I INTRODUCTION Tubman, Harriet Ross (1820?-1913), American
abolitionist who escaped from slavery and returned repeatedly to the South to lead other
slaves to freedom.
II SLAVE LIFE
Harriet Tubman was born on Maryland's
Eastern Shore, one of 11 children of Harriet Greene and Benjamin Ross, both slaves. As a
child, she was called Araminta but later defiantly took her mother's first name. (Slaves
were often forbidden to form such public attachments.) At a young age, Tubman worked in
her owner's house as well as in other households to which she was rented. As a teenager,
she worked in the fields, gaining strength and endurance. Still in her teens, she shielded
a slave who was fleeing his owner. The owner hurled a 2-pound weight at the runaway that
missed and struck Tubman on the head, nearly killing her. For the rest of her life, she
was prone to sudden sleeping spells, dizziness, and headaches, and bore a deep gash.
In 1844 she married John Tubman, a free black man. Shortly after
their marriage, she hired a lawyer to trace her mother's history as a slave. The lawyer
discovered records showing that her mother had been briefly free because an earlier owner
had died without making provision for her. Apparently, nobody told Harriet Greene that she
was free, and a short while later she was returned to slavery. This discovery haunted
Tubman. When Tubman's owner died in 1849, Tubman feared that she and members of her family
would be sold to the horrible conditions of the Deep South. Resolved to escape, she tried
to persuade her husband to join her, but he refused. She fled without him, traveling at
night and hiding by day until she came to Pennsylvania, a free state.
III THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Tubman went to Philadelphia, where she
cleaned and cooked for a living, saving her earnings for a return trip to the South to
bring out other members of her family. In 1850 she made her first covert trip to
Baltimore, Maryland, where she rescued her enslaved sister and two children. Tubman soon
became allied with black leader William Still of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, white Quaker
Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, Delaware, and other activists of the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was a loose network of abolitionists who arranged for fugitive
slaves to travel safely from South to North, and Tubman became its most successful
conductor (see Abolitionism in the United States). In an estimated 19 trips to the
South from 1850 to 1860, she guided more than 300 men, women, and children to freedom,
including her own entire family. In 1857 she made perhaps her most remarkable journey,
returning to the North with her aging parents.
In her work, Tubman carried a gun, not to fend off enemies, but to
goad fugitives who grew fainthearted or weary and wanted to return. "Live North, or
die here," she is said to have told them. She also used drugs to quiet crying babies
and employed several disguises. It is believed that all of the slaves in Tubman's care
made it safely to the North, despite large bounties offered for her and her charges'
capture. After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required Northern
states to return escaped slaves, Tubman settled runaways in Canada, in what is now
Ontario. She lived intermittently in Canada, settling with her parents in Auburn, New
York, in the late 1850s.
IV AFTER THE RAILROAD
As Tubman's reputation grew (she was known
among blacks and Northern whites as "Moses"), she gained the support and
friendship of the day's leading progressives, including writer Ralph Waldo Emerson,
abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and reformer Susan B. Anthony. Another supporter, William
Seward, a New York senator and the United States secretary of state, sold Tubman the land
for her Auburn home on generous terms. Among abolitionists, Tubman most admired John
Brown, with whom she helped plan the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. She failed to join
Brown in the raid only because of illness, and she grieved deeply at his hanging. In 1860,
she undertook her most public rescue when she led a crowd in Troy, New York, to free a
fugitive slave who was being returned to the South.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), Northern officials asked Tubman
to help the Union Army. She traveled to South Carolina, where she served as liaison
between the army and newly freed blacks, whom she schooled in self-sufficiency. Tubman
also nursed wounded soldiers, organized and trained scouts, and helped lead a raid against
Confederate troops. Although she received commendation from officers, she received no pay.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn to care for her parents. Though poor and
illiterate herself, she devoted her time to raising money for the education of former
slaves, gathering clothes for poor children, and helping former slaves who were too old
for manual labor. Eventually, she converted her house to a home for the old and poor.
(With the help of Auburn's African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Harriet Tubman
Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People was formally opened in 1908.)
In 1869 Tubman married a former slave and
Union Army veteran, Nelson Davis. Also in 1869 Tubman's friend Sarah Bradford published a
brief biography of her, some of the proceeds of which supported Tubman and her causes.
Prominent friends tried for two decades to persuade the government to give Tubman a
pension for her wartime services. Failing this, they succeeded in 1890 in gaining her a
small veteran's pension as the widow of Davis, who had since died. Tubman spent many of
her later years working on behalf of women's suffrage.
For a biography of Harriet Tubman, Harriet, the Moses of Her
People, by her contemporary, Sarah H. Bradford, see the Library of Black America.