• Exploring American History

Harriet Tubman was the Underground Railroad’s greatest conductor

The 11th child of enslaved parents Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene, Araminta (Minty) was born at Edward Brodas’ plantation in Bucktown, Dorchester County, Maryland. The actual year of her birth is unknown to historians, but is thought to have occurred sometime between 1820 and 1825.

One of nine children, Minty saw three of her sisters sold to distant plantations. Later, a slave trader from Georgia approached the family’s owner about buying Minty’s youngest brother; however, her mother successfully prevailed upon their owner to not further fracture her family. The efforts put forth by her mother on behalf of the family proved to be a powerful example to young Minty.

When Minty was five years old, she was loaned out to another plantation where she was put to work checking muskrat traps in the surrounding icy cold rivers. She had already contracted the measles and before long, she was too sick to work. Minty was returned home suffering from exposure and malnutrition. Her mother nursed her back to health and as soon as she was well, she was again loaned out, this time to be a nurse to another plantation owner’s young child. By the time she was 12, she was a field hand, plowing and hauling wood.

Living the life of a slave had its physically violent moments for Minty. On one occasion, she received five lashes before breakfast for allowing a baby to cry, which left physical scars on her the rest of her life. During a trip to a dry-goods store for supplies when she was a teenager, Minty crossed paths with another slave who was away from the fields without permission. This man’s overseer demanded Minty to help restrain the wayward slave, but she refused. When she did, the overseer threw a two-pound weight at her, which struck her in the head. The injury resulted in Minty suffering severe headaches, seizures and narcoleptic episodes for the rest of her life, thought to be a result of temporal lobe epilepsy.

When he was 45, Minty’s father was manumitted (freed from slavery) following the death of his master in accordance to the will the master left behind. Though Ben was now a freeman, few employment options were available to him, so he continued his work as a foreman and timber estimator for his former owners. Rit, Araminta’s mother, was owned by a different family, who refused to free her. After acquiring the services of a white lawyer, Ben learned Rit’s former owner had left instructions for her to be manumitted at the age of 45. Her current owners, however, ignored the stipulation when they inherited Rit. Unfortunately, being able to challenge their actions on a legal basis was an impossible task for Ben.

By the time Araminta reached adulthood, approximately half of the blacks on Maryland’s eastern shore were now free. As a result, it was not uncommon to find families containing both enslaved and free individuals. In 1844, she married John Tubman, a freeman. At the time of her marriage, Araminta changed her name to Harriett, possibly in honor of her mother. Though she was married to a freeman, Harriett was still a slave and was required to continue working for her master. She later shared her dream of gaining her freedom with her husband, but John told her it would never happen. He also told her if she ever tried to run away, he would turn her in.

Harriet’s life took a new turn in 1849 when she successfully fled to Philadelphia and escaped slavery. Prior to her flight, Harriet had prayed for God to change the heart of her master and his thoughts about selling her and separating her family. When that did not seem to work, she changed her prayer and asked, “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, her owner contracted a severe illness and died. Tubman expressed regret regarding her earlier prayers and soon began to fear her family would now be severed. Her poor health at the time did little to comfort her either, instilling in her fears of her own fate due to having low economic value since she was a sickly slave.

On September 17, 1849, she left Maryland with two of her brothers, Henry and Ben. Following a notice published in the Cambridge Democrat offering a $300 reward for the return of the three runaway slaves, Ben and Henry had second thoughts on the idea and returned to their master. Harriet, on the other hand, had absolutely no desire to remain a slave and set off for Pennsylvania. "There 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.”

As Harriet set out to travel the 90 miles to Philadelphia, she enlisted the help of the Underground Railroad. Traveling by foot at night, she used the North Star to guide her. After crossing the state line into Pennsylvania, she breathed a sigh of relief and said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Conductors of the Underground Railroad used a number of deceptions in an effort to protect the runaway slaves. At one home where Harriet stayed, the woman who owned the home ordered her outside to sweep the yard in an effort to make it appear Harriet belonged here. When night fell, the family hid her in a cart and took her to the railroad’s next stop.

After arriving in Philadelphia, Harriet soon found work as a cook and laundress. She saved the larger portion of her earnings to use in fulfilling her promise to help free her family and friends as well.

December 1850, Harriet was made aware of the fact her niece, Kessiah, would be sold, along with two of her children. Thankfully when Kessiah’s auction took place in Baltimore, her husband, John Bowley, a freeman, was able to make the winning bid for her. As John went through the motions of making arrangements to pay, Kessiah and the children escaped to a safe house. After dark, John sailed the family 60 miles to Baltimore in a log canoe. There they met up with Tubman, who safely assisted the family in their travels to Philadelphia, the first of many trips she would make to help others escape. These trips earned her the nickname “Moses” due to the leadership she showed in the process.

By utilizing the help of the Underground Railroad, Harriet successfully moved large numbers of individuals from bondage to freedom in the North. Along the way, she informed her “passengers” if any of them considered the idea of returning to their former homes, the penalty they faced would be death. Her persuasive words resulted in Harriet not losing any “passengers”.

