Harriet Tubman (1820 – March 10, 1913)
American Slave, Conductor on the Underground Railroad, Abolitionist, Federal Spy and Nurse During the Civil War
Editor’s Note: Harriet Tubman’s name at birth was Araminta Ross (She later changed her first name to Harriet, after her mother).
Introduction: She was one of 11 children of Harriet and Benjamin Ross born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. As a child, Ross was “hired out” by her master as a nursemaid for a small baby, much like the nursemaid in the picture. 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. As a slave, Araminta Ross was scarred for life when she refused to help in the punishment of another young slave. 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.
The Underground Railroad: In 1844, Ross married a free black named John Tubman and took his last name. In 1849, worried that she and the other slaves on the plantation were going to be sold, Tubman decided to run away. 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 escape. The following year she returned to Maryland and escorted her sister and her sister’s two children to freedom. She made the dangerous trip back to the South soon after to rescue her brother and two other men. On her third return, she went after her husband, only to find he had taken another wife. Undeterred, she found other slaves seeking freedom and escorted them to the North. Over the course of 10 years, and at great personal risk, Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses where runaway slaves could stay on their journey north to freedom. Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad’s “conductors.”
Tubman returned to the South again and again. She devised clever techniques that helped make her “forays” successful, including using the master’s horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey; leaving on a Saturday night, since runaway notices couldn’t be placed in newspapers until Monday morning; turning about and heading south if she encountered possible slave hunters; and carrying a drug to use on a baby if its crying might put the fugitives in danger. Tubman even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, “You’ll be free or die.”
By 1856, Tubman’s capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. On one occasion, she overheard some men reading her wanted poster, which stated that she was illiterate. She promptly pulled out a book and feigned reading it. The ploy was enough to fool the men.
Tubman had made the perilous trip to slave country 19 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. Of the famed heroine, who became known as “Moses,” Frederick Douglass said, “Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman].” And John Brown, who conferred with “General Tubman” about his plans to raid Harpers Ferry, once said that she was “one of the bravest persons on this continent.” During a ten-year span she made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom. And, as she once proudly pointed out to Frederick Douglass, in all of her journeys she “never lost a single passenger.”
The Civil War: During the Civil War (1861-1865), Harriet Tubman served with the Union Army as a cook, laundress, nurse, scout, and spy behind Confederate lines. In 1862, she moved to Beaufort, South Carolina (when it was occupied by the Union Army), and with several missionary teachers, helped hundreds of Sea Islander slaves transition from bondage to freedom. She also undertook scouting and spying missions, identifying potential targets for the Army, such as cotton stores and ammunition storage areas. Her experience leading slaves along the Underground Railroad was especially helpful because she knew the land well. She recruited a group of former slaves 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. The Boston Commonweath described her efforts in July 1863: “Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 800 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed in to the enemies’ country … destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror to the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property.”
In 1865, Harriet began caring for wounded black soldiers as the matron of the Colored Hospital at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. 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.
She continued helping others after the war. She raised money for freedmen’s schools, helped destitute children and continued caring for her parents. In 1868, she transformed her family’s home into the Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. She also lobbied for educational opportunities for freedmen. She believed she had been called by God to help her people, and once told an interviewer: “Now do you suppose he wanted me to do this just for a day, or a week? No! the Lord who told me to take care of my people meant me to do it just so long as I live, and so I do what he told me to do.”
Also in 1868, Harriet began working on her autobiography with Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a white schoolteacher in Auburn, New York. It was published in 1868, then later under a revised title in 1886 (see below). In 1869, Harriet married Nelson Davis, a Union veteran half her age who had been a boarder at her house. He died of tuberculosis in 1888.
In 1896, she took up the suffragist cause and was a delegate to the National Association of Colored Women’s first annual convention. She believed the right to vote was vital to preserving their freedom. Around the turn of the century, she bought 25 acres of land near her home with money raised through benefactors and speaking engagements, and made arrangements for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to take over the Home. She had worked closely with this church since the 1850s. Through it, she had come to befriend Frederick Douglass, who had briefly published his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, there.
In 1911, Harriet herself was welcomed into the Home. Upon hearing of her destitute condition, many women with whom she had worked in the NACW voted to provide her a lifelong monthly pension of $25. Living past ninety, Harriet Tubman died in Auburn on March 10, 1913. She was given a full military funeral and was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery. The women of the NACW also paid the funeral costs and purchased a marble headstone. One year later, the city of Auburn commemorated her life with a memorial tablet at the front of the Cayuga County Courthouse. In 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt christened the Liberty Ship Harriet Tubman, and in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service honored her life with a postage stamp.
Harriet Tubman has been memorialized with a plaque in the The Extra Mile — Points of Light Volunteer Pathway located on the sidewalks of downtown Washington, D.C. The Extra Mile is a program of Points of Light Institute, dedicated to inspire, mobilize and equip individuals to volunteer and serve. The Extra Mile was approved by Congress and the District of Columbia. It is funded entirely by private sources.
Sources: American Memories: The Congressional Library — www.americaslibrary.gov