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A Biography of Harriet Tubman

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A Biography of Harriet Tubman

A photograph of Harriet Tubman taken in 1911

Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Harriet Tubman led over 200 slaves to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Contemporaries called her "Moses" and "General Tubman" in praise of her bravery and leadership.

Early Life

In 1821, Tubman was born into slavery on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Harriet's name at birth was Araminta Ross. When she was 11, Araminta chose a new name to signal her coming of age-her mother's name, Harriet. At age five, young Harriet began working as a house slave, doing chores like weaving. When she was 12, her master moved her into the fields to work.

Harriet was brave and confident from an early age. As a teenager, Harriet moved to defend a fellow slave from the violence of an overseer, taking a blow from a heavy weight that was thrown at her compatriot. Harriet suffered the effects of this head injury for the rest of her life. In addition to a scar, Harriet experienced uncontrollable spells of sleep.

Escape to Freedom

Harriet took the surname Tubman when she married John Tubman in 1844. John was free, and he never understood why his wife longed to escape to the North for her own freedom. They parted ways when she finally escaped. In 1849, the master of Harriet's plantation died, and she began to worry that all of the slaves on the plantation would be sold. Slaves who lived in upper-South states like Maryland lived in fear of being sold away from their families to the Deep South, where the work was back-breaking and the punishments harsher. Harriet made the decision to escape.

Tubman ran away at night with the assistance of white abolitionists.

The Underground Railroad

Tubman made contact with abolitionists in Philadelphia, including William Still, a famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a network on individuals who escorted escaping slaves from the South to safety in the North. After Tubman's rescue of her sister and her children, Philadelphia abolitionists inducted into the Underground Railroad, giving her the details of the routes they used and swearing her to secrecy.

Between 1851 and 1860, Tubman made 19 trips as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She rescued her parents and other family members as well as other slaves desirous of freedom. She was proud of never incurring any casualties on these trips; all of her "passengers" made it to the North safely. Tubman operated in strict secrecy, and the details of many her trips remain unknown. She believed that God had orchestrated her freedom so that she could help other slaves escape.

In addition to her faith, Tubman's cool temperament and courage made her a particularly successful conductor. On one trip, she brandished a rifle at a passenger who wanted to turn back, explaining that "a live runaway could do a great harm by going back, but . . . a dead one could tell no secrets," according to William Still in The Underground Railroad (1872). On another trip, she gave a harmless drug that acted as a sedative to a crying baby to avoid detection. If Tubman became aware that she and her group were being followed, she was not afraid to go even deeper into the South to lose the trail. Tubman's success at escorting slaves to freedom became so well-known that by 1856 Southern slaveholders were offering a $40,000 reward for her capture.

Civil War Activities

Tubman continued her work with the Underground Railroad right up until 1860. When war broke out in 1861, Tubman, who was living in safety in Canada, returned to the South to work for the Union army. She believed that the outbreak of war indicated that slavery would soon be abolished and wanted to help hasten its ending. During the war, she worked as a nurse, ministering to slaves who escaped their masters to join the Union army.

In 1863, Tubman became a spy for Colonel James Montgomery, putting together a network of spies who apprised him of slaves who wanted to escape and become a Union soldier. She worked as a scout for Montgomery's Combahee River Raid into South Carolina, which freed nearly 500 slaves.

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