Underground Railroad conductor William Still said of Harriet: "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." Between the year of her escape (1849) and the beginning of the Civil War (1861), the team of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad became abolitionism’s most dominant force.

Winter was Tubman’s most active time of the year. The nights were dark and long, offering her an extended time frame in which to work. After gathering her new group of “passengers”, Harriet would head out on Saturday evening; due to the fact newspapers would not publish runaway notices until Monday morning.

Harriet quickly became the hottest topic of conversations within abolitionist societies and the cabins of slaves. Southern slave owners, however, were not amused and soon offered rewards for her capture. Harriet scoffed at the idea of giving up and pressed on, using a selection of subterfuges to help keep from being recognized. Wearing a bonnet and carrying two live chickens on one occasion, Harriet made it look like she was running an errand. Noticing a former owner approaching, she released the chickens and the ruckus they made helped her to avoid eye contact. On another occasion, Harriet recognized a fellow passenger on the train with her as a former master. She quickly grabbed a nearby newspaper and pretended to read it. Due to the fact it was known Tubman was illiterate, the man ignored her. This illiteracy almost did her in when she fell asleep under one of her own wanted posters.

Eventually, Harriet was able to get her family to freedom; a sister in 1850, one brother in 1851 and three more in 1854 and her parents in 1857. She also helped approximately 60 additional individuals to freedom. One family member who chose to stay behind was Harriet’s husband, John. When she made her first return visit to Maryland, Harriet went to John’s cabin in an effort to convince him to come with her. She then learned he now had a new wife, Caroline, and chose to stay in Maryland with her. He died 16 years later during a roadside argument with a white man.

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. This law said it was now legal to capture an escaped slave in the North and return him/her to slavery. In addition, law enforcement officials in the North were required to aid in the capture of these individuals, regardless of what feelings they held. The passage of the law forced Tubman to reroute the Underground Railroad to Canada where slavery was prohibited. In 1851 while guiding a group of 11 fugitives to Canada, Harriet made a stopover at the home of Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned abolitionist. In 1868, Douglass learned of a biography being written about Tubman and submitted a letter to honor her:

You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. 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. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. ... 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.

Tubman met abolitionist John Brown in April 1858. Brown was a staunch advocate of using violence to destroy the institution of slavery. Tubman tolerated his methods since she had the same goals in mind – ending slavery. At Harper’s Ferry, Brown began a campaign for an attack on slaveholders and recruited “General Tubman” to help him. Brown’s goal was to raid the armory and ignite a rebellion by distributing the weapons among the slaves. He was later arrested and tried for treason. When Brown was executed, Tubman praised him as a martyr.

Throughout the Civil War, Tubman remained busy. She became a nurse and cook for the Union Army and was soon an armed scout and spy. Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition, during which she helped liberate more than 700 South Carolina slaves during the Combahee River Raid. Years later, Harriet spoke to a group and told them: "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."

In 1859, Tubman acquired a small piece of land from abolitionist Senator William H. Seward, situated on the outskirts of Auburn, New York. The acreage became a haven for Harriett and her family. Tubman began taking in boarders to help pay the bills while caring for her aged parents. One of her borders was Nelson Davis, a Civil War veteran who worked as a bricklayer in Auburn. Tubman and Nelson fell in love, though he was 22 years younger than Harriet. On March 18, 1869, the couple was married at the Central Presbyterian Church and spent the next 20 years together. In 1874, the couple adopted a baby girl named Gertie. In 1888, Nelson died of tuberculosis.

Despite her reputation and fame, Harriet never experienced financial security. One of her admirers, author Sarah H. Bradford, penned a biography about her entitled Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. All proceeds from the book were given to Harriet and her family. Despite her financial hardships, however, Tubman continued to freely give of what assets she possessed. In 1903, she gave a portion of her land to Auburn’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1908, the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged opened in the same spot. Harriet believed God had called her to help her people, and once told 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."

In Tubman’s later years, she underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to help relieve the pain and “buzzing” she regularly experienced due to the head injuries she suffered as a youth. Eventually, she became a resident at the rest home named for her. She died there in 1913 from pneumonia. Before she breathed her last, she told those around her, “I go to prepare a place for you.” She was buried in Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery with full military honors. The city honored her life’s accomplishments with a plaque on the courthouse and invited Booker T. Washington to deliver the keynote address during the ceremony.

Years after she died, she became an American icon; so much so she is third on the list of pre-Civil War famous civilians, behind Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. In 1937 a gravestone for Harriet Tubman Davis was put in place by the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs. It was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. In 1944, the United States Maritime Commission launched its first Liberty ship, the SS Harriet Tubman. The ship was the first ever to be named for a black woman. A commemorative stamp was issued in 1978 by the United States Postal Service in honor of Tubman, the first in a series honoring black Americans.

I freed thousands of slaves, and could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.” Harriet Tubman

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