Biography of Harriet Tubman

Led Hundreds of Enslaved People to Freedom Along the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman with freedom seeking enslaved people she Helped During the Civil War
Harriet Tubman (far left, holding a pan) photographed with a group of freedom seekers she assisted.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Harriet Tubman, born in 1820, was a self-liberated enslaved person from Maryland who became known as the "Moses of her people." Over the course of 10 years, and at great personal risk, she led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses where freedom seekers could stay on their journey north. She later became a leader in the abolitionist movement, and during the Civil War she was a spy for the federal forces in South Carolina as well as a nurse.

Although not a traditional railroad, the underground railroad was a critical system of transporting freedom seeking enslaved people in the mid-1800s. One of the most famous conductors was Harriet Tubman. Between 1850 and 1858, she helped more than 300 enslaved people reach freedom.

Early Years and Self-Liberation from Enslavement

Tubman's name at birth was Araminta Ross. She was one of 11 children of Harriet and Benjamin Ross enslaved from birth in Dorchester County, Maryland. As a child, Ross was "hired out" by her enslaver as a nursemaid for a small baby. Ross had to stay awake all night so that the baby wouldn't cry and wake the mother. If Ross fell asleep, the baby's mother whipped her. From a very young age, Ross was determined to gain her freedom.

Araminta Ross was scarred for life when she refused to help in the punishment of another enslaved young person. A young man had gone to the store without permission, and when he returned, the overseer wanted to whip him. He asked Ross to help but she refused. When the young man started to run away, the overseer picked up a heavy iron weight and threw it at him. He missed the young man and hit Ross instead. The weight nearly crushed her skull and left a deep scar. She was unconscious for days, and suffered from seizures for the rest of her life.

In 1844, Ross married a free Black named John Tubman and took his last name. She also changed her first name, taking her mother's name, Harriet. In 1849, worried that she and the other enslaved people on the plantation were going to be sold, Tubman decided to self-liberate. Her husband refused to go with her, so she set out with her two brothers, and followed the North Star in the sky to guide her north to freedom. Her brothers became frightened and turned back, but she continued on and reached Philadelphia. There she found work as a household servant and saved her money so she could return to help others to freedom.

Harriet Tubman During the Civil War

During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union army as a nurse, a cook, and a spy. Her experience leading those enslaved along the Underground Railroad was especially helpful because she knew the land well. She recruited a group of formerly enslaved people to hunt for rebel camps and report on the movement of the Confederate troops. In 1863, she went with Colonel James Montgomery and about 150 Black soldiers on a gunboat raid in South Carolina. Because she had inside information from her scouts, the Union gunboats were able to surprise the Confederate rebels.

At first, when the Union Army came through and burned plantations, those enslaved hid in the woods. But when they realized that the gunboats could take them behind Union lines to freedom, they came running from all directions, bringing as many of their belongings as they could carry. Tubman later said, "I never saw such a sight." Tubman played other roles in the war effort, including working as a nurse. Folk remedies she learned during her years living in Maryland would come in very handy.

Tubman worked as a nurse during the war, trying to heal the sick. Many people in the hospital died from dysentery, a disease associated with terrible diarrhea. Tubman was sure she could help cure the sickness if she could find some of the same roots and herbs that grew in Maryland. One night she searched the woods until she found water lilies and crane's bill (geranium). She boiled the water lily roots and the herbs and made a bitter-tasting brew that she gave to a man who was dying—and it worked. Slowly he recovered. Tubman saved many people in her lifetime. On her grave, her tombstone reads "Servant of God, Well Done."

Conductor of the Underground Railroad

After Harriet Tubman self-liberated from enslavement, she returned to pro-slavery states many times to help others to freedom. She led them safely to the northern free states and to Canada. It was very dangerous to be a self-liberated enslaved person. There were rewards for their capture, and ads that described the enslaved people in detail. Whenever Tubman led a group of enslaved people to freedom, she placed herself in great danger. There was a bounty offered for her capture because she was herself self-liberated, and she was breaking the law in pro-slavery states by helping other enslaved people seek freedom.

If anyone ever wanted to change his or her mind during the journey to freedom and return, Tubman pulled out a gun and said, "You'll be free or die a slave!" Tubman knew that if anyone turned back, it would put her and the other freedom seekers in danger of discovery, capture, or even death. She became so well known for leading enslaved people to freedom that Tubman became known as the "Moses of Her People." Many enslaved people dreaming of freedom sang the spiritual "Go Down Moses." Those enslaved hoped a savior would deliver them from enslavement just as Moses had delivered the Israelites.

Tubman made 19 trips to Maryland and helped 300 people to freedom. During these dangerous journeys she helped rescue members of her own family, including her 70-year-old parents. At one point, rewards for Tubman's capture totaled $40,000. Yet, she was never captured and never failed to deliver her "passengers" to safety. As Tubman herself said, "On my Underground Railroad I [never] run my train off [the] track [and] I never [lost] a passenger."

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Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Harriet Tubman." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, September 3). Biography of Harriet Tubman. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Harriet Tubman." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).