Biography of Harriet Tubman

Accomplishments of the Underground Railroad Leader

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Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railroad. Public Domain

Harriet Tubman (1821 - 1913)  led over 200 slaves to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Contemporaries called her "Moses" and "General Tubman" in praise of her bravery and leadership. Frederick Douglass lauded Tubman's courage by saying,  "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 [Harriet Tubman]." Radical abolitionist John Brown agreed and characterized Tubman as "one of the bravest persons on this continent."

Early Life

In 1821, Tubman was born into slavery on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Harriet's name at birth was Araminta Ross. When she was 11, Araminta chose a new name to signal her coming of age: her mother's name, Harriet. At age five, young Harriet began working as a house slave, doing chores like weaving. When she was 12, her master moved her into the fields to work.

Harriet was brave and confident from an early age. As a teenager, Harriet moved to defend a fellow slave from the violence of an overseer, taking a blow from a heavy weight that was thrown at her compatriot. Harriet suffered the effects of this head injury for the rest of her life. In addition to a scar, Harriet experienced uncontrollable spells of sleep.

Escape to Freedom

Harriet took the surname Tubman when she married John Tubman in 1844. John was free, and he never understood why his wife longed to escape to the North for her freedom.

They parted ways when she finally escaped.

In 1849, the master of Harriet's plantation died, and she began to worry that all of the slaves on the plantation would be sold. Slaves who lived in upper-South states like Maryland lived in fear of being sold away from their families to the Deep South. Harriet made the decision to escape.

On September 17, 1849, Tubman ran away with two of her brothers, Ben and Henry. A reward of $300 was offered for the return of Tubman and her brothers. Fearful, her brothers returned to the plantation. But Tubman refused.

Using the Underground Railroad, Tubman traveled almost 90 miles to freedom. She later 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.”

Conductor on The Underground Railroad

Once Tubman reached Philadelphia, she made contact with abolitionists such as William Still, a famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a network of individuals who escorted escaping slaves from the South to safety in the North. 

Between 1851 and 1860, Tubman made 19 trips as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She rescued her parents and other family members as well as other slaves desirous of freedom. She was proud of never incurring any casualties on these trips; all of her "passengers" made it to the North safely. Tubman operated in strict secrecy, and the details of many her trips remain unknown.

She believed that God had orchestrated her freedom so that she could help other slaves escape.

In addition to her faith, Tubman's cool temperament and courage made her a particularly fruitful conductor. On one trip, she brandished a rifle at a passenger who wanted to turn back, explaining that "a live runaway could do a great harm by going back, but . . . a dead one could tell no secrets," according to William Still in ​"The Underground Railroad" (1872).

On another trip, she gave a harmless drug that acted as a sedative to a crying baby to avoid detection. If Tubman became aware that she and her group were being followed, she was not afraid to go even deeper into the South to lose the trail. Tubman's success at escorting slaves to freedom became so well-known that by 1856 Southern slaveholders were offering a $40,000 reward for her capture.

Civil War Activities

Tubman continued her work with the Underground Railroad right up until 1860. When Civil War broke out in 1861, Tubman, who was living in safety in Canada, returned to the South to work for the Union army. She believed that the outbreak of war indicated that slavery would soon be abolished and wanted to help hasten its ending. During the war, she worked as a nurse, ministering to slaves who escaped their masters to join the Union army.

In 1863, Tubman became a spy for Colonel James Montgomery, putting together a network of spies who apprised him of slaves who wanted to escape and become a Union soldier. She worked as a scout for Montgomery's Combahee River Raid into South Carolina, which freed nearly 500 slaves.

Post-Emancipation Life

At the end of the war, Tubman met her second husband, Nelson Davis, who was a Union soldier. They enjoyed a 19-year marriage, moving to Auburn, New York at the end of hostilities. Tubman did not stop her tireless work on behalf of others. She organized fundraisers for the African-American churches who had sheltered runaways prior to the war and founded a home for the elderly and poor on a property next to her house. It was at this home that Tubman died in 1913.

Tubman’s Impact

Frederick Douglass wrote to Tubman, “I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardship to serve our enslaved people than you.” Tubman’s life is the stuff of legend, but Tubman never sought fame and remained humble throughout her life. More than anything, Tubman wanted to serve God and bring others to freedom.

Sources

Humez, Jean McMahon. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin press, 2003.

Quarles, Benjamin. “Harriet Tubman’s Unlikely Leadership.” In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Leon F. Litwack and August Meier. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991. 43-57.

Still, William. ​The Underground Rail Road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872. Available at http://deila.dickinson.edu/theirownwords/title/0088.htm.

Updated by African-American History Expert, Femi Lewis.