Biography of Harriet Tubman: Freed Enslaved People, Fought for the Union

Harriet Tubman

Seidman Photo Service / Kean Collection / Getty Images

Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–March 10, 1913) was an enslaved woman, freedom seeker, Underground Railroad conductor, North American 19th-century Black activist, spy, soldier, and nurse known for her service during the Civil War and her advocacy of civil rights and women's suffrage.

Tubman remains one of history's most inspiring African Americans and there are many children's stories about her, but those usually stress her early life, escape from enslavement, and work with the Underground Railroad. Less known are her Civil War service and her other activities in the nearly 50 years she lived after the war.

Fast Facts: Harriet Tubman

  • Known For: Participation in the North American 19-century Black activist movement, Civil War work, civil rights
  • Also Known As: Araminta Ross, Araminta Green, Harriet Ross, Harriet Ross Tubman, Moses
  • Born: c. 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland
  • Parents: Benjamin Ross, Harriet Green
  • Died: March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York
  • Spouses: John Tubman, Nelson Davis
  • Children: Gertie
  • Notable Quote: "I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive."

Early Life

Tubman was enslaved from birth in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1820 or 1821, on the plantation of Edward Brodas or Brodess. Her birth name was Araminta, and she was called Minty until she changed her name to Harriet—after her mother—as an early teen. Her parents, Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green were enslaved Africans who saw many of their 11 children sold into the Deep South.

At age 5, Araminta was "rented" to neighbors to do housework. She was never good at household chores and was beaten by her enslavers and "renters." She wasn't educated to read or write. She eventually was assigned to work as a field hand, which she preferred to housework. At age 15, she suffered a head injury when she blocked the path of the overseer pursuing an uncooperative enslaved person. The overseer flung a weight at the other enslaved people, hitting Tubman, who probably sustained a severe concussion. She was ill for a long time and never fully recovered.

In 1844 or 1845, Tubman married John Tubman, a free Black man. Shortly after her marriage, she hired a lawyer to investigate her legal history and discovered that her mother had been freed on a technicality upon the death of a former enslaver The lawyer advised her that a court wouldn't likely hear the case, so she dropped it. But knowing that she should have been born free led her to contemplate freedom and resent her situation.

In 1849, Tubman heard that two of her brothers were about to be sold to the Deep South, and her husband threatened to sell her, too. She tried to persuade her brothers to escape with her but left alone, making her way to Philadelphia and freedom. The next year, Tubman decided to return to Maryland to free her sister and her sister's family. Over the next 12 years, she returned 18 or 19 times, bringing more than 300 people out of enslavement.

Underground Railroad

Tubman's organizing ability was crucial to her work with the Underground Railroad, a network of opponents of enslavement that helped freedom seekers escape. Tubman was only 5 feet tall, but she was smart and strong and carried a rifle. She used it not only to intimidate pro-enslavement people but also to keep enslaved people from backing out. She told any who seemed ready to leave that "dead Negroes tell no tales" about the railroad.

When Tubman first reached Philadelphia, she was, under the law of the time, a free woman, but the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made her a freedom seeker again. All citizens were obligated to aid in her recapture, so she had to operate quietly. But she soon became known throughout the North American 19th-century Black activist circles and freedmen's communities.

After the Fugitive Slave Act passed, Tubman began guiding her Underground Railroad passengers to Canada, where they could be truly free. From 1851 through 1857, she lived parts of the year in St. Catherines, Canada, and Auburn, New York, where many North American 19th-century Black activists lived.

Other Activities

In addition to her twice-yearly trips to Maryland to help freedom seekers escape, Tubman developed her oratorical skills and began speaking publicly at anti-enslavement meetings and, by the end of the decade, women's rights meetings. A price had been placed on her head—at one time it was as high as $40,000—but she was never betrayed.

Tubman freed three of her brothers in 1854, bringing them to St. Catherines. In 1857, Tubman brought her parents to freedom. They couldn't take Canada's climate, so she settled them on land she bought in Auburn with the aid of North American 19th-century Black activists. Earlier, she had returned to rescue her husband John Tubman, only to find he'd remarried and wasn't interested in leaving.

Tubman earned money as a cook and laundress, but she also received support from public figures in New England, including key North American 19th-century Black activists. She was supported by Susan B Anthony, William H. Seward, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann, the Alcotts, including educator Bronson Alcott and writer Louisa May Alcott, William Still of Philadelphia, and Thomas Garratt of Wilmington, Delaware. Some supporters used their homes as Underground Railroad stations.

