Harriet Tubman (1820?-1913), an African American who fled slavery and then guided runaway slaves to freedom in the North for more than a decade before the American Civil War (1861-1865). During the war she served as a scout, spy, and nurse for the United States Army. In later years she continued to work for the rights of blacks and women.
Harriet Tubman, originally named Araminta Ross, was one of 11 children born to slaves Harriet Greene and Benjamin Ross on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. She later adopted her mother’s first name. Harriet was put to work at the age of five and served as a maid and a children’s nurse before becoming a field hand when she was 12. A year later, a white man—either her overseer or her master—hit her on the head with a heavy weight. The blow left her with permanent neurological damage, and she experienced sudden blackouts throughout the rest of her life.
In 1844 she received permission from her master to marry John Tubman, a free black man. For the next five years Harriet Tubman lived in a state of semi-slavery: she remained legally a slave, but her master allowed her to live with her husband. However, the death of her master in 1847, followed by the death of his young son and heir in 1849, made Tubman’s status uncertain. Amid rumors that the family’s slaves would be sold to settle the estate, Tubman fled to the North and freedom. Her husband remained in Maryland. In 1849 Harriet Tubman moved to Pennsylvania, but returned to Maryland two years later hoping to persuade her husband to come North with her. By this time John Tubman had remarried. Harriet did not marry again until after Tubman's death.
In Pennsylvania, Harriet Tubman joined the abolitionist cause, working to end slavery. She decided to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a network of antislavery activists who helped slaves escape from the South. On her first trip in 1850, Tubman brought her own sister and her sister’s two children out of slavery in Maryland. In 1851 she rescued her brother, and in 1857 returned to Maryland to guide her aged parents to freedom.
Over a period of ten years Tubman made an estimated 19 expeditions into the South and personally escorted about 300 slaves to the North. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (see Fugitive Slave Laws) had created federal commissioners in every county to assist in the return of runaways and provided harsh punishments for those convicted of helping slaves to escape. Harriet Tubman was a likely target of the law, so in 1851 she moved to St. Catharines, a city in Ontario, Canada, that was the destination of many escaped slaves. By the late 1850s a number of Northern states passed personal liberty laws that protected the rights of fugitive slaves, so Tubman was able to purchase land and move with her parents to Auburn, New York, a center of antislavery sentiment.
Tubman faced great danger guiding slaves to freedom, as Southerners offered large rewards for her capture. Tubman brilliantly used disguises—sometimes posing as a deranged old man and, at other times, as an old woman—to avoid suspicion when traveling in slave states. She carried a sleeping powder to stop babies from crying and always had a pistol to prevent her charges from backing out once the journey to freedom had begun.
Tubman constantly changed her route and her method of operation, though she almost always began her escapes on Saturday night for two reasons. First, many masters did not make their slaves work on Sundays and thus might not miss them until Monday, when the runaways had already traveled a full day and a half. Second, newspapers advertising the escape would not be published until the beginning of the week, so by the time copies reached readers, Tubman and the fugitive slaves were likely to be close to their destination in the North.
Tubman never lost any of her charges and seemed to have an unusual ability to find food and shelter during these hazardous missions. Among African Americans she came to be known as Moses, after the Biblical hero who led the Hebrews out of enslavement in Egypt.
Tubman also served as an inspiration to both white and black abolitionists. She worked closely with black antislavery activist William Still in Philadelphia and with Underground Railroad conductor Thomas Garrett, a Quaker who lived in Wilmington, Delaware. Abolitionist John Brown gave her the title 'General Tubman.' She consulted with Brown on his plan to start an armed rebellion against slavery in the South, but illness prevented her from joining him at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in his ill-fated 1859 raid.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Tubman served as a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army in South Carolina. She helped prepare food for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment—composed entirely of black soldiers and known as the Glory Brigade—before its heroic but futile attack on Fort Wagner in 1863. She later received an official commendation, but no pay for her efforts. In 1869 she married an African American war veteran, Nelson Davis. He died in 1890.
Tubman spent the years after the war in the North, where she continued her work to improve the lives of blacks in the United States. She raised funds to assist former slaves with food, shelter, and education. Tubman also established a care facility for the elderly at her own home in Auburn. Tubman was not able to read or write, but in 1869 her friend Sarah Bradford helped her publish her biography, Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman, so that her achievements could be an inspiration to others.
Tubman became active in promoting the rights of women, particularly of black women. In 1895 she was a delegate to the first and only meeting of the National Conference of Colored Women in America (NCCWA), a group formed to combat attacks, made by the press and others, on the morality and civic pride of African American women. The NCCWA evolved into the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, although Tubman had only limited involvement in this organization. She also became a strong supporter of woman suffrage.
In 1974, more than 60 years after Tubman’s death, the Department of the Interior designated her former home in Auburn as a national historic landmark. In 1978 the U.S. Postal Service inaugurated its Black Heritage Series with a stamp honoring Harriet Tubman.