Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

by Catherine Clinton
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom is a biography by Catherine Clinton. Since Tubman couldn’t read, all of what Clinton writes about in the book comes from the accounts of others. The book uses these accounts to follow Tubman’s life, starting with her birth sometime in the 1820s in Armanita Ross in the state of Maryland. Records weren’t as good back then, especially when it came to slaves, so the exact date isn’t known.

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When she was in her early 20s, Tubman escaped her servitude and found her way to the North and to freedom. In your paper, this is where you can talk about how the source of Tubman’s fame began since, at this point in her story, she began going back to the South to help other slaves escape. She actually started doing this within a year of her earning her own freedom.

The book also goes over Tubman’s marriage to John Tubman, her establishment of a spy ring during the civil war, and many other events such as the brain injury she sustained as a teenager. The story goes that she tried to stop a master from hurting a slave, stepping in the way. The master hit her in the head with a lead weight, and this lead to many health issues throughout her life, such as the hallucinations that she suffered.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1885

Catherine Clinton's biography of Harriet Tubman has been widely praised by critics as a highly readable, historically accurate portrayal of the life and times of this heroic woman. Tubman was illiterate throughout her life, so she left no diaries or letters in her own hand. Moreover, the essential secrecy of the Underground Railroad, the movement with which Tubman's life was inextricably bound, means that personal details of her story can never be recovered. Catherine Clinton, a distinguished historian, has relied on meticulous research and her extensive knowledge of African American history to tell the story of Tubman's life in the context of the times in which she lived.

Araminta Green was born a slave into the plantation society of the eastern shore of Maryland between 1820 and 1825; because slave births were not recorded, the date is uncertain. Araminta's mother, Harriet Green, was powerless to prevent the sale of two of her daughters, lost to her forever when they were sent into the Deep South. Green did, however, successfully defy her master by hiding one of her sons in order to prevent his sale. Benjamin Ross, Araminta's father and a skilled workman, assisted his master, John Stewart, in managing his lumber business.

Young Araminta's health was damaged when her master put her to work at tasks far beyond her age and capability. The image of her two sisters, sold off and taken away in a slave coffle, haunted Araminta for the rest of her life. Araminta, a resourceful and intelligent child, must have understood at an early age the terrible destruction of family life and the powerlessness of the individual that accompanied slavery. As a teenager, she sustained a severe injury when she was hit in the head by a lead weight, thrown by an angry overseer at another slave. She underwent a long recovery and suffered a lifelong disability, probably as a result of this injury. Throughout her life she suffered “spells,” or uncontrolled periods of deep sleep that overcame her without warning.

Instead of despairing of the harsh reality of her life, young Araminta turned to God, developing the strong religious faith that was to sustain her throughout her life. Believing that it was God's will that she fulfill her destiny as a free woman, she escaped in 1849, aided by the Underground Railroad. She left behind her husband, John Tubman, a free black man, who chose not to accompany her. Later in life she explained her motive for her escape: “I had reasoned this out in my mind: there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Her public life began in 1849 when she joined the large population of free black people in Philadelphia. A fugitive, she was in constant danger of being returned to slavery. Assuming a new identity, she took the name Harriet, that of her mother and possibly one of her lost sisters, and kept her husband's name.

The Fugitive Slave Law, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1850, posed a terrible threat to both fugitives and free black people. This so-called bloodhound law gave regional authorities and bounty hunters the legal power to capture and return fugitives to their masters. Even free black people were sometimes captured and taken south. Abolitionists, most notably Quakers, created “liberty lines,” a system of escape routes called the Underground Railroad, that assisted fugitive slaves on their way north. Because of the severe legal penalties for assisting fugitives, the movement was shrouded in secrecy. Those who provided safe houses were called stationmasters; those who transported the slaves from place to place were conductors. Most daring of all were the abductors, who ventured into the South to steal willing slaves from their masters.

Harriet Tubman, driven by her passion to free all slaves, was the first fugitive slave, and first woman, to make these dangerous forays into the South. She soon became notorious among slave owners, who put a high price on her head. Her status as a fugitive willing to risk her life gave her great credibility as a spokeswoman for the abolitionist movement.

Between 1852 and the end of the Civil War, Tubman made at least one yearly trip into the Deep South, freeing an estimated hundreds of slaves, including her own mother and father. She conducted her rescues in the fall, escorting groups of fugitives to Canada, where the government did not recognize the legality of the Fugitive Slave Law. Her daring stories of rescue were recorded by others or passed down as oral history. At barely five feet tall, she posed as an old black woman who would attract no notice. In one documented story, she carried a pistol and threatened to kill a slave who was endangering the group by attempting to return to his master.

