not take the risk and returned, leaving her to find her way alone. She traveled only at night, following the north star for days until she realized that she had crossed the border between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding states. "I looked at my hands," she recalled years later, "to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything … and I felt like I was in heaven." Quickly, however, Tubman was overcome by the realization of how alone she was, in a strange land and separated from her family and friends. At that moment, she committed herself to freeing her family and making a home for them in the North.

After settling in Philadelphia, Tubman cooked, laundered, and scrubbed for a living, saving her money to finance her plans for rescuing her family. During her time in the city, she met members of Philadelphia's large and active antislavery organizations. One abolitionist whom she befriended was William Still, himself the son of escaped slaves and a leader in the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. From Still, Tubman learned of the Underground Railroad and its secret networks of white and black abolitionists who aided escaped slaves as they made their way north. Like Tubman, many of these fugitives traveled up the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, a peninsula noted for its complex system of waterways and marshes which afforded many places to hide. The towns north of the peninsula, like Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, were populated in large part by supporters of the antislavery movement. Once there, fugitives found relief and assistance from former slaves, Methodists, Jews, Dunkers, Unitarians, and Roman Catholics as they moved through the countryside north to New York and eventually to Canada.

It was as a volunteer for the Underground Railroad that Tubman first returned to Maryland.

Her mission was to lead her sister, Mary (Bowley) , and two nieces to Philadelphia from Baltimore. Mary's husband, a free black man named John Bowley, sent word through the Underground Railroad that his wife and daughters had been imprisoned in a slave pen in Cambridge, Maryland, and pled for help to get them out of Maryland. Bowley freed his family from the pen before they were sold, transported them to the house of a local Quaker, and then navigated a boat up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore. By looking for light signals from the bank, the fugitives identified "conductors" who helped them disembark and led them to a farmhouse where Tubman herself was waiting. From that point, Tubman guided them along the Underground Railroad network until they came safely to Philadelphia.

There's two things I got a right to and these are Death and Liberty. One or the other I mean to have.

—Harriet Tubman

Emboldened by this success, Tubman returned to Maryland as many as 18 more times. As she was illiterate and her efforts were purposefully secret, it is difficult to document the specifics of these trips. What is clear, however, is how much her fellow Underground Railroad workers admired her courage and sacrifice. Thomas Garrett, an abolitionist of Wilmington, befriended Tubman, who often led her bands of fugitives to his station. On one such occasion, Garrett noted that she had arrived barefoot, having literally worn the shoes off her feet. She was, according to William Still, "a woman of no pretensions, indeed, a more ordinary specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking farm hands of the South. Yet, in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-men … she was without her equal."

During the decade preceding the Civil War, this "Moses of her people" garnered a reputation as an uncompromising and fearless foe of slavery. She carried a long rifle with her on her journeys and did not hesitate to aim it at those in her band whose courage faltered. As William Still noted, Tubman believed that "a live runaway could do great harm by going back, but a dead one could tell no secrets." Her name spread through slave quarters and abolitionist societies alike. Slaveholders in Maryland also took sharp notice and offered a $40,000 reward for her capture. Nevertheless, Tubman always evaded seizure and eventually rescued both her parents and settled them in a house she purchased from Senator William H. Seward in Auburn, New York.

Her ferocity on the escape route extended to even more aggressive efforts to overthrow slavery. In 1858 and 1859, Tubman joined forces with John Brown as he plotted a raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Brown intended to seize the federal armory there, distribute weapons among the slaves, and instigate a widespread rebellion. According to historian Richard Hinton, while trying to raise money for his cause, Brown introduced Tubman to Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips as "one of the best and bravest persons on this continent—General Tubman as we call her." While she did not participate in the raid (although some historians suggest that she would have done so had she not become ill), Tubman met with Brown frequently and assisted him in his fund-raising efforts. When Brown's attempt failed and he was arrested and hanged, Tubman interpreted his fate in Biblical terms. She reportedly informed Franklin B. Sanborn, Brown's close friend and biographer, that after much thought she had decided "it wasn't John Brown that died on the gallows. When I think how he gave up his life for our people, and how he never flinched, but was so brave to the end; it's clear to me it wasn't mortal man, it was God in him." In one of the last interviews of her life (1912), Tubman still spoke of Brown as "my dearest friend."

During the Civil War, Tubman continued to find ways to attack and undermine slavery. In 1862, she moved to Beaufort, South Carolina (by that time occupied by the Union Army), with a group of missionary teachers. While there, she assisted hundreds of Sea Islander slaves through the transition from bondage to freedom. She was surprised, however, by the unexpected cultural differences between herself and the men and women she met. Tubman later recalled that when she tried to make a speech to them upon her arrival, "They laughed when they heard me talk, and I could not understand them, no how." The Sea Islanders spoke a dialect called Gullah, peculiar to the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina and born of a mixture of African languages and English. Slowly, however, Tubman learned to communicate, and she worked with them as a nurse, cook, and advisor.

While in Beaufort, she intermittently embarked on scouting and spying assignments for the army itself. Union Colonel James Montgomery, commanding the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a black regiment, called her "a most remarkable woman … invaluable as a scout." As well as locating slaves hoping to be liberated, Tubman identified potential targets for the Union Army, such as cotton stores and ammunition caches. The Boston Commonwealth described her efforts with the army in July 1863. "Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 800 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemies' country … destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror to the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property." In 1865, Tubman moved to Virginia where she cared for wounded black soldiers as the matron for the Colored Hospital at Fortress Monroe.

