Harriet Tubman is undoubtedly an iconic figure in African American, and indeed world, history. She fought for the safety and rights of every black person and woman in America, through her role in supporting both the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements. Yet it was her inordinate bravery in repeatedly risking her life to deliver people from slavery which earned her recognition as the ‘Moses of her people’.
As was the case with many slaves, no formal record was made of Tubman’s birth. However, she was most likely born between 1820 and 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, originally with the name Araminta Ross. Tubman and her family were owned first by Mary Brodess and then her son, Edward, both of whom ran a Maryland plantation. With her mother working as a cook in “the big house” and her father absent on a neighbouring plantation, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of the young Tubman to look after her siblings. However, she was powerless to prevent the Brodesses from splitting up the family, with three of Tubman’s siblings being sold away. The breaking up of her family was just of the many torments of slavery Tubman had to endure as a child. At the age of five, she was hired out as a nursemaid to a mistress named Susan, and was charged with caring for her infant. ‘Miss Susan’ was exceedingly cruel, and would whip Tubman if the baby ever woke up and cried. On one occasion, she was lashed five times before breakfast. The scars she received as a child from such whippings remained on her back for the rest of her life.
At the age of twelve, Tubman would display the combination of altruism and resilience that would come to define her. A fellow slave was being restrained by an overseer, who was attempting to subdue the man by throwing objects at him. Fearing for the slave’s safety, Tubman jumped in the way of a one-kilogram weight, which broke her skull. Unconscious and dripping with blood, Tubman was carried inside, but instead of receiving medical care, she was left for two days to lie on the seat of a loom. Tubman would suffer from acute headaches, seizures and delirious dreams for the rest of her life. A deeply religious woman, Tubman would interpret these dreams as revelations from God, strengthening her convictions and further motivating her to action.
In 1844, after two decades spent working for the Brodesses, Harriet married a freedman, John Tubman. Marriages between free folk and slaves were not uncommon, because at this time half the black population in Maryland was free. Having changed her name from Araminta Ross after her marriage, Tubman became increasingly desperate to escape her existence as a slave. Her health was deteriorating every year, and, as a sickly female slave of little economic value, it was highly likely she would be sold and separated from her new family. On 17 September 1849, Tubman fled with two of her brothers. However, the men soon began to fear punishment if they were caught, and felt that their masters would be more lenient if they willingly returned. When they chose to return to the plantation, Harriet had no choice but to go with them.
However, Tubman would escape a second time. Her journey was unimaginably difficult – as she traversed the open country and crowded towns, she was in constant danger of being seized by a slave catcher. Tubman would never reveal the route she took, but we can be certain that she made use of the Underground Railroad – a network of secret railway lines and stations run by free folk and white abolitionists, who helped conceal fugitive slaves and convey them northwards to the promised land. Tubman successfully made the 90-mile expedition to Pennsylvania, a state in which slavery had been abolished. She later said that upon her arrival, she “felt like I was in heaven.” Despite her feeling of intense relief and joy, Tubman was still a stranger in a strange land, and could not help but think of her family back in Maryland and the punishments they might receive because of her successful escape.
Eventually, Tubman resolved to return in order to help the rest of her family and other slaves. With valuable connections she had made on her journey, such as Maryland minister Same Green and abolitionist Quaker Thomas Garrett, Tubman began the work that would make her renowned, despite knowing that in helping other slaves escape she risked receiving brutal torture, mutilation and an early death. Tubman’s efforts were made even more challenging by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which stipulated that escaped slaves in northern states could be captured and returned to the bondage from which they had fled. Law enforcement officials in abolitionist states were also obliged to help capture slaves, meaning that fugitives could only be truly safe if they fled as far north as Canada.
Tubman’s first rescue expedition was not to her home county, but to Baltimore. In December 1850, she heard that her niece Kessiah and her two sons were to be put up for sale. During the lunchtime break in auction-house proceedings, Kessiah’s husband managed to escape with his family to a safehouse. From there, they travelled by canoe to Baltimore, where they met up with Tubman, who delivered them to Philadelphia. Tubman then returned to Maryland in early 1851, and rescued her younger brother, Moses, and two other men. By now, both Tubman and her family were inspired by her successes and grew ever more confident in her capabilities. As a slave, she had always preferred the freedom of outdoor labour to the suffocating restriction of domestic work. Accordingly, Tubman had learned a great deal about the lay of the countryside and the cycles of the sun and stars, both of which were crucial in helping her to navigate during escapes.
To ensure that her rescues were always successful, Tubman developed ingenious methods and strategies. Realising newspapers only published notices about fugitive slaves on Monday mornings, she always departed with her charges on a Saturday evening, so they could get as far away as possible before the alarm was publicly raised. She drugged babies and children to prevent them from crying, so that there was no risk of the sound alerting slave catchers. Tubman began carrying a gun with her, partly to protect the party from slave catchers but also to ‘encourage’ any hesitant runaways – at one point she is reported to have said to one wavering escaped slave, “you’ll be free or die.”
In late 1851, Tubman set out to Dorchester County, hoping to return with her husband John. Though he was free, she hoped to persuade him to journey with her to the north, where conditions were far better for black people. On her arrival, however, she discovered that, after her escape, John had married another woman, named Caroline. Unwilling to abandon his life in Maryland, John refused to leave his second wife for his first. Despite her anger and disappointment, Tubman managed to guide another eleven people to freedom on her travel back, and may have even visited the home of the famed former slave Frederick Douglass.
For most of the next decade, Tubman made similar expeditions to rescue slaves from bondage. Obviously, her routes changed according to circumstance, but she often used the trek northeast of Delaware, where freedmen would accompany her past Dover and the Delaware Canal. Once she reached this point, Thomas Garrett would help her on the final leg to Philadelphia. In all, Tubman helped rescue around seventy slaves, and could boast that “I never ran my train off the tracks and I never lost a passenger.”
Slave owners grew so furious with Tubman that they posted rewards for her capture that totalled $40,000 (or around £1 million in today’s money). Due to her evasiveness, however, the slave owners knew nothing more about Tubman than that she was nicknamed ‘Moses’, and they managed to convince themselves that she was a white abolitionist, aptly reflecting their dismissive attitude towards black people.
The life of Harriet Tubman serves as a testament to what can be achieved in the face of unimaginable suffering and degradation. She not only delivered herself and others from slavery, but also helped lead the charge against the oppressive institution itself. She would overcome her injury and illiteracy to become a crucial figure in the fight for black emancipation, and would eventually become the first woman to lead a major US military operation against the Confederates during the Civil War. Tubman would live in poverty for most of her life and, in the 1890s, was granted a measly monthly pension of $8, which was later increased to $20.
Hopefully, the long discussed plans to print Tubman’s face on the $20 bill become a reality. It is high time that her story, which has long been obscured by the other momentous events which occurred in her lifetime, becomes more well-known, and she is recognised for the role she played as the ‘Moses of her people’.