Harriet Tubman is one of the most famous people from the time of the Underground Railroad. As such, she was an important person in American History and played a vital role in the American Abolitionist Movement. She was born as a slave, and once freed, made regular trips south to help others achieve the same. In fact, she worked as a ‘conductor’ in the Underground Railroad and helped to save thousands from slavery in the United States. After helping her family escape from the same plantation in Maryland that she was born on, she continued to help slaves from across the United States. Tubman would lead groups up to Canada because she was afraid that they might be recaptured in the Northern ‘free’ states and returned to the plantations in the South. Today, she is a considered to be a symbol for the overall history and significance of the Underground Railroad.
HARRIET TUBMAN'S EARLY LIFE
Harriet Tubman was born in March of 1822 in Dorchester County in Maryland, United States. Her exact date of birth is unknown, as precise records were not kept at the time. Furthermore, she was born with the name ‘Araminta Ross’. She later changed her name when she married. Tubman was born into slavery, since both of her parents were enslaved at the time. Her mother, Harriet Green, was a cook for a slave-owning family in Maryland. A different slave-owning family in Maryland owned her Father, Ben Ross. Harriet Tubman was one of nine children that the two slaves had together. Historians have noted that Tubman’s family struggled to stay together, because their owners sold several of the siblings off to other slave owners, including some in other states. However, an important event occurred in her childhood, in which Tubman’s mother, Harriet Green, prevented the sale of her youngest son by hiding him and resisting the orders of her owner. Historians have suggested that this was a significant event for Tubman and inspired her to resist and fight back against slavery.
Tubman faced a difficult childhood as a slave. This is because she suffered from severe abuse at the hands of her owners and the slave overseers. For instance, while working in a household at a young age, Tubman received several beatings and lashings that left her with scars. Furthermore, she was later tasked with outdoors work that involved her traversing through marshes and forests. Some of these jobs included: checking animal traps, hauling lumber, clearing forests, and plowing fields. During this time, she became so ill with measles that she had to be returned home.
One of the most significant events of her childhood was when she received a terrible head injury. A slave overseer who was attempting to hit a different slave had struck her in the head accidentally with a metal weight. However, the injury left her with significant issues that plagued her for the rest of her life. Some of these issues included: painful headaches, seizures and visions. For Tubman, who was a devout Christian, these visions represented her relationship to God and helped inform her resistance to slavery.
In her early twenties, Harriet married John Tubman. He was a free black man who lived in Maryland. It was at this time that she changed her name to Harriet in honor of her mother. It was just a few years later that Harriet Tubman made her escape from slavery.
HARRIET TUBMAN'S ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY
Harriet Tubman began to plan her escape from slavery in 1849 following the death of her master, Edward Brodess. At the time, she became concerned that his widow, Eliza, would try to sell her and her family members. Tubman was concerned because this would cause her family to be separated, as they might have been sold to different buyers. For instance, she famously stated that there were “one of two things I had a right to - liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other". Following a short-lived escape attempt in September of 1849, Harriet Tubman made her escape from slavery soon after when she ran away using routes along the Underground Railroad.
In general, the Underground Railroad was a system under which slaves from the Southern United States could escape into the Northern United States and Canada, and is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until the events of the American Civil War in 1863. The Underground Railroad involved a series of routes, networks, and safe houses that escaped slaves could use as they travelled from the plantations in the south, to their freedom in the north.
Tubman’s exact escape route along the Underground Railroad is unknown, but she travelled a journey of approximately 90 miles (145 kms) by foot until she reached the state of Pennsylvania. It is assumed that she was able to find refuge in some safe houses along the route of the Underground Railroad, while also using trails in the forests and marshes. Later in her life, Tubman expressed the following, when she realized that she had arrived in the free state of Pennsylvania: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. 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.”
HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Harriet Tubman was a central figure in the Underground Railroad and is remembered today as one of the most famous ‘conductors’ from the time period. Conductors helped guide slaves along a safe route of the Underground Railroad. However, first she worked to free her family, which was still enslaved in Maryland. For instance, after earning some money she returned and freed her cousins, brothers, parents and others throughout 1850 and 1851. This was the beginning of her role in the Underground Railroad.
