Born: c. 1820, Dorchester County, Maryland Died: March 10, 1913, Auburn, New York
Tubman’s Early Years and Escape from Slavery
Harriet Tubman’s name at birth was Araminta Ross. She was one of the 11 children of Harriet and Benjamin Ross born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. As a child, Araminta was “hired out” by her master as a nursemaid for a small baby. Araminta had to stay awake all night so that the baby wouldn’t cry and wake the mother. If Araminta fell asleep, the baby’s mother whipped her.
As a slave, Araminta Ross had been scarred for life when she refused to help in the punishment of another young slave. A young man had gone to the store without permission and, when he returned, the overseer wanted to whip him. He asked Araminta to help but she refused. When the young man started to run away, the overseer picked up a heavy iron weight and threw it at him. He missed the young man and hit Araminta instead. The weight nearly crushed her skull and left a deep scar. She was unconscious for days afterward, and suffered from seizures for the rest of her life.
In 1844, Araminta married a free black named John Tubman and took his last name. She also changed her first name, taking her mother’s name, Harriet. In 1849, worried that she and the other slaves on the plantation were going to be sold, Tubman decided to run away. Her husband refused to go with her. So she set out with her two brothers. They followed the North Star in the sky to guide her north to freedom. Her brothers became frightened and turned back. She continued on and reached Philadelphia. There she found work as a household servant. She saved her money so she could return to help others escape.
Tubman: Conductor of the Underground Railroad
After Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery, she returned to slaveholding states many times to help other slaves escape. She led them safely to the northern free states and to Canada. It was very dangerous to be a runaway slave. There were rewards for their capture. Whenever Tubman led a group of slaves to freedom, she placed herself in great danger. There was a bounty offered for her capture because she herself was a fugitive slave. She was breaking the law in slave states by helping other slaves escape.
If anyone ever wanted to change his or her mind during the journey to freedom and return, Tubman pulled out a gun and said, “You’ll be free or die a slave!” Tubman knew that, if anyone turned back, it would put her and the other escaping slaves in danger of discovery, capture, or even death. She became so well known for leading slaves to freedom that Tubman became known as the “Moses of Her People.” Many slaves dreaming of freedom sang the spiritual “Go Down Moses.” Slaves hoped a savior would deliver them from slavery just as Moses had delivered the Israelites from slavery.
Tubman made nineteen trips to Maryland. She helped three hundred people to freedom. During these dangerous journeys she helped rescue members of her own family, including her 70-year-old parents. At one point, the amount of rewards for Tubman’s capture totaled $40,000. Yet, she was never captured and never failed to deliver her “passengers” to safety. As Tubman herself said, “On my Underground Railroad I [never] run my train off [the] track [and] I never [lost] a passenger.”
In the spring of 1860, Harriet Tubman was requested by Mr. Gerrit Smith to go to Boston to attend a large antislavery meeting. On her way, she stopped at Troy to visit a cousin. While she was there she learned that a fugitive slave, by the name of Charles Nalle, had been followed by his master (who was his younger half-brother). The slave was already in the hands of the officers, and was to be taken back to the South.
The instant Harriet heard the news, she started for the office of the United States commissioner, telling everyone she passed as she went. An excited crowd was gathered about the office. Harriet forced her way through. She rushed upstairs to the door of the room where the fugitive was detained. A wagon was already waiting before the door to carry off the man, but the crowd was even then so great and in such a state of excitement that the officers did not dare to bring the man down.
On the opposite side of the street stood the blacks of the community. They watched the window where they could see Harriet’s sunbonnet. They knew that so long as she stood there, the fugitive was still in the office. Time passed on, and he did not appear.
“They’ve taken him out another way, depend upon that,” said some. “No,” replied others, “there stands Moses yet, and as long as she is there, he is safe.”
Harriet, now seeing the necessity for a tremendous effort for the man’s rescue, sent out some little boys to cry fire. The bells rang and the crowd increased, until the whole street was a dense mass of people.
Again and again the officers came out to try and clear the stairs, and make a way to take their captive down. Others were driven down, but Harriet stood her ground, her head bent and her arms folded.
“Come, old woman, you must get out of this,” said one of the officers. “I must have the way, cleared. If you can’t get down alone, some one will help you.”
Harriet, still putting on a greater appearance of decrepitude, twitched away from him, and kept her place. Offers were made to buy Charles from his master, who at first agreed to take twelve hundred dollars for him; but when this was subscribed, he immediately raised the price to fifteen hundred. The crowd grew more excited. A gentleman raised a window and called out, “Two hundred dollars for his rescue, but not one cent to his master!” The crowd below responded with a roar of satisfaction. At length the officers appeared. They announced to the crowd that, if they would open a lane to the wagon, they would promise to bring the man down the front way.
The moment he appeared, Harriet roused from her stooping posture, threw up a window, and cried to her friends: “Here he comes—take him!” Then she darted down the stairs like a wildcat. She seized one officer and pulled him down, then another, and tore him away from the man.
Keeping her arms about the slave, she cried to her friends: “Drag us out! Drag him to the river! Drown him! But don’t let them have him!”
