Harriet Tubman

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: A fugitive slave herself, Tubman was called the “Moses” of her people for rescuing numerous slaves from bondage and leading them to freedom.

Early Life

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in 1820 in the small community of Bucktown, Dorchester County, on the eastern shore of Maryland. She was the daughter of two slaves, Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, one of ten or eleven of the couple’s children. Her ancestors had been brought to the United States from Africa sometime in the early eighteenth century. Her master, Edward Brodas, named her Araminta, but she quickly took on her mother’s name and came to be known as Harriet.

Her slave status quickly became obvious to her. As a young child, she saw two of her sisters carried away in chains. She received no schooling, and by the age of five she was already at work as a baby-sitter and maid. Her mistress worked her as a maid during the day and then demanded that she remain alert to the baby’s cries at night. Once when Harriet dozed off and the baby’s crying awakened the mistress, the woman pummeled the young slave about her face and neck.

At six, Harriet was hired out to a new master who taught her how to trap muskrats and how to weave. Once, he caught her taking a sugar cube from his table, and she had to run away to avoid punishment. When she returned, tired and hungry, after several days’ absence, she was whipped.

The remainder of her childhood was spent in various other occupations. She worked again as a nursemaid and later split and hauled wood, part of the time working with her father. She was also a field hand. None of her various masters seemed happy with her work, and she was frequently in trouble.

When she was twelve or thirteen, she suffered an accident that was to affect her for the rest of her life. An overseer became angry at another slave for leaving his work and demanded that Harriet help in his whipping. She refused and instead tried to help the man escape. In his anger, the overseer picked up a two-pound weight and threw it at the fleeing slave. His aim proved faulty, however, and he struck Harriet on the head, knocking her unconscious. For the rest of her life, she suffered a form of sleeping sickness brought on by the blow, often falling asleep involuntarily. These spells only increased her reputation as a poor worker.

In 1844, her mother forced her to marry a free black man named John Tubman, with whom she lived for five years. They had no children. While discussing his free status, Tubman became curious about her own background. In 1845, her inquiries turned up the fact that her mother had actually been emancipated some years previously, but a former master had hidden this fact from her. This revelation caused Tubman to look at her enslavement in an even more critical light.

The year 1849 proved to be the turning point in her life. Her master at this time was a young, sickly white man who was under the care of an adult guardian. When the young man died in 1849, the rumor spread that the guardian planned to sell all of his slaves. Tubman decided to run away. Her husband refused to join her, but two of her brothers went along. They quickly lost their nerve, however, and she was forced to travel the one hundred miles or so out of Maryland, through Delaware, to Philadelphia on her own. Along the way, she found aid from sympathetic blacks and whites. When she reached free soil, she had mixed feelings. She was excited about reaching freedom, but she was sad that her family members were still chattel. She determined somehow to free them. Her life of slavery was over; a new career was soon to begin.

Life’s Work

When she reached Philadelphia, she met William Still, a black man reputed to be the chief “conductor” on what was referred to as the Underground Railroad. This collection of abolitionists, Quakers, and other sympathetic blacks and whites had established a series of houses, barns, caves, passageways, and the like for fugitive slaves to use as they made their way north to freedom. This so-called Underground Railroad was not nearly as well organized as myth would have it, but there is no denying that numerous individuals helped the fugitives escape. Tubman had already experienced some of this help during her own escape, and now she learned more about the system from Still and another close ally, the Quaker Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, Delaware.

Tubman first had to find work in a hotel to earn a livelihood, and thus she began the pattern she was to follow from then on. She was never a paid agent, so she had to do manual labor of various sorts to pay her own way and help finance her slave-rescuing activities. (Sometimes, abolitionists did give her some financial support for particular excursions.)

In December, 1850, she made the first of some twenty trips back into slavery. She went to Baltimore and brought out her sister and two children. In 1851, she rescued a brother and his family. When she returned for her husband in the fall of that year, she found him remarried and uninterested in joining her.

For the rest of the 1850’s Tubman engaged in her slave-stealing activities, rescuing somewhere between sixty and three hundred people. Her work was complicated by the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law of the Compromise of 1850, which made it no longer safe for runaways to remain in the North. She began to take her fugitives into Canada, from 1851 to 1857 considering St. Catharines, Ontario, her home. From there, she made eleven trips into slave territory. Her most spectacular rescue, and the most personally satisfying one, was her success in bringing out her parents in 1857 in a specially contrived wagon. Her raids were so successful, in fact, that frightened Maryland slaveholders held a meeting in 1858 and put a price of forty thousand dollars on her head.

Her success was the result of intelligence, planning, determination, a mystical faith in God, and courage. She carried drugs to anesthetize babies. She used a pistol to embolden fugitives on the verge of losing their nerve, giving them the choice of continuing or dying on the...

(The entire section is 2542 words.)