Famed abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime around 1822. The fifth of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green’s nine children, Tubman’s birth name was Araminta Ross and her nickname was Minty. Legally owned by Mary Pattison Brodess, Tubman’s mother served as a cook for the Brodess family. Tubman’s father toiled as a skilled woodsman on a nearby plantation managed by his owner Mary Brodess’ second husband, Anthony Thompson.
When Minty reached the age of five or six, her owner hired her out to James and Susan Cook, for whom she toiled as a house servant. When Minty grew older and stronger, she became more valuable as a field hand performing backbreaking work on several plantations. Tubman later recounted that overseers frequently whipped and beat her throughout her childhood for the slightest provocations.
Serious Head Injury
During her adolescence, Minty suffered a serious head injury, the effects of which followed her for the rest of her life. Trying to protect a slave who had walked away from his duties from the wrath of his pursuer, Minty found herself in the path of a heavy object hurled by the irate overseer. The misdirected projectile struck Minty’s skull, wounding her gravely. Following a prolonged convalescence, Minty suffered from severe headaches, seizures, and involuntary sleeping spells (narcolepsy) throughout her life.
Victim of Duplicity
Following Minty’s recovery, her owners hired her out to John Stewart, who operated a thriving lumber business. Stewart, who also employed Minty’s father and some of her brothers, was more lenient and generous than many people who used slaves owned by others. His generosity allowed Tubman to save some cash of her own. Using some of those funds, Minty hired a lawyer to investigate suspicions that her mother, Rit, may have been denied the freedom that her first owner’s will bequeathed her. The attorney discovered that when Rit became the property of Mark Pattison, she would remain a slave until age forty-five. By extension, her offspring would also be free when they reached the same age. Unfortunately for Rit and Minty, when Edward Brodess inherited Rit in 1810, he refused to honor the terms of the will. The discovery of Brodess’ duplicity may have steeled Minty’s resolve to free herself someday.
Marriage to John Tubman
Around the time that Minty was working for Stewart, she met and fell in love with John Tubman, a free black man who may have also worked for Stewart. In 1844, the couple “wed,” but no legal record of their union exists because Maryland law did not permit slaves to marry. At the time of her marriage, Minty changed her first name to Harriet, in honor of her mother, and she assumed Tubman’s surname. Historical accounts of their lives together are scant, but there is reason to believe that they loved each other, although their marriage produced no children.
In 1847, Edward Brodess hired Tubman out to his stepbrother, Anthony Thompson, Jr. When Brodess died in 1849, Tubman heard rumors that his heirs might separate her family and sell them south. Fearing the worst, sometime around September 17, 1849, she fled north in search of freedom. As Tubman later related, “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.”
When Tubman walked away, she headed north toward Pennsylvania. Her ninety-mile trek, which took her through Delaware, may have taken from ten days to three weeks to complete, depending on how much help she received along the way. Like most fugitive slaves, she would have rested during the day, when the possibility of detection was the greatest, and traveled at night, using the north star to guide her way. Although Tubman left no record of who abetted her escape, she undoubtedly received food and shelter at safe-houses along her route from members of the Underground Railroad.
After safely arriving in Pennsylvania, Tubman traveled on to Philadelphia, the Home of the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery. Although she was still subject to being captured and returned to her owner under provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, she was relatively safe living in obscurity among the nation’s largest population of free blacks.
Loneliness in Philadelphia
Notwithstanding the euphoria Tubman must have felt by escaping slavery, she found herself utterly alone in a city rife with discrimination and racial tension. Her husband, who was already free, had chosen not to accompany her. Although she found work and the means to sustain herself, loneliness and memories of those she left behind dampened her spirit.
The year after Tubman’s escape, the federal government added new teeth to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, enacting an omnibus bill commonly known as the Compromise of 1850. One provision of the new bill, particularly abhorred by abolitionists, was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Provisions of that act were much harsher and more unfair to suspected runaway slaves. Fugitives no longer had access to a trial by jury in state and local courts when slave owners or their agents apprehended them in Northern states. Instead, authorities brought them before federal commissioners who determined their fate. When appearing before the commissioners, alleged runaways had no right to call witnesses or testify on their own behalf. In addition, the system rewarded commissioners for ruling against suspected fugitives.
“Moses of Her People”
Despite the inherent dangers that the new legislation presented, Tubman returned to Maryland in 1850 to escort her sister and her sister’s two children to freedom. During the next decade, Tubman made repeated trips south of the Mason-Dixon Line to rescue family members, including her parents and other slaves. Some accounts estimate that she may have traveled back into harm’s way up to nineteen times, leading roughly 300 fugitive slaves to freedom. More recent research tempers those estimates to between eleven and thirteen trips escorting about seventy slaves to freedom. Historians may never know the exact numbers. Whatever they are, it is difficult to overstate the courage of a black, female, fugitive slave who repeatedly defied federal law and scorned southern authority to liberate many slaves during an age dominated by free, white, men. It is no small wonder that Tubman’s heroics earned her the sobriquet “Moses of Her People.”
Relocation to Canada
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 further threatened the freedom of escaped slaves living in the North. Trumped by federal legislation, state and local laws no longer protected fugitives. Sensitive to the new dangers, Tubman began moving members of her family, and her base of operations to St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1851. As Tubman later explained, “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, but I brought ’em clear off to Canada.” When she was not on one of her rescue missions, Tubman lived in St. Catharines until 1858.
By the late 1850s, Tubman’s exploits had generated enough notoriety in the North to earn the respect of leading abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. As a result, she became a prominent speaker at anti-slavery rallies in New England. In 1858 or 1859, U.S. Senator William H. Seward sold Tubman a home in Auburn, New York, on affordable terms because he was a great admirer. Tubman moved back to the United States and settled there with her parents.