John Brown

In 1859, when John Brown was organizing a rebellion he believed would end enslavement, he consulted Tubman. She supported his plans at Harper's Ferry, raised funds in Canada, and recruited soldiers. She intended to help him take the armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia to supply guns to enslaved people they believed would rebel against their captivity. But she became ill and wasn't there.

Brown's raid failed and his supporters were killed or arrested. She mourned her friends' deaths and continued to hold Brown as a hero.

Civil War

Tubman's trips to the South as "Moses," as she'd become known for leading her people to freedom, ended as the Southern states began to secede and the U.S. government prepared for war. Once war started, Tubman went South to assist with "contrabands," freedom seekers attached to the Union Army. The next year, the Union Army asked Tubman to organize a network of scouts and spies among Black men. She led forays to gather information and persuade enslaved people to leave their enslavers. Many joined regiments of Black soldiers.

In July 1863, Tubman led troops commanded by Col. James Montgomery in the Combahee River expedition, disrupting Southern supply lines by destroying bridges and railroads and freeing more than 750 enslaved people. Gen. Rufus Saxton, who reported the raid to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, said: "This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, Black or White, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted." Some believe Tubman was allowed to go beyond women's traditional boundaries because of her race.

Tubman, believing she was employed by the U.S. Army, spent her first paycheck on building a place where freed Black women could earn a living doing laundry for soldiers. But she wasn't paid regularly or given rations she believed she deserved. She received only $200 in three years of service, supporting herself by selling baked goods and root beer, which she made after she completed her regular duties.

After the war, Tubman never got her back military pay. When she applied for a pension—with the support of Secretary of State William Seward, Colonel T. W. Higginson, and Rufus—her application was denied. Despite her service and fame, she had no official documents to prove she had served in the war.

Freedmen Schools

After the war, Tubman established schools for freedmen in South Carolina. She never learned to read and write, but she appreciated the value of education and supported efforts to educate formerly enslaved people.

She later returned to her home in Auburn, New York, which was her base for the rest of her life. She financially supported her parents, and her brothers and their families moved to Auburn. Her first husband died in 1867 in a fight with a White man. In 1869 she married Nelson Davis, who had been enslaved in North Carolina but served as a Union Army soldier. He was often ill, probably with tuberculosis, and frequently couldn't work.

Tubman welcomed several children into her home, raising them as her own, and supported some impoverished formerly enslaved people, financing her efforts through donations and loans. In 1874, she and Davis adopted a baby girl named Gertie.

Publishing and Speaking

To finance her life and her support of others, she worked with historian Sarah Hopkins Bradford to publish "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman" in 1869. The book was initially financed by North American 19th-century Black activists, including Wendell Phillips and Gerrit Smith, the latter a supporter of John Brown and first cousin of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Tubman toured to speak about her experiences as "Moses."

In 1886, Bradford, with Tubman's help, wrote a full-scale biography of Tubman titled "Harriet Tubman: Moses of Her People." In the 1890s, she finally was able to collect a pension as Davis' widow: $8 a month.

Tubman also worked with Susan B. Anthony on women's suffrage. She attended women's rights conventions and spoke for the women's movement, advocating for the rights of Black women. In 1896, Tubman spoke at the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women.

Continuing to support aged and poor African Americans, Tubman established a home on 25 acres next to her home in Auburn, raising money with help from the AME Church and a local bank. The home, which opened in 1908, initially was called the John Brown Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People but later was named for her.

She donated the home to the AME Zion Church with the proviso that it would be kept as a home for the elderly. She moved into the home in 1911 and died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913.


Tubman became an icon after her death. A World War II Liberty ship was named for her, and in 1978 she was featured on a commemorative stamp. Her home has been named a national historic landmark.

The four phases of Tubman's life—an enslaved person; a North American 19th-century Black activist and conductor on the Underground Railroad; a Civil War soldier, nurse, spy, and scout; and a social reformer—are important aspects of her dedication to service. Schools and museums bear her name and her history has been told in books, movies, and documentaries.

In April 2016, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill by 2020, but the plans were delayed.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Harriet Tubman: Freed Enslaved People, Fought for the Union." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Biography of Harriet Tubman: Freed Enslaved People, Fought for the Union. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Harriet Tubman: Freed Enslaved People, Fought for the Union." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).