An important event that occurred at that time was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Earlier, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed people to receive rewards for capturing escaped slaves. Furthermore, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made things even more difficult for the Underground Railroad as it gave more rights towards slave owners and allowed escaped slaves to be recaptured and returned to the slave plantations in the South. This was especially true when escaped slaves were captured in the Northern states, since each of the Fugitive Slave Acts allowed slaves to be returned to the Southern slave owners from these Northern states. As such, many of the escaped slaves preferred to flee even further north into Canada, where they could not be returned to slavery. In fact, estimates claim that anywhere from about 30,000 to as many as 100,000 slaves arrived in Canada during the timeframe of the Underground Railroad. Canada was such a desired destination for the escaping slaves that it was often referred to as ‘Heaven’ or the ‘Promised Land’.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 worried and upset Harriet Tubman, as she was concerned that slave catchers would force herself, and the others she had helped free, to return to slave life. At the time, Canada was a colony of the British Empire, and such had abolished slavery. As a result, this caused Tubman to help lead escaped slaves to Canada, to ensure their freedom. For example, in December of 1851 she led a group of eleven escaped slaves north to Canada. Historians believe that during this trip, she stopped at Frederick Douglass’ house. Born as a slave in 1818 in Maryland, and escaping twenty years later, Douglass is one of the few people in history to know life on both sides of the coin, per say. After his escape, Douglass wrote the ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ which was written in 1845 and gave people insight into what life as a slave was really like, opening the eyes of many to the injustice that was taking place around them. This, along with two other autobiographies written by Douglass are regarded as the best examples of slave narrative tradition in history. Because of these accomplishments, Frederick Douglass is often considered to be the single most important black American leader of the 19th century. In fact, he was a major figure in the American Abolitionist Movement and assisted escaping slaves during the events of the Underground Railroad.
From 1851 until the events of the American Civil War in the early 1860s, Tubman led approximately 70 slaves to their freedom over the course of 13 different trips. Due to her mistrust of the United States and the Fugitive Slave Acts, she helped most of the escaped slaves reach areas of southern Ontario in Canada. Her journeys into Maryland were often dangerous, as she risked being caught or recognized. In fact, she often travelled at night and made her journeys in the winter when the days were shorter and nights longer. To protect herself, Tubman would dress in disguise and act as though she was a slave that was sent on an errand. This allowed her to reach slaves and tell them of her intention to lead them to freedom. From there, she would usually have the slaves escape on a Saturday, as it would take a few days for the notice of an escaped slave to be printed in the local newspapers. This gave her and the escaped slaves an advantage, as they would often be many miles away when the newspaper was published.
Eventually, the slave owners in the area became convinced that someone was helping the slaves escape and they sent out notices and bulletins offering a reward for the persons capture. With that said, Harriet Tubman was never discovered and no one ever assumed it was her. For all of her efforts in the Underground Railroad, she gained the name ‘Moses’. This was in relation to how Moses led his people out of Egypt and towards safety. Tubman also used spiritual songs to secretly advise other travellers along the Underground Railroad. For example, she would change the lyrics of the songs to express either safety or danger to particular routes and areas. It wasn’t until many years later that she began to talk about her experiences in the Underground Railroad, as she tried to keep her role secret. She did this to protect herself, but also to protect those that helped her along the routes of the Underground Railroad. In fact, she expressed the following, years later: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
While Tubman was a celebrated figure in her own lifetime, much of her accomplishments in the Underground Railroad were unknown due to her secrecy about her actions. Regardless, many other abolitionists that were influential to the American Abolitionist Movement regarded Tubman was an important figure. For example, famous writer, speaker and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said the following about Harriet Tubman in a letter he wrote to her in the late 1860s:
"The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have."
HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE JOHN BROWN RAID
Besides participating in the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman also played an important role in other major events associated with the American Abolitionist Movement. For instance, she assisted John Brown with his famous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1858. Brown was more radical than most abolitionists at the time as he supported the use of violence as a means on ending the practise of slavery.
For instance, his plan was to raid Harpers Ferry, which is a small town in Virginia that is home to a federal arsenal. His plan was to lead his army into the armory, steal the guns and ammunition, and lead the slaves of the area into freedom with the backing of his newly found weaponry. Unfortunately, for Brown and the men that followed him, the plan was no more than a lofty goal. The group marched into Harpers Ferry on October 16th, 1859 and successfully seized the federal complex with little resistance, but after the patrol team that was sent out to contact and recruit the slaves came back empty handed, Brown and his army were out-manned, and trapped due to the lack of a planned escape route. The Militia and local citizens that surrounded Brown ended up having a shoot off with the group, amounting in the deaths of two townspeople and eight of Browns men. In the end, Brown was arrested and sentenced to hang on December 2, 1859.