After the war, as before, Tubman continued to help African-Americans in need. Believing that she had been called by God to lead her people to freedom, she responded to the postwar world with characteristic fervor. She once said to an interviewer, "Now do you suppose he wanted me to do this just for a day, or a week? No! the Lord who told me to take care of my people meant me to do it just so long as I live, and so I do what he told me to do." She raised money for freedmen's schools, worked on behalf of destitute children, and continued to care for her aging parents. She also collaborated with Sarah Bradford , a white schoolteacher in Auburn, to write her autobiography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, which was published in 1868 (and was later expanded and published as Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People in 1886). Shortly thereafter, she converted her family home in Auburn into the Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. She continued to work closely with black churches, especially the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn, to which she had frequently brought fugitives in the 1850s and where Frederick Douglass had briefly published his famous abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. And, in the middle of this busy period, she took the time to marry a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis, who had been a boarder at her house. Her first husband, John Tubman, to whom she was married in 1844, had refused to come to the North and had married another woman shortly after Tubman's escape.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Tubman undertook a new but related cause, women's suffrage. In 1896, she was a delegate to the National Association of Colored Women's first annual convention because she believed that political suffrage for women was vitally important to the preservation of their freedom. She was honored by the mostly middle-class and educated women in attendance, who extended every privilege and courtesy to her and asked her to speak to the gathering. Her topic was one close to her heart: "More Homes for our Aged."

Near the turn of the century, Tubman purchased 25 acres of land adjoining her home with money raised from various benefactors and speaking engagements. Shortly thereafter, she began arrangements for the home to be taken over by the A.M.E. Zion Church. Fittingly, in 1911, when Tubman herself became too sick to take care of herself, she was welcomed into the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. In a letter to Booker T. Washington asking for money to help support Tubman, Edward Brooks, the superintendent of the home, wrote: "It is the desire of the Home management to give her every attention and comfort possible these last days." Many of the women with whom she had worked in the National Association of Colored Women and other women's organizations, upon hearing of her destitute condition, voted to provide her with a monthly pension of $25 for the rest of her life. When she died on March 14, 1913, these women also paid the costs of her funeral and a marble headstone for her grave. One year after her death, the city of Auburn commemorated Tubman with a service in which they dedicated a memorial tablet in her honor. It is located on the front entrance of the courthouse and reads:

In memory of Harriet Tubman.

Born a Slave in Maryland About 1821.

Died in Auburn, N.Y., March 10, 1913.

Called the Moses of her people, during the Civil War.

With rare courage she led over three hundred negroes up from slavery to freedom, and rendered invaluable service as nurse and spy. With implicit trust in God, she braved every danger and overcame every obstacle. Withal she possessed extraordinary foresight and judgment so that she truthfully said

"On my underground railroad

I nebber run my train off de track

an' I nebber los' a passenger."

As historian Benjamin Quarles has noted, Tubman garnered almost mythological status even during her lifetime. Friends and acquaintances were never at a loss for words of praise and respect. Despite her lack of formal education and impoverished state, she struggled continuously for the improvement of black life. Much of Tubman's appeal to her contemporaries and later generations had its source in the unremitting self-sacrifice of her day-to-day labors. Frederick Douglass once wrote to her with great appreciation of her humbleness and willingness to serve the poorest and most in need.

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 … while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt "God bless you" has been your only reward. 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.

Like many abolitionists, Tubman approached her life's work with the conviction that slavery was an evil willed by man, not by God. What distinguished her was her unwavering belief that she was destined to lead her people out of the "jaws of hell" and into the land of freedom, or die in the effort.


Blockson, Charles L. Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad. NY: Hippocrene, 1994.

——. The Underground Railroad: First Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North. NY: Prentice Hall, 1987.

Bradford, Sarah. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. NY: Corinth Books, 1961 (reprint of second edition originally published in 1886).

Haskins, James. Get on Board: The Story of the Underground Railroad. NY: Scholastic, 1993.

Hinton, Richard J. John Brown and His Men, with Some Account of the Roads they traveled to reach Harper's Ferry. New York, 1894.

Quarles, Benjamin. "Harriet Tubman's Unlikely Leadership," in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. Ed. by Leon Litwack and August Meier. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Ripley, C. Peter, ed. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Volume 3: "The United States, 1830–1846" and Volume 5: "The United States, 1859–1865." 4 vols. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Siebert, Wilbur H. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. NY: Macmillan, 1898.

Sterling, Dorothy, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. NY: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Still, William. Still's Underground Rail Road Records, Revised Edition, With a Life of the Author. Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Effort for Freedom. Philadelphia, PA: William Still, Publisher, 1883.

suggested reading:

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Edited by William L. Andrews, and William S. McFeely. NY: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. NY: Pantheon, 1974.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.


Adler, David A., and Samuel Byrd, illustrator. A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman. NY: Holiday House, 1992.

Elish, Dan. Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1993.

Lawrence, Jacob. Harriet and the Promised Land. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Schroeder, Alan, and Jerry Pinkney. Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman. NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1996.

related media:

"Roots of Resistance: A Story of the Underground Railroad" (video), produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell, written by Theodore Thomas, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Video, 1990, distributed by PBS Video.

"The Underground Railroad" (video), Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1996.

historic sites:

Harriet Tubman's Birthplace Marker, Bucktown, Maryland. Located eight miles south of U.S. 50 on Maryland Route 397.

The Harriet Tubman Home. Owned and operated by the A.M.E. Zion Church. Located at 180 South Street, Auburn, New York 13021. Telephone: 315-252-2081.

Margaret M. Storey , Assistant Professor of History, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois