Biography of Harriet Tubman

From Underground Railroad to Spy to Activist

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman. Seidman Photo Service/Kean Collection/Getty Images

Harriet Tubman was a fugitive slave, underground railroad conductor, abolitionist, spy, soldier, Civil War, African American, nurse, known for her work with Underground Railroad, Civil War service, and later, her advocacy of civil rights and woman suffrage.

While Harriet Tubman (about 1820 - March 10, 1913) remains one of history's best-known African Americans, until recently there have been few biographies of her written for adults.

Because her life is inspiring, there are appropriately many children's stories about Tubman, but these tend to stress her early life, her own escape from slavery, and her work with the Underground Railroad.

Less well known and neglected by many historians are her Civil War service and her activities in the nearly 50 years she lived after the Civil War ended. In this article, you'll find details about Harriet Tubman's life in slavery and her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, but you'll also find information about Tubman's later and less-known work and life.

Life in Slavery

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County on the Eastern shore of 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 - in her early teen years. Her parents, Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, were enslaved Ashanti Africans who had eleven children, and saw many of the older children sold into the Deep South.

At five years old, Araminta was "rented" to neighbors to do housework. She was never very good at household chores, and was beaten regularly by her owners and those who "rented" her. She was, of course, not educated to read or write. She eventually was assigned work as a field hand, which she preferred to household work.

Although she was a small woman, she was strong, and her time working in the fields probably contributed to her strength.

At age fifteen she sustained a head injury, when she deliberately blocked the path of the overseer pursuing an uncooperative fellow slave, and was hit by the heavy weight the overseer tried to fling at the other slave. Harriet, who probably sustained a severe concussion, was ill for a long time following this injury, and never fully recovered. She had periodic "sleeping fits" which, in the early years after her injury, made her less attractive as a slave to others who wanted her services.

When the old master died, the son who inherited the slaves was able to hire Harriet out to a lumber merchant, where her work was appreciated and where she was allowed to keep some money she earned from extra work.

In 1844 or 1845, Harriet married John Tubman, a free black. The marriage was apparently not a good match, from the beginning.

Shortly after her marriage, she hired a lawyer to investigate her own legal history, and discovered that her mother had been freed on a technicality upon the death of a former owner. But her lawyer advised her that a court would be unlikely to hear the case, so Tubman dropped it.

But knowing that she should have been born free—not a slave—led her to contemplate freedom and resent her situation.

In 1849, several events came together to motivate Tubman to act. She heard that two of her brothers were about to be sold to the Deep South. And her husband threatened to sell her South, too. She tried to persuade her brothers to escape with her, but ended up leaving alone, making her way to Philadelphia, and freedom.

The year after Harriet Tubman's arrival in the North, she decided to return to Maryland to free her sister and her sister's family. Over the next 12 years, she returned 18 or 19 more times, bringing a total of more than 300 slaves out of slavery.

Underground Railroad

Tubman's organizing ability was key to her success—she had to work with supporters on the clandestine Underground Railroad, as well as get messages to the slaves, since she met them away from their plantations to avoid detection.

They usually left on a Saturday evening, as the Sabbath might delay anyone noticing their absence for another day, and if anyone did note their flight, the Sabbath would certainly delay anyone from organizing an effective pursuit or publishing a reward.

Tubman was only about five feet tall, but she was smart and she was strong—and she carried a long rifle. She used the rifle not only to intimidate pro-slavery people they might meet, but also to keep any of the slaves from backing out. She threatened any who seemed like they were about to leave, telling them that "dead Negroes tell no tales." A slave who returned from one of these trips could betray too many secrets: who had helped, what paths the flight had taken, how messages were passed.

Fugitive Slave Act

When Tubman had first arrived in Philadelphia, she was, under the law of the time, a free woman. But the next year, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, her status changed: she became, instead, a fugitive slave, and all citizens were obligated under the law to aid in her recapture and return. So she had to operate as quietly as possible, but nevertheless she was soon known throughout abolitionist circles and the freedmen's communities.

As the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act became clear, Tubman began guiding her "passengers" on the underground railroad all the way to Canada, where they could be truly free. From 1851 through 1857, she herself lived part of the year in St. Catherines, Canada, as well as spending some time in the area of Auburn, New York, where many of the citizens were anti-slavery.

Other Activities

In addition to her twice-a-year trips back to Maryland to help slaves escape, Tubman developed her already-substantial oratorical skills and began to appear more openly as a public speaker, at anti-slavery meetings and, by the end of the decade, at women's rights meetings, too. A price had been placed on her head—at one time as high as $12,000 and later even $40,000. But she was never betrayed.

Among those she brought out of slavery were members of her own family. Tubman freed three of her brothers in 1854, bringing them to St. Catherines. In 1857, on one of her trips to Maryland, Tubman was able to bring both of her parents to freedom. She first established them in Canada, but they could not take the climate, and so she settled them on land she bought in Auburn with the aid of abolitionist supporters. Pro-slavery writers criticized her strongly for bringing her "frail" elderly parents to the hardship of a life in the North. In 1851, she returned to see her husband, John Tubman, only to find that he'd remarried, and was not interested in leaving.

Supporters

Her trips were largely financed by her own funds, earned as a cook and laundress. But she also received support from many public figures in New England and many key abolitionists. Harriet Tubman knew, and was supported by, Susan B AnthonyWilliam H. Seward, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann and the Alcotts, including educator Bronson Alcott and writer Louisa May Alcott, among others. Many of these supporters—like Susan B.

Anthony—gave Tubman the use of their homes as stations on the underground railroad. Tubman also had crucial support from abolitionists William Still of Philadelphia and Thomas Garratt of Wilmington, Delaware.

John Brown

When John Brown was organizing for a rebellion that he believed would end slavery, he consulted with Harriet Tubman, then in Canada. She supported his plans at Harper's Ferry, helped raise funds in Canada, helped recruit soldiers and she intended to be there to help him take the armory to supply guns to slaves who they believed would rise up in rebellion against their enslavement. But she became ill and was not at Harper's Ferry when John Brown's raid failed and his supporters were killed or arrested. She mourned the death of her friends in the raid, and continued to hold John Brown as a hero.

Ending Her Trips

Harriet Tubman's trips to the South as "Moses"—as she'd come to be known for leading her people to freedom—ended as the Southern states began to secede to form the Confederacy, and the government of Abraham Lincoln prepared for war.

Nurse, Scout and Spy in the Civil War

After war broke out, Harriet Tubman went South to assist and work with "contrabands"—escaped slaves who were attached to the Union Army. She also briefly went to Florida on a similar mission.

In 1862, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts arranged for Tubman to go to Beaufort, South Carolina, as a nurse and teacher to the Gullah people of the Sea Islands who had been left behind by their owners when they fled the advance of the Union Army, which remained in control of the islands.

The next year, the Union Army asked Tubman to organize a network of scouts—and spies—among the black men of the area. She not only organized a sophisticated information-gathering operation, she led several forays herself in pursuit of information. Not so incidentally, another purpose of these forays was to persuade slaves to leave their masters, many to join the regiments of black soldiers. Her years as "Moses" and her ability to move about secretly were excellent background for this new assignment.

In July of 1863, Harriet Tubman led troops under the command of Colonel James Montgomery in the Combahee River expedition, disrupting Southern supply lines by destroying bridges and railroads. The mission also freed more than 750 slaves. Tubman is credited not only with significant leadership responsibilities for the mission itself, but with singing to calm the slaves and keep the situation in hand. Tubman came under Confederate fire on this mission. General Saxton, who reported the raid to Secretary of War 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." Tubman reported later that most of the freed slaves joined "the colored regiment."

Tubman was also present for the defeat of the 54th Massachusetts, the black unit led by Robert Gould Shaw.

Catherine Clinton, in Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War, suggests that Harriet Tubman may have been allowed to go beyond women's traditional boundaries more than most women, because of her race. (Clinton, p. 94)

Tubman believed that she was in the employ of the U.S. Army. When she received her first paycheck, she spent it to build a place where freed black women could earn a living doing laundry for the soldiers. But then she wasn't paid regularly again, and wasn't given the military rations she believed she was entitled to. She was paid only a total of $200 in three years of service. She supported herself and her work by selling baked goods and root beer which she made after she completed her regular work duties.

After the war was over, Tubman was never paid her back military pay. In addition, when she applied for a pension—with the support of Secretary of State William Seward, Colonel T. W. Higginson, and General Rufus—her application was denied. Harriet Tubman did eventually receive a pension—but as the widow of a soldier, her second husband.

Freedman Schools

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman worked to establish schools for freedmen in South Carolina. She herself never learned to read and write, but she appreciated the value of education for the future of freedom and so supported efforts to educate the former slaves.

New York

Tubman soon returned to her home in Auburn, New York, which served as her base for the rest of her life.

She financially supported her parents, who died in 1871 and 1880.  Her brothers and their families moved to Auburn.

Her husband, John Tubman, who had remarried soon after she left slavery, died in 1867 in a fight with a white man.  In 1869 she married again. Her second husband, Nelson Davis, had been enslaved in North Carolina and then served as a Union Army soldier. He was more than twenty years younger than Tubman. Davis was often ill, probably with tuberculosis, and was not often able to work.

Tubman welcomed several young children into her home and raised them as if they were her own. she and her husband adopted a girl, Gertie. She also provided shelter and support for a number of aged, impoverished, former slaves.  She financed her support of others through donations and taking on loans.

Publishing and Speaking

To finance her own living and her support of others, she worked with Sarah Hopkins Bradford to publish Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. The publication was initially financed by abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips and Gerrit Smith, the latter a supporter of John Brown and first cousin of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Tubman toured to speak about her experiences as "Moses." Queen Victoria invited her to England for the Queen's birthday, and sent Tubman a silver medal.

In 1886, Mrs. Bradford wrote, with Tubman's help, a second book, Harriet the Moses of Her People, a full-scale biography of Tubman, to further provide for Tubman's support. In the 1890s, having lost her battle to get a military pension on her own, Tubman was able to collect a pension as the widow of US veteran Nelson Davis.

Tubman also worked with her friend Susan B. Anthony on woman suffrage. She went to several women's rights conventions and spoke for the women's movement, advocating for the rights of women of color.

In 1896, in a touching link to the next generation of African American women activists, Tubman spoke at the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women.

Compensation for Her Civil War Services

Although Harriet Tubman was well known, and her work in the Civil War also known, she had no official documents to prove that she had served in the war.  She worked for 30 years with the help of many friends and contacts to appeal the rejection of her application for compensation.  Newspapers ran stories about the effort.  When Nelson Davis, her second husband, died in 1888, Tubman received a Civil War pension of $8 per month, as the widow of a veteran.  She did not receive compensation for her own service.

Scammed

In 1873, her brother was offered a trunk of gold worth $5000, supposedly buried by slaveholders during the war, in exchange for $2000 in paper currency.  Harriet Tubman found the story convincing, and borrowed the $2000 from a friend, promising to pay back $2000 from the gold.  When the money was to be exchanged for the trunk of gold, the men were able to get Harriet Tubman alone, apart from her brother and her husband, and physically assault her, taking the money, and of course not providing any gold in return.  The men who conned her were never apprehended.

Home for Indigent African Americans

Thinking of the future and continuing her support for aged and poor African Americans, Tubman established a home on 25 acres of land next to where she was living. She raised money, with the AME Church providing much of the funds, and a local bank assisting.  She incorporated the home in 1903 and opened in 1908, initially called the John Brown Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People, and later named for her instead of Brown.

She donated the home to the AME Zion Church with the proviso that it would be kept as a home for the elderly.  The home, to which she moved in 1911 after she was hospitalized, continued for several years after her death on March 10, 1913 of pneumonia. She was buried with full military honors.