Harriet Tubman’s role in John Brown’s raid was that she helped spread word and gain support for the mission. Specifically, John Brown had hoped that his actions would lead to an uprising of support from slaves across the United States. Harriet Tubman, who Brown referred to as ‘General Tubman’, helped gain support among freed slaves who were living in the Northern ‘free’ states and Canada. Furthermore, Tubman had a strong working knowledge of the routes and safe houses along the border between the Northern and Southern states. Thus, Brown valued her insights into particular routes and regions.
With all of this said, John Brown’s more radical views on the use of violence was not fully supported by all abolitionists. For example, Frederick Douglass supported Brown’s enthusiasm for the movement but did not openly support his actions. As such, some historians have suggested that while Tubman agreed with the basic principles of Douglass’ mission, she may not have fully supported the use of violence. For instance, while she helped supply people and information to the cause, Tubman did not actually participate in the raid. Regardless, following Brown’s execution, Tubman spoke highly of him and his contributions to the American Abolitionist Movement.
HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
The issue of slavery in the United States reached its height in the early and mid-1860s with the events of the American Civil War. In the lead up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was actively involved in helping escaped slaves reach freedom along the routes of the Underground Railroad. However, during the Civil War, she took on some new challenges in the fight to end slavery, as she saw it as an excellent opportunity to free slaves in the Southern states.
The American Civil War first began in 1861 and continued until 1865. It was one of the most significant events in all of American history and had a profound impact on the development of the United States. At its heart, the American Civil War was the result of growing tensions between the Northern states and Southern states on the issue of slavery. In general, the American Civil War involved the Northern states (also referred to as the ‘Union’) and the Southern states (also referred to as the ‘Confederacy’) fighting in many different major and bloody conflicts.
As stated above, Harriet Tubman carried out new roles during the Civil War. For instance, she worked in the Union camps by assisting escaped slaves and Union soldiers. She did this by carrying out the duties of a nurse, while also completing other related chores. For example, she was known to make different types of medicines out of the local plants in the region to assist the soldiers. She used her position in the camps to advocate for the escaped slaves from the Southern states, and push for full freedom for African Americans.
For instance, she was critical of President Abraham Lincoln in the early years of the Civil War, because she thought that he was not acting fast enough to end slavery. At the time, some argued in favor of immediate abolition, while others argued that it should occur more slowly. Obviously, Harriet Tubman agreed with the idea of an immediate end to slavery. Whereas, many others supported a gradual end to slavery. This included most prominent politicians from the Northern states, including President Abraham Lincoln. Harriet Tubman expressed the following in regards to Lincoln’s views on a gradual end to slavery:
“Master Lincoln, he's a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That's what master Lincoln ought to know.”
Beyond this, Harriet Tubman also participated in the American Civil War as a scout for the Union forces. For instance, she used her knowledge of forest and marshes to move into territory so that she could gain information of the local terrain and people. Then, she would report back to Union Generals on different routes and areas. She continued to carry out these actions throughout the entirety of the Civil War, but also did her best to assist slaves from escaping north.
HARRIET TUBMAN'S LATER YEARS AND LEGACY
Following the abolishment of slavery and the events of the American Civil War, Harriet Tubman continued to fight for causes she considered important. For example, in her later years she campaigned for women’s rights and was involved in the American Suffragist Movement. As well, she continued to support issues important to African Americans. However, Tubman’s lifelong support and assistance for others left her in poverty for much of her life. This was especially true in her final years, as she was essentially destitute. In fact, in her later years she survived off donations made to her by long time supporters, and royalties made from autobiographies that were written about her life. Furthermore, she suffered from health conditions related to her head injury that she sustained as a child. Tubman lived in this state of poverty until her death on March 10th in 1913 from pneumonia, in Auburn, New York.
Today, Harriet Tubman is remembered as one of the most influential Americans in the 19th century and a strong advocate for the Abolitionist Movement. Her actions during the time of the Underground Railroad displayed her lifelong commitment to helping those in need and have made her one of the most regarded humanitarians in American History. While she a celebrated figure in her own lifetime, she has continued to be remembered as one of the most significant figures since her death. For instance, in modern times, Harriet Tubman has been a widely celebrated figure with numerous honors.
CITE THIS ARTICLE