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1819 or 1820, near Bucktown, Dorchester County, Maryland
March 10, 1913, Auburn, New York
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Harriet Tubman summary: Harriet Tubman is often called the Moses of her people for leading so many of them out of bondage to freedom. She was an abolitionist, an integral part of the Underground Railroad, a humanitarian, and a Union nurse and spy during the American Civil War.
Araminta Ross was born in the winter of 1819 or 1820 to Benjamin and Harriet (Greene) Ross, who were slaves on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Araminta or "Minty" was born into a large family of slaves with origins in Africa—her grandparents may have been from the Ashanti tribe in what is now Ghana. The exact date of her birth is unknown because she was a slave and owners did not often record their slave’s birthdates. Before she reached adulthood, Araminta changed her first name to Harriet, after her mother.
Although some of her siblings were illegally sold to out of state buyers, at five or six years old, Harriet was loaned out to another plantation, where she was put to work checking muskrat traps in rivers. She became too sick to work and was returned, malnourished and suffering from exposure to cold. After she recovered, she was lent out again to another plantation where she worked as a nursemaid to the planter’s child.
By her early teens, she was working as a field hand, plowing and hauling wood. During this time, she defended a fellow field hand who had tried to run away. Harriet came between the angry overseer and the field hand. The overseer threw a two-pound weight at the field hand, but it fell short and hit Harriet in the head—she had life-long headaches, seizures, and narcolepsey as a result.
Around 1844, Harriet asked for and received permission from her owners to marry and live with John Tubman, a freeman, and took his last name, but she was required to continue working for her owner. In 1849, Harriet and two of her brothers ran away after their master died, afraid that they would be sold. Her brothers had second thoughts, and the group returned. Not long after, Harriet left on her own, on foot in the middle of the night, using a part of the Underground Railroad that was already in place in eastern Maryland. She traveled only at night, using the North Star and instructions from helpers in the Underground Railroad to guide her about 90 miles to Pennsylvania.
She went to Philadelphia, worked odd jobs, and began to make plans for a return to Maryland to help her family—and eventually anyone who would take the risk of flight—to freedom. She became involved in abolitionist organizations, including the Underground Railroad, which provided safe havens and guidance for escaping slaves.
In 1850 she returned to Maryland and brought her niece’s family to freedom. In 1851, she returned for one of her brothers and two other men. During her third trip, she planned to convince her husband to come north, but discovered he had taken another wife, a freewoman. Instead, she found other slaves seeking freedom and guided them to freedom. Emboldened by each trip, which were all successful, Harriet continued her slave-freeing trips into Maryland. She became adept at avoiding capture and she carried a long rifle with her—both for protection and as a means of ensuring her escapees would not lose their nerve. She warned them that if they changed their mind and surrendered or returned to their owners, she would shoot them.
Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Harriet left Philadelphia and moved to St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, where she brought many of the slaves she freed. Throughout the 1850s, she made numerous trips back into Maryland to guide slaves to freedom, including three of her other brothers in 1853 and her parents in 1857. By the late 1850s, she was able to buy a small farm for her parents in Auburn, New York, from New York Senator William H. Seward, one of her advocates and supporters. The following year, she moved from St. Catharines to the house in Auburn as well, using it as her base when she wasn’t traveling or speaking.
In her 12 years of freedom before the American Civil War began, Harriet helped make the Underground Railroad one of the most important aspects of abolitionism and became one of the most active figures in the movement. John Brown, the militant abolitionist she sometimes worked with, called her General Tubman for her bravery. In 1858, she helped Brown raise funds for a raid on the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), after which he planned to arm the slaves of the town and instigate a rebellion, although she did not participate in the ill-fated 1859 raid.
During the Civil War, Harriet served with the Union Army, doing whatever she could to help with the war and to help the fugitive slaves that arrived at Union army camps, cooking meals and nursing soldiers and fugitives alike. In 1862 she went with a group of missionary teachers to Union-occupied Beaufort, South Carolina, to help a group of Sea Island slaves transition to freedom. She was also a scout and a spy behind Confederate lines. In 1863, she became the first woman in America to command an armed military raid. She led Colonel James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina regiment, composed of freed black men, up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s southern Low Country. They sought Confederate outposts and destroyed stockpiles of cotton, food, and weapons, and liberated over 700 slaves.
At the end of the war, Harriet returned to Auburn and continued to be a community activist and humanitarian, and an active member of the suffrage movement. She helped shelter the poor and the elderly on the farm in Auburn though she herself struggled financially.
In 1867, her estranged husband, John, was killed in Maryland by Robert Vincent, a white man with whom he had quarreled earlier that day. Two years later, she remarried, this time to Civil War veteran Nelson Davis, whom she had taken in at the end of the war. In 1874, they adopted a daughter, Gertie.
Beginning in the late 1860s, she sought compensation from the federal government for her work during the war. Her request was rejected although her petition was supported by many prominent people, including now-Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Her financial difficulties continued. Her friends and her allies from the abolitionist movement raised funds to help her. Local children’s author Sarah H. Bradford wrote an authorized biography called Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869, and gave the money from sales of the book to Harriet. The book remains a valuable source of information about Harriet’s life. Bradford wrote another book in 1886, Harriet, the Moses of her People, and there were other fundraisers through the years to help Harriet.
In 1895, Congress awarded her a pension of $8 monthly as the widow of a Union solider— Nelson had died in 1888—and a lump sum of $500 retroactive compensation for the five years in which her pension claim had been pending. In 1897, a bill was introduced to provide her with an additional $25 a month in recognition of her services as a Union army nurse. Nearly two years later Congress agreed upon a small, life-long pension of $12 a month for her services as a wartime nurse—the standard amount for such pensions—in addition to her widow’s pension, and President William McKinley signed the bill into law.
At the turn of the century, Harriet became involved with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn. In 1903, she donated some of her land to the church on the condition that it be used for a home for the "aged and indigent colored people." The community in Auburn funded the construction of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which opened in 1908. By 1911, frail and indigent herself, she was admitted to the home, where she died in 1913. She was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn with military honors. She continues to be an enduring symbol of self-sacrifice, persistence, patriotism, and humanitarianism.
Articles Featuring Harriet Tubman From History Net Magazines
By Claire Hopley