The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman

Her name deserves to be handed down to posterity, side by side with the names of Jeanne D’Arc, Grace Darling and Florence Nightingale, for not one of these women, noble and brave as they were, has shown more courage, and power of endurance, in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than this poor black woman … (4).

In 1850, Harriet Tubman succeeded with her first attempt in freeing slaves from the South. Nineteen more attempts would be performed during the time she worked in the Underground Railroad of the 1850’s. Her pursuit of abolitionism would continue with her efforts in the Civil War as a nurse and scout. Harriet’s work in the Underground Railroad and as a scout for the North in the Civil War made her a hero against slavery.

Araminta Ross was either born in 1820 or 1821 on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Records were not kept of slave births so her birthdate is a mystery. She was a fortunate slave girl because she had her mother by her side to raise her. It was common to have a slave mother and her children split apart by the slave trade. Araminta had barely any clothes to wear; usually just a soiled cotton dress. She slept as close to the fire as possible on cold nights and sometimes stuck her toes into the smoldering ashes to avoid frostbite. Cornmeal was her main source of nutrition and occasionally meat of some kind as her family had the privilege to hunt and fish. Most of her early childhood was spent with her grandmother who was too old for slave labor.

At age six, Araminta was old enough to be considered able to work. She did not work in the fields though. Edward Brodas, her master, lent her to a couple who first put her to work weaving. When she slacked off at this job the couple gave her the duty of checking muskrat traps. Araminta caught the measles while doing this work. The couple thought she was incompetent and took her back to Brodas. When she got well, she was taken in by a woman as a housekeeper and baby-sitter. Araminta was whipped during the work here and was sent back to Brodas after eating one of the woman’s sugar cubes.

As was the custom on all plantations, when she turned eleven, she started wearing a bright cotton bandana around her head indicating she was no longer a child. She was also no longer known by her “basket name”, Araminta. Now she would be called Harriet (McClard 21, 2628, 29-33).

In 1844, Harriet Ross married a well-built man with a ready laugh. John Tubman was a free slave unlike Harriet. Since she was a slave, she knew there could be a chance that she could be sold and her marriage would be split apart. Harriet dreamed of traveling north. There, she would be free and would not have to worry about having her marriage split up by the slave trade. But, John did not want her to go north. He said he was fine where he was and that there was no reason for moving north. She said she would go by herself. He replied with questions like “When it’s nighttime, how will you know which way is north?” and “What will you eat?” He told her that if she ran off, he would tell her master. She did not believe him until she saw his face and then she knew he meant it. Her goal to achieve freedom was too large for her to give up though. So she left her husband and traveled north with her brothers (Petry 80-87,90).

Harriet hitched a ride with a woman and her husband who were passing by. They were abolitionists and kind enough to give her directions to safe houses and names of people who would help her cross the Mason-Dixon line. The couple took her to Philadelphia. Here, Harriet got a job where she saved her pay to help free slaves. She also met William Still. (Taylor 35-39, 40-41).

William Still was one of the Underground Railroad’s busiest “station masters.” He was a freeborn black Pennsylvanian who could read and write. He used these talents to interview runaway slaves and record their names and stories in a book. He hoped that in the future, family’s could trace their relations using this book. Still published the book in 1872 under the title The Underground Railroad. It is still revised and published today (McClard 65-68).

In 1850, Harriet helped her first slaves escape to the North. She sent a message to her sister’s oldest son that said for her sister and family to board a fishing boat in Cambridge. This boat would sail up the Chesapeake Bay where they would meet Harriet in Bodkin’s Point. When they got to Bodkin’s Point, Harriet guided them from safehouse to safehouse in Pennsylvania (which was a free state) until they reached Philadelphia.

In September of the same year, Harriet was made an official “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. This meant that she knew all the routes to free territory and she had to take an oath of silence so the secret of the Underground Railroad would be kept secret. She also made a second trip to the South to rescue her brother James and other friends. They were already in the process of running away so Harriet aided them across a river and to the home of Thomas Garret. He was the most famous Underground “Stationmaster” in history (McClard 72-74).

At the same time that all of this was going on, a second Fugitive Slave law was passed. It allowed anyone the right to capture any black person and send them back to the South. This law caused the Underground Railroad to tighten security. It created a code to make things more secret. It also sent the escaping slaves into Canada instead of the “North” of the U.S. (Petry 125-130).

Harriet’s third trip was in September 1851. She went to get her husband, John, but he had remarried and did not want to leave. So she went back up North. Harriet went to Garret’s house and found there were more runaways (which were referred to as passengers) to rescue than anticipated. That did not stop her though. She gave a baby a sedative so he would not cry and took the passengers into Pennsylvania. The trip was long and cold but they did reach the safe house of Frederick Douglas. He kept them until he had collected enough money to get them to Canada. He recieved the money so she and her eleven passengers started the journey to Canada. To get into Canada, they had to cross over Niagara Falls on a handmade suspension bridge which would take them into the city of St. Catherine located in Canada. In St. Catherine, blacks and whites lived together in comfortable houses and they had their own land to farm and raise crops (Petry 131-138, 144-146).

