Who Was Harriet Tubman?
HARRIET ROSS TUBMAN LIFE:
Tubman, Harriet Ross (1822-1913). Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Tubman gained international acclaim as an Underground Railroad operator, abolitionist, Civil War spy and nurse, suffragist, and humanitarian. After escaping from enslavement in 1849, Tubman dedicated herself to fighting for freedom, equality, and justice for the remainder of her long life, earning her the biblical name "Moses" and a place among the nation's most famous historical figures.
Originally named Araminta, or "Minty," Harriet Tubman was born in early 1822 on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, south of Madison in Dorchester County, Maryland. Tubman was the fifth of nine children of Harriet "Rit" Green and Benjamin Ross, both slaves. Edward Brodess, the stepson of Anthony Thompson, claimed ownership of Rit and her children through his mother Mary Pattison Brodess Thompson. Ben Ross, the slave of Anthony Thompson, was a timber inspector who supervised and managed a vast timbering operation on Thompson's land. The Ross's relatively stable family life on Thompson's plantation came to abrupt end sometime in late 1823 or early 1824 when Edward Brodess took Rit and her then five children, including Tubman, to his own farm in Bucktown, a small agricultural village ten miles to the east. Brodess often hired Tubman out to temporary masters, some who were cruel and negligent, while selling other members of her family illegally to out of state buyers, permanently fracturing her family.
Working as a field hand while a young teen, Tubman was nearly killed by a blow to her head from an iron weight, thrown by an angry overseer at another fleeing slave. The severe injury left her suffering from headaches, seizures and sleeping spells that plagued her for the rest of her life. During the late 1830s and early 1840s, Tubman worked for John T. Stewart, a Madison merchant and shipbuilder, bringing her back to the familial and social community near where her father lived and where she had been born. About 1844 she married a local free black named John Tubman, shedding her childhood name Minty in favor of Harriet.
On March 7, 1849, Edward Brodess died on his farm at Bucktown at the age of 47, leaving Tubman and her family at risk of being sold to settle Brodess's debts. In the late fall of 1849 Tubman took her own liberty. She tapped into an Underground Railroad that was already functioning well on the Eastern Shore: traveling by night, using the North Star and instructions from white and black helpers, she found her way to Philadelphia. She sought work as a domestic, saving her money to help the rest of her family escape. From 1850 to 1860, Tubman conducted between eleven and thirteen escape missions, bringing away approximately seventy individuals, including her brothers, parents, and other family and friends, while also giving instructions to approximately fifty more who found their way to freedom independently.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 left most refugee slaves vulnerable to recapture, and many fled to the safety and protection of Canada. Indeed, Tubman brought many of her charges to St. Catharines, Ontario, where they settled into a growing community of freedom seekers. Her dangerous missions won the admiration of black and white abolitionists throughout the North who provided her with funds to continue her activities. In 1858, Tubman met with the legendary freedom fighter, John Brown, in her North Street home in St. Catharines. Impressed by his passion for ending slavery, she committed herself to helping him recruit former slaves to join him on his planned raid at Harper's Ferry, Va. Though she hoped to be at his side when the raid took place in October 1859, illness may have prevented her from joining him. In 1859, William Henry Seward, Lincoln's future Secretary of State, sold Tubman a home on the outskirts of Auburn, New York, where she eventually settled her aged parents and other family members. On her way to Boston in April 1860, Tubman became the heroine of the day when she helped rescue a fugitive slave, Charles Nalle, from the custody of United States Marshals charged with returning him to his Virginia master.
In early 1862, Tubman joined Northern abolitionists in support of Union activities at Port Royal, South Carolina. Throughout the Civil War she provided badly needed nursing care to black soldiers and hundreds of newly liberated slaves who crowded Union camps. Tubman's military service expanded to include spying and scouting behind Confederate lines. In early June 1863, she became the first woman to command an armed military raid when she guided Col. James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina black regiment up the Combahee River, routing out Confederate outposts, destroying stockpiles of cotton, food and weapons, and liberating over 700 slaves.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, New York. There she began another career as a community activist, humanitarian, and suffragist. In 1869, Sarah Bradford published a short biography of Tubman called "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman," bringing brief fame and financial relief to Tubman and her family. She married Nelson Davis, a veteran, that same year; her husband John Tubman had been killed in 1867 in Dorchester County, Maryland. She struggled financially the rest of her life, however. Denied her own military pension, she eventually received a widow's pension as the wife of Nelson Davis, and, later, a Civil War nurse's pension.
Her humanitarian work triumphed with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, located on land abutting her own property in Auburn, which she successfully purchased by mortgage and then transferred to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1903. Active in the suffrage movement since 1860, Tubman continued to appear at local and national suffrage conventions until the early 1900s. She died at the age of 91 on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York.
Bradford, Sarah H. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Auburn, New York: W.J. Moses, 1869.
Bradford, Sarah H. Harriet, The Moses of Her People. New York: Geo. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886.
Conrad, Earl. Harriet Tubman. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1943.
Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York: Ballantine Books, December 2003.
Copyright © Kate Clifford Larson