Harriet Tubman

After Escaping From Slavery She Risked Her Life Leading Others to Freedom

Photographic portrait of Harriet Tubman
Library of Congress

Harriet Tubman was born a slave, managed to escape to freedom in the North, and devoted herself to helping other slaves escape via the Underground Railroad.

She helped hundreds of slaves travel northward, with many of them settling in Canada, outside the reach of American fugitive slave laws.

Tubman became well-known in abolitionist circles in the years before the Civil War. She would speak at anti-slavery meetings, and for her exploits in leading slaves out of bondage she was revered as "The Moses of Her People."

Early Life

Harriet Tubman was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland about 1820 (like most slaves, she only had a vague idea of her own birthday). She was originally named Araminta Ross, and was called Minty.

As was customary where she lived, young Minty was hired out as a worker and would be charged with minding younger children of white families. When she was older she worked as a field slave, performing arduous outdoor which included collecting lumber and driving wagons of grain to the Chesapeake Bay wharves.

Minty Ross married John Tubman in 1844, and at some point, she began using her mother's first name, Harriet.

Tubman's Unique Skills

Harriet Tubman received no education and remained illiterate throughout her life. She did, however, gain considerable knowledge of the Bible through oral recitation, and she would often refer to Biblical passages and parables.

From her years of hard work as a field slave, she became physically strong. And she learned skills such as woodcraft and herbal medicine that would be very useful in her later work.

The years of manual labor made her look much older than her actual age, something she would use to her advantage while going undercover in slave territory.

A Profound Injury and Its Aftermath

In her youth, Tubman had been severely injured when a white master threw a lead weight at another slave and struck her in the head. For the rest of her life, she would suffer narcoleptic seizures, occasionally lapsing into a coma-like state.

Because of her odd affliction, people sometimes ascribed mystical powers to her. And she seemed to have an acute sense of imminent danger.

She sometimes spoke of having prophetic dreams. One such dream of approaching danger led her to believe she was about to be sold for plantation work in the Deep South. Her dream prompted her to escape from slavery in 1849.

Tubman's Escape

Tubman escaped from slavery by slipping away from a farm in Maryland and walking to Delaware. From there, probably with the help of local Quakers, she managed to get to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, she became involved with the Underground Railroad and became determined to help other slaves escape to freedom. While living in Philadelphia she found work as a cook, and probably could have lived an uneventful life from that point. But she became energized to return to Maryland and bring back some of her relatives.

The Underground Railroad

Within a year of her own escape, she had returned to Maryland and brought several members of her family northward. And she developed a pattern of going into slave territory about twice a year to lead more slaves to free territory.

While conducting these missions she was always in danger of being caught, and she became adept at avoiding detection. At times she would deflect attention by posing as a much older and feeble woman. She would sometimes carry a book during her travels, which would make anyone think she couldn't be an illiterate fugitive slave.

Underground Railroad Career

Tubman's activities with the Underground Railroad lasted throughout the 1850s. She would typically bring a small group of slaves northward and continue all the way across the border to Canada, where settlements of fugitive slaves had sprung up.

As no records were kept of her activities, it is difficult to assess how many slaves she actually helped. The most reliable estimate is that she returned to slave territory about 15 times, and led more than 200 slaves to freedom.

She was at considerable risk of being captured after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and she often resided in Canada during the 1850s.

Activities During the Civil War

During the Civil War Tubman traveled to South Carolina, where she helped organize a spy ring. Former slaves would collect intelligence about Confederate forces and carry it back to Tubman, who would relay it to Union officers.

According to legend, she accompanied a Union detachment which made an attack on Confederate troops.

She also worked with freed slaves, teaching them basic skills they would need to live as free citizens.

Life After the Civil War

Following the war, Harriet Tubman returned to a house she had purchased in Auburn, New York. She remained active in the cause of helping former slaves, raising money for schools and other charitable works.

She died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913, at the estimated age of 93. She never received a pension for her service to the government during the Civil War, but she is revered as a true hero of the struggle against slavery.

The Smithsonian's planned National Museum of African American History and Culture will feature a collection of Harriet Tubman artifacts.