Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in March 1822 and died March 10, 1913. She was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women’s suffrage.
Born enslaved in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her various masters as a child. Early in life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an irate overseer threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another enslaved person, but hit her instead. The injury caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia, which occurred throughout her life. After her injury, Tubman began experiencing strange visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions from God. These experiences, combined with her Methodist upbringing, led her to become devoutly religious.
In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, only to return to Maryland to rescue her family soon after. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other enslaved people to freedom. Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or “Moses”, as she was called) “never lost a passenger”. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she helped guide fugitives farther north into British North America (Canada), and helped newly freed enslaved people to find work. Tubman met John Brown in 1858, and helped him plan and recruit supporters for his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.
When the Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people. After the war, she retired to the family home on property she had purchased in 1859 in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement until illness overtook her, and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier. After her death in 1913, she became an icon of courage and freedom.
Her Escape from Slavery
In 1849, Tubman became ill again, which diminished her value as a slave. Edward Brodess tried to sell her, but could not find a buyer. Angry at him for trying to sell her and for continuing to enslave her relatives, Tubman began to pray for her owner, asking God to make him change his ways. She said later: “I prayed all night long for my master till the first of March; and all the time he was bringing people to look at me, and trying to sell me.” When it appeared as though a sale was being concluded, “I changed my prayer”, she said. “First of March I began to pray, ‘Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.'” A week later, Brodess died, and Tubman expressed regret for her earlier sentiments.
As in many estate settlements, Brodess’s death increased the likelihood that Tubman would be sold and her family broken apart. His widow, Eliza, began working to sell the family’s enslaved people. Tubman refused to wait for the Brodess family to decide her fate, despite her husband’s efforts to dissuade her. “[T]here was one of two things I had a right to”, she explained later, “liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other”.
Tubman and her brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped from slavery on September 17, 1849. Tubman had been hired out to Anthony Thompson (the son of her father’s former owner), who owned a large plantation in an area called Poplar Neck in neighboring Caroline County; it is likely her brothers labored for Thompson as well. Because the enslaved were hired out to another household, Eliza Brodess probably did not recognize their absence as an escape attempt for some time. Two weeks later, she posted a runaway notice in the Cambridge Democrat, offering a reward of up to $100 for each slave returned. Once they had left, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts. Ben may have just become a father. The two men went back, forcing Tubman to return with them.
Soon afterward, Tubman escaped again, this time without her brothers. She tried to send word of her plans beforehand to her mother. She sang a coded song to Mary, a trusted fellow enslaved, that was a farewell. “I’ll meet you in the morning”, she intoned, “I’m bound for the promised land.” While her exact route is unknown, Tubman made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad. This informal but well-organized system was composed of free and enslaved Blacks, white abolitionists, and other activists. Most prominent among the latter in Maryland at the time were members of the Religious Society of Friends, often called Quakers. The Preston area near Poplar Neck contained a substantial Quaker community and was probably an important first stop during Tubman’s escape. From there, she probably took a common route for people fleeing slavery – northeast along the Choptank River, through Delaware and then north into Pennsylvania. A journey of nearly 90 miles (145 km) by foot would have taken between five days and three weeks.
Tubman had to travel by night, guided by the North Star and trying to avoid slave catchers eager to collect rewards for fugitive slaves. The “conductors” in the Underground Railroad used deceptions for protection. At an early stop, the lady of the house instructed Tubman to sweep the yard so as to seem to be working for the family. When night fell, the family hid her in a cart and took her to the next friendly house. Given her familiarity with the woods and marshes of the region, Tubman likely hid in these locales during the day. The particulars of her first journey are unknown; because other fugitives from slavery used the routes, Tubman did not discuss them until later in life.
Her Significance – The Underground Railroad
Tubman’s dangerous work required tremendous ingenuity; she usually worked during winter months, to minimize the likelihood that the group would be seen. One admirer of Tubman said: “She always came in the winter, when the nights are long and dark, and people who have homes stay in them.” Once she had made contact with escaping slaves, they left town on Saturday evenings, since newspapers would not print runaway notices until Monday morning.
Her journeys into the land of slavery put her at tremendous risk, and she used a variety of subterfuges to avoid detection. Tubman once disguised herself with a bonnet and carried two live chickens to give the appearance of running errands. Suddenly finding herself walking toward a former owner in Dorchester County, she yanked the strings holding the birds’ legs, and their agitation allowed her to avoid eye contact. Later she recognized a fellow train passenger as another former master; she snatched a nearby newspaper and pretended to read. Tubman was known to be illiterate, and the man ignored her.
While being interviewed by author Wilbur Siebert in 1897, Tubman named some of the people who helped her and places that she stayed along the Underground Railroad. She stayed with Sam Green, a free black minister living in East New Market, Maryland; she also hid near her parents’ home at Poplar Neck. She would travel from there northeast to Sandtown and Willow Grove, Delaware, and to the Camden area where free black agents, William and Nat Brinkley and Abraham Gibbs, guided her north past Dover, Smyrna, and Blackbird, where other agents would take her across the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to New Castle and Wilmington. In Wilmington, Quaker Thomas Garrett would secure transportation to William Still’s office or the homes of other Underground Railroad operators in the greater Philadelphia area. Still is credited with aiding hundreds of freedom seekers escape to safer places farther north in New York, New England, and present-day Southern Ontario.
Tubman’s religious faith was another important resource as she ventured repeatedly into Maryland. The visions from her childhood head injury continued, and she saw them as divine premonitions. She spoke of “consulting with God”, and trusted that He would keep her safe. Thomas Garrett once said of her, “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.” Her faith in the divine also provided immediate assistance. She used spirituals as coded messages, warning fellow travelers of danger or to signal a clear path. She sang versions of “Go Down Moses” and changed the lyrics to indicate that it was either safe or too dangerous to proceed. As she led fugitives across the border, she would call out, “Glory to God and Jesus, too. One more soul is safe!”
She carried a revolver, and was not afraid to use it. The gun afforded some protection from the ever-present slave catchers and their dogs; however, she also purportedly threatened to shoot any escaped slave who tried to turn back on the journey since that would threaten the safety of the remaining group. Tubman told the tale of one man who insisted he was going to go back to the plantation when morale got low among a group of fugitive slaves. She pointed the gun at his head and said, “You go on or die.” Several days later, he was with the group as they entered Canada.
Slaveholders in the region, meanwhile, never knew that “Minty”, the petite, five-foot-tall (150 cm), disabled slave who had run away years before and never come back, was responsible for so many slave escapes in their community. By the late 1850s, they began to suspect a northern white abolitionist was secretly enticing their slaves away. Though a popular legend persists about a reward of US$40,000 (equivalent to $1,138,220 in 2019) for Tubman’s capture, this is a manufactured figure. In 1868, in an effort to entice support for Tubman’s claim for a Civil War military pension, a former abolitionist named Salley Holley wrote an article claiming $40,000 “was not too great a reward for Maryland slaveholders to offer for her”. Such a high reward would have garnered national attention, especially at a time when a small farm could be purchased for a mere US$400 (equivalent to $11,380 in 2019) and the federal government offered $25,000 for the capture of each of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators in President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. A reward offering of $12,000 has also been claimed, though no documentation has been found for either figure. Catherine Clinton suggests that the $40,000 figure may have been a combined total of the various bounties offered around the region.
Despite the efforts of the slaveholders, Tubman and the fugitives she assisted were never captured. Years later, she told an audience: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”