Legacy

To honor her memory, a World War II Liberty ship was named for Harriet Tubman. In 1978 she was featured on a commemorative stamp in the U.S. Her home has been named a national historic landmark. And in 2000, New York Congressman Edolphus Towns introduced a bill to grant Tubman the veteran status she was denied in her lifetime.

The four phases of Harriet Tubman's life—her life as a slave, as an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, as a Civil War soldier, nurse, spy and scout, and as a social reformer and charitable citizen—are all important aspects of this woman's long life of dedication to service. All these phases deserve attention and further study.

Harriet Tubman on the Currency

In April, 2016, Jacob J. Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, announced several upcoming changes to United States currency.  Among the most controversial: that the $20 bill, which had featured Andrew Jackson on the front, would instead feature Harriet Tubman on the face.  (Other women and civil rights leaders would be added to the $5 and $10 notes.)  Jackson, infamous for the removal of Cherokees from their land in the Trail of Tears, resulting in many deaths of Native Americans, also enslaved people of  African descent, while endearing himself to the "common [white] man" and honored as a war hero.  Jackson would move to the back of the bill in a smaller image along with an image of the White House.

Organizations: New England Anti-Slavery Society, General Vigilance Committee, Underground Railroad, National Federation of Afro-American Women, National Association of Colored Women, New England Women's Suffrage Association, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Also known as: Araminta Green or Araminta Ross (birth name), Harriet Ross, Harriet Ross Tubman, Moses

Selected Harriet Tubman Quotations

  • I grew up like a neglected weed, ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. Then I was not happy or contented: every time I saw a white man I was afraid of being carried away.
  • 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.
  • I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.
  • Quakers almost as good as colored.... They call themselves friends and you can trust them every time.
  • I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.
  • We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.
  • [quoted by Sarah H. Bradford, using dialect, on Tubman's experience of crossing the Mason-Dixon line in 1849] I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that I was free. 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.

Keep Going

“Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” 

These words have long been attributed to Tubman, but there is no evidence for or against them being an actual quote of Harriet Tubman's words.

Quotes About Harriet Tubman

  • From Alice Walker: "We will be ourselves and free, or die in the attempt. Harriet Tubman was not our great-grandmother for nothing." Alice Walker, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.
  • From Frederick Douglass: "The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism."
  • From Frederick Douglass: "Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you."
  • From Frederick Douglass: "I have wrought in the day—you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and footsore bondsmen and women . . . whose heartfelt 'God bless you' has been your only reward."
  • From William Still, diary entry: "Great fears were entertained for her safety, but she was wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or slaveholders seemed never to enter her mind."
  • From Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1859 letter: "Her tales of adventure are beyond anything in fiction and her ingenuity and generalship are extraordinary. I have known her for some time—the slaves call her Moses."
  • From Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1859 letter: "... 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-man, she was without equal."
  • From Thomas Garrett, Underground Railroad conductor: "I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God."
  • From W. E. B. DuBois: “Harriet Tubman fought American slavery single-handed and was a pioneer in that organized effort known as the Underground Railroad.”
  • From Langston Hughes: “Harriet Tubman lived to see the harvest.”
  • From Booker T. Washington: "...one of the best-educated persons that ever lived in this country..."
  • From her grandniece, Alice Brickler: "It is said that on the day of her death, her strength returned to her. She arose from her bed with little assistance, ate heartily, walked about the rooms of the Old Ladies’ Home which she liked so much and then went back to bed and her final rest. Whether this is true or not, it is typical of her. She believed in mind [over] matter. Regardless of how impossible a task might seem, if it were her task she tackled it with a determination to win."
  • From Oprah Winfrey: "I am where I am because of the bridges that I crossed. Sojourner Truth was a bridge. Harriet Tubman was a bridge. Ida B. Wells was a bridge. Madame C. J. Walker was a bridge. Fannie Lou Hamer was a bridge."

 

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Harriet Tubman." ThoughtCo, Jan. 31, 2018, thoughtco.com/harriet-tubman-biography-3529273. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2018, January 31). Biography of Harriet Tubman. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/harriet-tubman-biography-3529273 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Harriet Tubman." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/harriet-tubman-biography-3529273 (accessed February 23, 2018).