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Harriet Tubman

one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman

Araminta Harriet Ross was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime between 1820 and 1825, the fifth of nine children born to Ben and Harriet Green Ross. She rarely lived with her owners, Edward and Mary Pattison Brodess, as she was frequently hired out to other slave owners, most of whom treated her cruelly. When she was about twelve years old, one overseer, whom she had prevented from capturing a runaway slave, hurled a two-pound weight at her, striking her in the head. As a result of the blow she suffered from seizures, severe headaches, and narcoleptic seizures throughout her life. Around 1844, she married John Tubman, a free black who lived in the area.

After Edward Brodess died in March 1849, his widow decided to sell some of her slaves. In the fall of that year, fearing that she would be sent into the deep South, Harriet decided to escape, leaving her husband, parents, and eight siblings behind. With assistance from a white neighbor, Quakers, and the Underground Railroad, she made her way to Philadelphia, where she met William Still, the Philadelphia Stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. With the assistance of Still and other members of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, she learned about the inner workings of the Underground Railroad.

Harriet made her first trip as a "conductor" for the Underground Railroad in 1850, during which she helped her sister and her family reach Philadelphia. She made another trip later that same year, this time to rescue her brother and several of his friends. She went back to get her husband in 1851, but John Tubman had remarried by then and refused to accompany her north. She did, however, succeed in leading eleven other slaves to Philadelphia, and then to St. Catherines, Ontario in Canada. St. Catherines remained her base of operations until 1857. While there she worked at various activities to finance her activities as a Conductor on the Uunderground Railroad. She brought her mother and father to St. Catherines in 1857.

Sometime in the mid-1850s, Tubman met William H. Seward and his wife Frances. Mrs. Seward provided a home in Auburn, New York, for Tubman's favorite niece, Margaret, after Tubman helped her to escape from Maryland. In 1857 the Sewards provided a home for Tubman, to which she relocated her parents from St. Catharines. This home was later sold to her for a small sum, and it served as her base of operations when she was not on the road aiding fugitives from slavery and/or speaking in support of the cause.

Tubman's work on the Underground Railroad brought her into contact with a number of abolitionists, one of whom was John Brown. As she was known to carry a pistol to defend herself and her "charges," and was also known to threaten any "passenger" who became unwilling to continue the journey to freedom, it is no real surprise that Tubman agreed with Brown's willingness to kill in defense of abolition. In fact, she even helped him plan his infamous raid on Harpers Ferry; she was unable to participate un the raid, however, due to illness.

By the time Tubman made her last Underground Railroad trip in December 1860 she had made at least nineteen forays into slave-holding territories and escorted approximately 300 slaves to freedom. Even more remarkable is that she never lost a "passenger."

In 1861 Tubman enlisted into the Union Army as a "contraband" nurse (contrabands were blacks who the Union Army had helped escape) in a hospital in Hilton Head, South Carolina. A short woman without distinctive features, she was able to move unnoticed through rebel territory. This made her invaluable as a scout and spy, under the command of Colonel James Montgomery of the Second Carolina Volunteers. As leader of a corps of local blacks, she made several forays into rebel territory, collecting information. Armed with her knowledge of the location of cotton warehouses, ammunition depots, and slaves waiting to be liberated, Colonel Montgomery was able to make several successful raids in southern coastal areas. She also led the way on Montgomery's expedition up the Combahee River in June 1863. For all of her work, Tubman was paid only two hundred dollars over a three-year period and had to support herself by selling pies, gingerbread, and root beer.

Tubman spent her remaining years in Auburn, tending to her family and other people in need. She worked various jobs to support her elderly parents, and took in boarders to help pay the bills. One of the people Tubman took in was a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis. Although he was 22 years younger than she was, the two fell in love, and were married on March 18, 1869. They spent the next 20 years together, and, in 1874, they adopted a baby girl named Gertie.

Tubman's years of work for the Underground Railroad and the Union Army left her heavily in debt, so many of her friends and admirers raised funds to help her. One admirer was Sarah Hopkins Bradford, who wrote an authorized biography entitled Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. The 132-page volume was published in 1869, and brought Tubman some $1,200 in revenue, which she used to purchase her home and seven surrounding acres.

In 1903, Tubman donated some of her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn, with the stipulation that the church use it to establish a home for "aged and indigent colored people." By the time the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent and Aged Negroes opened in 1908, Tubman was herself aged and indigent, and she became a resident patient there in 1911. She died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913, and was buried with full military rites in Auburn's Fort Hill Cemetery.


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See Also

William H. Seward
John Brown

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The Robinson Library >> Slavery in the United States

This page was last updated on September 17, 2018.