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Born Araminta “Minty” Ross on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822, Harriet Tubman was one of nine enslaved children of Harriet “Rit” Green and Benjamin Ross, both slaves. During the mid-1820s, Thompson’s stepson, Edward Brodess, took Rit and the children ten miles away to his own farm in Bucktown after he inherited them from his deceased mother. Over the next twenty-five years, Tubman endured painful separations from her family while being hired out to cruel masters who beat and starved her. Brodess sold several of her sisters, permanently tearing apart her family.
While working as a field hand as a young teen, Tubman was severely wounded by a blow to her head from an iron weight thrown by an angry overseer at another fleeing slave. This left her suffering from headaches and epileptic seizures that affected her for the rest of her life. About 1844 she married a local free black named John Tubman, shedding her childhood name in favor of Harriet.
Upon Brodess’s death in 1849, Tubman determined to take her own liberty rather than risk being sold to settle Brodess’s debts. She tapped into an Underground Railroad network operating on the Eastern Shore of Maryland: Using the North Star and assistance from white and black helpers, she found her way to freedom in Philadelphia. Once safely there, Tubman worked as a domestic to support herself and save enough money to help family and friends escape from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Through a variety of familial, social, and abolitionist networks, Tubman was able to exploit secret and reliable communication and support systems and craft her own Underground Railroad networks to freedom. These networks included many free and enslaved African Americans and antislavery whites who lived and worked near crucial access points to food, transportation, and shelter in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York. Unable to read or write, Tubman also used a variety of disguises and ruses to affect her multiple escape missions. In spite of debilitating seizures, Tubman returned about thirteen times during the 1850s, bringing away roughly seventy friends and family members, while giving instructions to scores more who found their way to freedom independently. Miraculously, Tubman was never betrayed and never “lost a passenger.”
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 left many runaway slaves vulnerable to recapture. Tubman brought numerous freedom seekers to safety in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, where they became part of a growing community of refugees from slavery. Her dangerous missions won her the biblical name “Moses” and the admiration of abolitionists throughout the North, including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Gerrit Smith, and Susan B. Anthony, among others, who supported her and sought her counsel. Tubman collaborated with the legendary John Brown as he planned for an attack on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), Tubman traveled to Port Royal, South Carolina, to support Union activities. She nursed wounded black soldiers and conducted important spying missions behind Confederate lines. She became the first woman to command an armed military expedition when she guided Colonel James Montgomery and his black troops on a successful raid in June 1863.
After the war, Tubman moved to Auburn, New York, where William Henry Seward, President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, had sold her a home and where she had settled her aged parents and other family members. There, she intensified her fight for women’s rights and civil rights for African Americans. After John Tubman died in Maryland, Harriet Tubman married Nelson Davis, a veteran, in 1869. She struggled financially the rest of her life. Denied her own military pension, she eventually received a widow’s pension and, later, a Civil War nurse’s pension.
Rising above social, economic, and physical adversity, Tubman continued her humanitarian work with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in 1908 in Auburn. She continued to appear at local and national suffrage conventions until the early 1900s. She died at the age of ninety-one on March 10, 1913, in Auburn.
Since her death, Tubman has been memorialized and commemorated in many ways, including the naming of schools, roads, nonprofit social-service organizations, and state days of recognition. In 1944 the U.S. Maritime Commission launched the Liberty ship SS Harriet Tubman, and in 1978 and again in 1995 the U.S. Post Office issued postage stamps in her honor. Tubman has earned international acclaim as a symbol of the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice from oppression and discrimination, and has become one of America’s most enduring historical figures.
- Humez, Jean M. 2003. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Larson, Kate Clifford. 2004. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York: Ballantine.
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