Harriet Tubman: Underground Railroad Conductor

Underground Railroad Conductor, Abolitionist, Women's Rights Advocate

Harriet Tubman lecturing from a stage
Harriet Tubman lecturing from a stage. Drawing from about 1940. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Previous: 1: Harriet Tubman's Life in Slavery

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.


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 Anthony, William 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.

Harriet Tubman Biography: From Slavery to Freedom

  1. Harriet Tubman's Life in Slavery
  2. Harriet Tubman as Underground Railroad Conductor, Abolitionist, Women's Rights Advocate
  3. Harriet Tubman's Civil War Service: Nurse, Scout, Spy
  4. Harriet Tubman's Later Years of Activism and Reform

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Harriet Tubman: Underground Railroad Conductor." ThoughtCo, Apr. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/harriet-tubman-underground-railroad-conductor-3529272. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, April 8). Harriet Tubman: Underground Railroad Conductor. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/harriet-tubman-underground-railroad-conductor-3529272 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Harriet Tubman: Underground Railroad Conductor." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/harriet-tubman-underground-railroad-conductor-3529272 (accessed January 21, 2018).