The Life of Harriet Tubman
- Born--Harriet Tubman was born in 1820 or 1821 in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, near the town of Cambridge. Her name given at birth was Araminta Ross, but she was called by her mother's name of Harriet in her youth and in later years by her married name of Tubman.
- Family--Her parents were Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene and she was the granddaughter of a slave who came from Africa. Her father worked as a timber inspector, but as a slave, supervising the cutting and hauling of wood for the Baltimore shipyards.
- Experiences as a child--When Harriet was six, she was taken from her mother and sent away ten miles to live with James Cook, whose wife was a weaver and was to teach her the trade of weaving. While still a small child, Cook had her work his trap line, which was the set of traps he used to catch wild animals. To work the trap line, Harriet had to wade through water. Once she had to work the lines while she was ill with the measles, and catching cold from wading in the water in this condition, she grew very sick. Then Harriet's mother persuaded the slavemaster to take Harriet away from Cook's until she could get well.
Another time she was sent out to a home to care for a small baby. She was to tend the baby constantly--24 hours a day--and the woman of the home was very cruel. Harriet was whipped over and over for the smallest of offenses--simply allowing the baby to cry out was enough for a beating.
Harriet did work traditionally given to both men and women--experiences which later in life would give her the tools and skills necessary to survive in her many trials. During her teen years she worked for a man named John Stewart doing some very rough labours--driving oxen, plowing, etc. She also worked with her father cutting and hauling logs--she could cut a half cord of wood (a pile of wood 4 ft high, 4 ft wide, and 4 ft across) in a day.
- The head wound--She received a terrible head wound as a child that in later life caused her bouts of somnolence (the tendency to easily fall asleep, even at odd times). In her early teens she was hired out as a field hand one fall. The slaves worked in the evening on such jobs as husking corn, but one evening a slave owned by a farmer named Barrett left the work to go to the village store without permission. He was followed by the overseer and by Harriet. When the slave was found, the overseer decided he should be whipped (a common punishment in those days) and he asked Harriet as well as others to help tie him up. Harriet refused, but then the captured slave tried to run away, and Harriet placed herself in the doorway to stop him. The overseer grabbed a two-pound weight from the counter and threw it at the fleeing man, but instead it hit Harriet in the head. It was a long time before she recovered, but from that time on she would readily fall asleep; even during conversations she would drift in and out of sleep.
- Marriage--Harriet was married about 1844 while in her early 20s to a free black named John Tubman, but they had no children. She escaped alone from slavery in 1849, and some two years after that she returned in secret for her husband; but he had married another woman and no longer cared to live with Harriet.
I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.
- Escape--In 1849, she was to be sold to a new owner because her former owner had died. She had no idea where she would be taken, so she decided to escape to freedom. She left in the middle of the night from her home in eastern Maryland, at first with her brothers, but then alone because they turned back. She had no knowledge of where she was going, except that she was headed north--to Pennsylvania or New Jersey--with the north star as her guide. Despite the loneliness, she had an innate feeling that there would be new friends waiting for her where she was going. It was on this trip that she met many individuals involved in the Underground Railroad. After many ordeals, she reached Philadelphia where she found work and was able to save some money.
I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that I was free. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.
- Leading her people from bondage--In subsequent years, until the War Between the States, she used all her money and resources to return to the south in secret, mainly to her home area in Maryland, to lead friends and relatives to freedom in the North through the Underground Railroad. There were some nineteen trips of this type, in which she brought more than 300 slaves out of bondage. None of the slaves who placed themselves in her care were ever captured. Her heroism was beyond belief. She relied on her own courage and intuitions. The slaves called her "Moses," because just like the Moses who led the Israelites from slavery in Biblical times, she went south to lead her people to freedom. Slaves would say, "When Moses comes again I'm going with her!" "Moses is coming soon!" And Moses would appear suddenly on a dark night, and in the morning slaves would be gone.
After 1851, the Fugitive Slave Law was in effect in the United States. This allowed any runaway slave in any state--even the free states--to be apprehended and returned to his or her owner. Philadelphia, where she had been going, was no longer safe, so she began to transport her charges to Canada, mainly to the area of St. Catherines in Ontario.