Tubman was known, not by name, but as the Moses, or deliverer, of her people. Her intuitive sense of danger, which she attributed to a mystical second sight, combined with her strong religious faith, convinced her followers that she was under the special protection of God. Tubman's success lay in her undaunted courage and the careful preparation of her raids. Her strategy included plans for alternate routes when her escape roads were threatened. Despite her countless dangerous trips into the South, she was never captured. She lived for a time in the Canadian town of St. Catherine's, which sheltered a large African American community of fugitives. Clinton's description of this black community illuminates a little-known period of history.

After the successful rescue of her parents, Tubman moved to Auburn, New York, to make a home for them. In a little-known aspect of Tubman's life, she brought to her northern home Margaret Stewart, a young, light-skinned girl whom she had taken from her parents. She claimed her as a niece and adopted her as her daughter. Clinton speculates that Margaret might have been Tubman's birth daughter, perhaps the result of a rape by a white man, but acknowledges that there is no solid evidence for this.

Also controversial was Tubman's support for John Brown in his fateful raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October, 1859. She gave him valuable information on the Virginia territory and, although she never herself advocated violence, she fully supported Brown's plans. Brown did not support women's rights but acknowledged Tubman's importance by calling her a general in the war against slavery. The raid was a failure, and Brown was captured and hanged. Tubman saw in his death a prophetic sign that freedom for the slaves was soon coming. In another instance, in a public act of defiance in Troy, New York, in 1860, Tubman joined others in the violent rescue of Charles Nalle, a fugitive whom slave catchers tried to return to his master in Virginia.

Tubman played a significant role in the northern cause during the Civil War. First, she served as a nurse in hospital camps in coastal South Carolina. Soldiers who were treated with her herbal remedies credited her with miraculous healing powers. She then became a scout and agent who organized networks of spies. Her knowledge of the territory and her experiences as an abductor proved invaluable for this clandestine activity. Her most spectacular contribution to the northern cause occurred in June, 1863, when she masterminded the Cohambee River raid in South Carolina. More than 750 slaves—men, women, and children—escaped from their plantations with the help of black Union soldiers and were taken upriver in Union gunboats. Tubman's detailed attention to planning and her daring were responsible for the success of this raid. This event made her an international celebrity, and, against her wishes, her name became known.

Tubman's health, strained by her wartime activities, deteriorated after her return to Auburn in 1864. Her sudden lapses into a deep sleep, probably a form of narcolepsy, became more frequent. She had vivid, hallucinatory dreams related to this disorder. It is uncertain whether this illness was the result of her earlier head injury or a genetic disease. She underwent surgery in Boston that apparently gave her some relief.

Tubman was not, at first, an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, believing he was not decisive enough on the issue of slavery. However, after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, she gave him her approval. During Reconstruction, Tubman worked actively to protest the violence of the Ku Klux Klan in the South. Ironically, she was injured when she fought against being forced from her seat in a railroad car in New Jersey because she was a black woman.

Tubman continued her humanitarian activities until the end of her life. Despite her illiteracy, she was an eloquent speaker at meetings of the woman suffrage movement. She collected money for schools and hospitals in the South and devoted her efforts to helping the poor in Auburn. She battled the government in an attempt to be paid for her wartime service to the Union. However, because her work had not been documented, she never received fair compensation. She worked as a domestic servant and often depended on friends and townspeople for financial support. Sarah Bradford, a friend who published an early biography of Tubman in 1869, gave her the profits from the sale of the book.

In 1869, Tubman married Charles Nelson Davis, a younger man whom she had met when he was a soldier in South Carolina. Although her first marriage to John Tubman had never been legally recognized, she did not consider herself free to marry until after his death. Her marriage to Davis lasted twenty years, until his death. Through her own persistence and the efforts of her supporters, Tubman was finally awarded a widow's pension, and eventually a supplemental pension for her wartime work, bringing her yearly income to $240.

Tubman was an active member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Auburn. In 1903, she donated property she owned to the church for use as a home for poor, aged African Americans and received permission to live there. She numbered among her friends Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and leaders of black women's organizations. She died on March 10, 1913, and was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.

This biography is the first full coverage for adult readers of Tubman's life presented in the context of the political and social movements of her time. The numerous books for schoolchildren have generally portrayed her as a mythological symbol, rather than the real woman whose indomitable will and courage literally changed the lives of those slaves she brought to freedom and their descendants. This biography has been warmly praised by critics who find it a compelling and readable contribution to the history of the period of the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the women's movement.

Tubman's own words to her contemporaries in times of trouble best express her legacy: “If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.” As this biography reveals, Tubman herself was the best example of the value of this advice.

Review Sources

Black Issues Book Review 6, no. 1 (January/February, 2004): 60.

Library Journal 128, no. 20 (December 15, 2003): 30-31.

The New York Review of Books, March 11, 2004, pp. 14-16.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (February 15, 2004): 9.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 1 (January 5, 2004): 50.

Time 163, no. 6 (February 9, 2004): 75.

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