They were knocked down together. While down, she tore off her sunbonnet and tied it on the head of the fugitive. When he rose, only his head could be seen, and amid the surging mass of people the slave was no longer recognized, while the master appeared like the slave. Again and again they were knocked down, the poor slave utterly helpless, with his manacled wrists, streaming with blood. Harriet’s outer clothes were torn from her, and even her stout shoes were pulled from her feet, yet she never relinquished her hold of the man, till she had dragged him to the river, where he was tumbled into a boat. Harriet followed in a ferryboat to the other side.
The officers had telegraphed ahead of them. As soon as they landed the slave was seized and hurried from her sight. After a time, some school children came hurrying along, and to her anxious inquiries they answered, “He is up in that house, in the third story.”
Harriet rushed up to the place. Some men were attempting to make their way up the stairs. The officers were firing down. Two men were lying on the stairs, who had been shot. Over their bodies our heroine rushed. With the help of others she burst open the door of the room, and dragged out the fugitive, whom Harriet carried down stairs in her arms.
A gentleman was riding by with a fine horse. He stopped to ask what the disturbance meant. On hearing the story, his sympathies seemed to be thoroughly aroused. He sprang from his wagon, calling out, “That is a blood-horse, drive him till be drops.” The poor man was hurried in. Some of his friends jumped in after him. They drove at the most rapid rate to Schenectady.
The slave, Charles Nalle, later bought his freedom from his master.
Tubman During the Civil War
During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union army as a nurse, a cook, and a spy. Her experience leading slaves along the Underground Railroad had been especially helpful because she knew the land well. The Union forces in South Carolina badly needed information about Confederate forces opposing them. Intelligence on the strength of enemy units, location of encampments, and designs of fortifications was almost nil. All these requirements could be met by short-term spying trips behind enemy lines, and it fell to Tubman to organize and lead these expeditions. She recruited a group of former slaves to hunt for rebel camps and report on the movement of the Confederate troops. In 1863, she went with Colonel James Montgomery and about one hundred fifty black soldiers on a gunboat raid in South Carolina. Because she had inside information from her scouts, the Union gunboats were able to surprise the Confederate rebels.
At first, when the Union Army came through and burned plantations, slaves hid in the woods. However, when they realized that the gunboats could take them behind Union lines to freedom, they came running from all directions, bringing as many of their belongings as they could carry. Tubman later said, “I never saw such a sight.” Tubman played other roles in the war effort, including working as a nurse. Folk remedies she learned during her years living in Maryland would come in very handy.
Tubman worked as a nurse during the war, trying to heal the sick. Many people in the hospital died from dysentery, a disease associated with terrible diarrhea. Tubman was sure that she could help cure the sickness if she could find some of the same roots and herbs that grew in Maryland. One night she searched the woods until she found water lilies and crane’s bill (geranium). She boiled the water lily roots and the herbs and made a bitter-tasting brew that she gave to a man who was dying—and it worked! Slowly he recovered.
Tubman’s contribution to the Union cause was significant. When Tubman died in 1913, as a mark of respect for her activities during the war she was honored with a full military funeral. On her grave the tombstone reads: “Servant of God, Well Done.”
1. As a slave child, what was Harriet Tubman’s first job?
a. Harriet helped with the cooking.
b. She helped the household nurse to care for the sick.
c. Harriet freed slaves on the Underground Railroad.
d. She was a nursemaid for a baby.
2. How had Araminta Ross been hurt as a child?
a. She was chained and whipped.
b. She was beaten for not following orders.
c. She was hit on the head with a weight.
d. She had seizures all her life.
3. Why did Harriet Tubman decide to run away from the plantation she had worked on as a slave?
a. Her husband wanted her to run away with him to the North.
b. She feared that the plantation owners were going to sell her.
c. She wanted to see new places and do a new kind of work.
d. All the slaves at that plantation were planning a group escape.
4. Why did Harriet Tubman return to the slave states after she had escaped to freedom?
a. She returned to convince her husband to join her in the North.
b. She wanted to become a teacher there and share what she had learned.
c. She had become a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
d. She wanted to help Gerrit Smith and the abolitionist community.
5. Which of the following is the best reason why Harriet Tubman was called the “Moses of Her People”?
a. She had suffered as a small child and devoted her life to helping children.
b. She threatened the fugitives if they became uncertain about their attempts to escape oppression.
c. She had traveled much and could tell people about other places.
d. As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, she had led many slaves to safety and freedom.
6. Why was Harriet Tubman interested in helping Charles Nalle?
a. He had an easy time escaping slavery and, as a free man, offered to help her.
b. Even though his younger half-brother was his master, he granted him freedom.
c. He was a fugitive who had been caught and was on his way back to the South.
d. Because of his experiences, he had become a symbol of the proslavery movement.
7. Which of the following is true about Harriet Tubman’s experiences during the Civil War?
a. Harriet Tubman worked as a secretary in one of the Union army’s camps.
b. Because she knew the roads and geography of the South, she made a good spy.
c. Harriet Tubman had compassion for the sick but lacked medical knowledge.
d. She never was able to use her knowledge to help on the gunboats because she had a great fear of water.
8. There are many tales in this section about what Harriet Tubman was willing to do to free slaves. Choose two examples, describe them, and then explain whether or not you agree with her methods. Was Harriet Tubman effective in her efforts? Why or why not?