Harriet Tubman – a summary

As the concept of banning slavery within the United States grew, so did the number of people who were willing to risk their safety and security to help runaway slaves.  One such person was Harriet Tubman. Here, Kat Smutz summarizes her life.

Harriet Tubman was a fugitive slave with a high price on her head in the American South.  Born Araminta Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman, the eleventh child, was often called Minty. Harriet was a name she chose for herself as an adult.

“I felt like I was in heaven”

In 1844, aged about 25, Harriet sought permission from her owners to marry. She married John Tubman, a freeman, and lived with him in his cabin, but was obliged to continue working for her master. She once confided in her husband her dreams of running away and obtaining freedom. John Tubman threatened to denounce her if she ever tried it.

Despite her husband’s threats, Tubman escaped on 17 September 1849 by following the North Star to Pennsylvania. Her brothers had set out with her but frightened, they turned back. On crossing the border into Pennsylvania and freedom, she said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything … and I felt like I was in heaven.”

The Underground Railroad

Tubman could have remained in relative safety, protected by abolitionists in Philadelphia.  Instead, she chose to return frequently to Maryland to act as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, an impromptu system of aiding runaway slaves. Many escaped slaves fled to the North and sometimes onto Canada via this escape route. The railroad consisted of a series of safe houses, transport facilities and guides to help the slave escape.

Between 1830 and 1860 the railroad helped over 3,000 slaves to freedom and safety. Tubman often worked in disguise and was said to carry a gun with which she threatened her runaway slaves, lest they think of giving in and returning.  Accounts vary as to how many slaves were led to freedom through her efforts, ranging from 70 to 300.  Among those she rescued were her parents and siblings. For her efforts, she was nicknamed Moses, after the biblical Moses who led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel, and she befriended and earned the respect of black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

Slaveowners offered huge rewards of up to $40,000 for her capture. She once, reputably, fell asleep under one such poster – remaining illiterate all her life, she hadn’t realized the poster was about her.

Harpers Ferry

Tubman was expected to participate in John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.  (Brown, a leading abolitionist whom Tubman called “my dearest friend”, had planned a raid on the armoury at Harpers’ Ferry in order to arm local slaves and incite rebellion. The raid failed and Brown was later hanged). She never arrived and never offered an explanation.  One possibility was that she was prevented from traveling by an affliction that had compromised her ability to function normally.  At the age of twelve, Harriet, springing to the defence of a fellow slave, was accidentally hit by a weight from a scale system thrown by her owner at the other slave.  For the remainder of her life, Harriet suffered unbearable headaches and black outs.

During the American Civil War, Harriet Tubman continued to assist slaves.  But she also used the skills acquired as an Underground Railroad conductor to help spy and scout for the Union.  She was known to lend her hand to nursing the sick and wounded.

Post-war

Following the war, Tubman lived in Auburn, New York and founded schools for emancipated slaves and established the ‘Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People’. In 1870, she married again, this time to Nelson Davis, a former Union soldier half her age. Davis died in 1888.

In her latter years, Tubman took up the cause of female suffrage, speaking at conferences, advocating the right of women of all colors to vote.

Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia on 10 March 1913 at the age of 93.

Kat Smutz
To learn more about slavery in the US, read American Slavery: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60, and as downloadable audio.

See also the summary on the life of Frederick Douglass and John Brown.

2 thoughts on “Harriet Tubman – a summary

  1. While Harriet Tubman’s accomplishments and bravery are remarkable, you might want to check on the number of slaves she helped escape. 3000 is, I believe, grossly inflated. See historian Milton Sernett’s book Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory and History to see what the creation of this myth does to distort her and others true heroism. Here in Western NY everyone with a space in their old home that seems “hidden” believes former owners were active in the Underground Railroad. The reality is, that most Americans, even those that disapproved of slavery were NOT willing to break the law to help slaves.

    http://www.nyhumanities.org/speakers/adult_audiences/lecture.php?lecture_id=973

    • Hi Anne,
      The article says that the system helped some 3,000 and HT’s personal contribution was anything from 70 to 300 – a wide range of an estimate which shows how unsure we are. Thanks for the comment – interesting.

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