In the winter of 1852, Tubman was ready to return to the U.S. to help free more slaves. In the spring, she worked in Cape May and saved enough money to go to Maryland. By now, Tubman had led so many people from the South – the slave’s called this the “land of Egypt” – to freedom, she became known as “Moses.” She was also known by the plantation owners for her efforts and a bounty of $40,000 was posted. The state of Maryland itself posted a $12,000 reward for her capture (Taylor 49).

Tubman made eleven trips from Maryland to Canada from 1852-1857. Her most famous trip concerned a passenger who panicked and wanted to turn back. Tubman was afraid if he left he would be tortured and would tell all he knew about the Railroad. The unwilling passenger changed his mind when Tubman pointed a gun at his head and said “dead folks tell no tales” (Sterling 16-18).

The spring of 1857 was the time when Harriet set out on her most daring rescue to free her elderly father, Ben Ross. Tubman bought a train ticket for herself and traveled in broad daylight which was dangerous considering the bounty for her head. When she reached Caroline County, she bought a horse and some miscellaneous parts to make a buggy. She took this and her father and mother to Thomas Garrett who arranged for their passage to Canada (Bradford 115, 128).

In Canada, she met John Brown, a radical abolitionist, who had heard much about Harriet. When he came to St. Catherine, he asked J.W. Loguen to introduce them. When Brown met Tubman, he was overwhelmed by her intelligence and bearing and said “General Tubman, General Tubman, General Tubman.” From then on he would refer to her by this name. Brown called Harriet, “one of the best and bravest persons on this continent” (Petry 195-198).

Harriet Tubman’s career in the Railroad was ending by December 1860. She made her last rescue trip to Maryland, bringing seven people to Canada. In the ten years she worked as a “conductor” on the Railroad, Harriet managed to rescue over 300 people. She had made 19 trips and never lost a passenger on the way. For Tubman’s safety, her friends took her to Canada (Sterling 25).

Tubman returned to the U.S. from living in Canada in 1861. The Civil War had begun and was enlisting all men as soldiers and any women who wanted to join as cooks and nurses. Tubman enlisted into the Union army as a “contraband” nurse in a hospital in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Contrabands were blacks who the Union army helped to escape from the Southern compounds. Often they were half starved and sick from exposure.

Harriet nursed the sick and wounded back to health but her work did not stop there. She also tried to find them work. When the army sent her to another hospital in Florida, she found white soldiers and contrabands “dying off like sheep” (Taylor 84-86). She explains a role of hers while working in a hospital: (dialect omitted)

I would go to the hospital, I would, early every morning. I’d get a big chunk of ice, I would, and put it in a basin, and fill it with water; then I’d take a sponge and begin. First man I’d come to, I’d thrash away the flies, and they would rise, they would like bees around a hive. Then I would begin to bathe the wounds, and by the time I had bathed off three or four, the fire and heat would have melted the ice and made the water warm, and it would be as red as clear blood. Then I would go and get more ice, and by the time I get to the next ones, the flies would be around the first ones and thick as ever (Bradford 97)

She treated her patients with medicine from roots and miraculously never caught any of the deadly diseases the wounded soldiers would carry.

During the summer of 1863, Tubman worked with Colonel James Montgomery as a scout. She put together a group of spies who kept Montgomery informed about slaves who might want to join the Union army. After she and her scouts had done the groundwork, she helped Montgomery organize the Combahee River Raid. The purpose of the raid was to harass whites and rescue freed slaves. They were successful in shelling the rebel outposts and gathering almost 500 slaves. Just about all the freed slaves joined the army (Petry 224-227).

After the war, Harriet returned home to Auburn. In 1869, she married Nelson Davis and together they shared a calm, peaceful 19 year marriage until he died. In 1908, Harriet purchased property adjoining her home where she opened a house where old black people could live and be taken care of. Before she died on March 10, 1913, she gave her home for the elderly to the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (McClard 113, 117, 121-124).

Pioneers of abolitionism devoted their lives to fight for freedom and the pursuit of a better life for African-Americans. Harriet Tubman’s efforts in the Underground Railroad and in the Civil War strengthened the abolitionist movement by accomplishing the goal it had intended to do: free slaves and abolish slavery. Why did she choose to help with the pursuit of abolitionism? She chose to help because she wanted to be free and heal the wounds that slavery had left her. Harriet thought, if slavery was non-existant, then her past was really behind her and she could finish her life as a free citizen of the United States. She had opened the eyes of white people all over America and assisted them in understanding why slavery was immoral. 

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