I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarter, with the old folks, and my brothers and sisters. But to this solemn resolution I came; I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there.
- The War Between the States--Harriet was brought into the war effort for the North as a spy and scout. Her bravery was well known to many of the Union leaders. There were several reasons for her going. By traveling among the slave population there were many things she could learn of value to the army. Also, many of the slaves had been told to fear the soldiers, and Harriet could gain their trust and reassure them. Harriet used songs and words and hymns to bring her message. She served as a nurse, with faithfulness and bravery and without concern for her own health, tending both Northern and Southern soldiers without regard, and using remedies from herbs and roots when there were no other medicines available. During the war years she never drew more than 20 days of rations from the army. She earned her own money at night selling baked goods to the soldiers--items that she had prepared after working all day at her other duties.
- The Auburn years--After the war Harriet returned to her home in Auburn, New York. She became active in a variety of causes, including women's suffrage. She met and supported Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth, who were well known suffrage leaders. Most of her money went to helping the poor who came to her door. There was money that she had been promised for serving in the war effort, but the government never paid her, even though many influential friends came to her support. However, she earned money in other ways and always managed to carry on.
- A second marriage--In 1869 Harriet married Nelson Davis, who was a younger man who served in the War Between the States. When they married he was in ill health and Harriet took care of him until his death in 1888.
- The Harriet Tubman Home--In 1896, at the age of 75 Harriet began to fulfill a dream of a cooperative farm she planned to give to the poor and elderly. She bought 25 acres of land next to her own property at auction for $1,450. She didn't have the money, but she knew the bank would lend it to her. The work was started, but she was too old to manage the property herself, so in 1903 she gave ownership of the farm to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which opened a home on the site in 1908.
To the very end of her life she was fighting for what she felt was right. She wanted the home named after her old friend John Brown, but the church named it the Harriet Tubman home. She wanted both blacks and whites on the Board of Directors, but the church wanted only people of color. She wanted the home to be free of cost, but the church charged $100 per year. Because of this she chose to have little to do with running the home.
- The End--Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York at the home she had started, surrounded by friends who softly sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
The Rescue Trips
After her escape from slavery, Harriet made numerous trips back to her home country to lead others away. Here is a chronology of some of the trips as reported in various historical records.
- 1849--Harriet escaped from her home in Maryland (near Cambridge) and made her way north to Philadelphia.
- December, 1850--She went to Baltimore and led away her sister and two children who had come across the Chesapeake Bay from Cambridge in a boat under charge of her sister's husband, a free black.
- Early 1851--She brought back her brother and two other men.
- Fall, 1851--Harriet found her husband in Maryland and learned that he had married another woman. He chose to stay in Maryland, so she collected a party of other slaves and led them north to Philadelphia.
- December, 1851--She returned to the Cambridge area and brought out eleven slaves, including her brother and his wife. These she took to Canada because the Fugitive Slave Law was under enforcement in Philadelphia and other places in the North, and there was no longer safety for "runaways" in the United States. The group spent the winter there under harsh conditions, earning money chopping wood, and Harriet was the encourager that carried them through.
- Fall, 1852--Harriet returned to Maryland and brought out nine more fugitives. About this time also she became known to abolitionists in the North, many of them Quakers, who began to help her with money and refuge, but still she earned much of her money through her own hard work and wit, and she used this money for her expeditions.
- The years 1852 to 1857--During these years Harriet lived part of the time in St. Catherines on the shore of Lake Ontario in Canada. It was here that she brought many of her fugitives. Sources report up to as many as 11 trips into Maryland during this time. She had become so familiar with the network of the Underground Railroad that even though there was bounty of some $40,000 on her head, and although she and her charges were nearly captured on several occasions, they always escaped, relying on Harriet's cunning and intuitions. She seemed to have incredible "warnings" just before danger came.
- 1857--Harriet made a daring journey to Maryland and brought her elderly parents back with her. They could not walk the distances needed to be covered at night, and she had to arrange a wagon for them. They were brought safely to Canada where they spent the winter, and in later years settled near Auburn, New York, where Harriet bought some land for them.
- December, 1860--She made her last trip to Maryland and brought out 7 fugitives, one of them a baby.