John Brown Supporter
At about the same time Tubman moved to the United States, she met fanatical abolitionist John Brown for the first time in Canada. She shared Brown’s hatred of slavery and endorsed his scheme to incite a slave rebellion in the South. Although Tubman did not take part in the planning of Brown’s daring raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on October 16–18, 1859, she solicited support, financial and otherwise, for the notorious firebrand.
Union Nurse, Scout, and Spy
After the Civil War erupted, Tubman traveled to South Carolina where she served as a nurse for Union troops occupying the Atlantic seaboard. By 1863, her role expanded to spying and scouting for Federal troops. On June 2, 1863, Tubman accompanied three gunboats transporting a raiding party commanded by Colonel James Montgomery up the Cohambee River. Their successful mission destroyed several plantations, freed roughly 700 slaves, and bagged valuable supplies for Union forces. One month later, Tubman assisted Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Colored Infantry Regiment, in preparing for the Union assault during the Second Battle of Fort Wagner (July 18, 1863), which the 1989 Hollywood film Glory later commemorated.
Some accounts claim that Tubman was the first female to lead troops during an armed engagement during the Civil War. More recent scholarly research seems to discredit that assertion. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Tubman aided the Union cause as a nurse, scout, and spy during the conflict. Despite her loyal service, however, Tubman received neither pay nor a pension for her wartime contributions.
Marriage to Nelson Davis
Following the Civil War, Tubman returned to her home in Auburn, New York. After learning that her husband, John Tubman, had been murdered in Maryland during the conflict, Tubman felt free to remarry. On March 18, 1869, she wed former slave Nelson Davis (aka Nelson Charles), who was at least twenty years her junior. The pair first met in South Carolina, where Nelson was serving with the 8th New York Regiment during the Civil War. Although their marriage produced no offspring, they adopted a baby girl in 1874 who they named Gertie.
Financial Struggles and Personal Tragedies
Despite Tubman’s public renown, personal and financial difficulties overshadowed much of her life after the Civil War. By 1869, her situation was so dire that a group of her supporters, including William Seward, Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips, sponsored the publication of Tubman’s biography written by her friend, Sarah H. Bradford. Wealthy donors, including Gerrit Smith, underwrote the cost of publishing the work entitled Scenes in the Life Of Harriet Tubman. Proceeds from the book provided Tubman with a short-term windfall of over $1,200 but did not resolve her long-term financial and personal struggles.
In 1886, a fire destroyed Tubman’s frame house in Auburn. Bradford and other benefactors again came to Tubman’s rescue, publishing a second biography entitled Harriet Tubman, Moses of Her People. Proceeds from the book helped Tubman replace her incinerated home with a new brick structure which her husband, who was a bricklayer, helped construct.
Shortly after completion of the new home, tragedy struck again when Nelson Davis died in 1888. For the next four years, Tubman wrangled with federal authorities as she attempted to claim her entitled widow’s war pension. In 1892, the government relented and awarded her a payment of $8 per month. In the meantime, federal officials continued to deny Tubman her own pension for her service during the Civil War because War Department records were ambiguous. Eventually, Congress brokered a compromise that did not resolve the uncertainties regarding Tubman’s service but did increase her widow’s pension to $20 per month in 1899.
Tubman’s generosity exacerbated her financial problems throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century. Despite being nearly destitute—sometimes living off of the generosity of Auburn’s citizenry—Tubman dedicated her life to assisting impoverished former slaves. She also volunteered tirelessly to promote equal rights for women and people of color. Her home was often a refuge for former slaves struggling to adjust to life beyond bondage.
Harriet Tubman Home
In 1896, Tubman risked her small life savings as the down payment for a mortgage on the twenty-five-acre tract of land next to the home that she purchased at auction. With the support of donations from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Auburn residents, Tubman erected a two-and-one-half-story, clapboard structure on the property intended to be a haven for elderly former slaves.
When she could no longer afford to pay taxes on the property, Tubman donated it to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1903, with the stipulation that she would hold a lifetime deed and that the organization would maintain the site as a home for “aged and indigent colored people.”
For the next five years, a church-appointed board of trustees oversaw further improvements to the property, including the construction of a brick infirmary named in honor of John Brown. In 1908, the facility opened as the Harriet Tubman Home. By then in her late eighties, Tubman considered the project “her last work.” The facility continued to operate for its intended use until 1918. Today the National Park Service maintains the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged as a museum dedicated to preserving the humanitarian vision of its founder.
As Tubman aged, the headaches and buzzing she experienced because of the head injury she sustained as a youth intensified. During the 1890s, she underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to relieve her symptoms. Although the procedure did not eliminate her stabbing episodes, it reduced her discomfort.
Eventually, old age, coupled with a hard life, began catching up with Tubman. Following an extended hospital stay in 1911, she moved from her home to the facility next door that bore her name. During the winter of 1913, Tubman developed pneumonia. As her end approached, close friends and family gathered near her bedside. Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913, in the presence of her loved ones. Three days later, she was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn with military honors.
By coincidence, Rosa Parks was born the same year that Harriet Tubman died. Forty-two years later, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in the “colored section” of an overcrowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama, as required by law. Parks’ rebellion triggered a year-long boycott of the Montgomery bus system and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1956 that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Perhaps inspired by Tubman’s example of personal sacrifice in the pursuit of social justice, Parks’ act of defiance re-energized the crusade for equal rights for African Americans in the United States one hundred years after Tubman cemented her legacy as the “Moses of her people.”