Harriet Tubman
an African American helped slaves escape to freedom

~1820 - 1913

Harriet Tubman was an African American whose daring rescues helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom. She became the most famous leader of the underground railroad, which aided slaves fleeing to the free states or to Canada. Blacks called her Moses, after the Biblical figure who led the Jews from Egypt.

Tubman was born a slave in Bucktown, Maryland, near Cambridge. Her name was Araminta Ross, but as a child, she became known by her mother's name, Harriet. Her father taught her a knowledge of the woods that later helped her in her rescue missions. When Harriet was 13, she interfered with a supervisor to save another slave from punishment. The enraged supervisor fractured Harriet's skull with a 2-pound weight. She recovered but suffered blackouts for the rest of her life. She married John Tubman, a freed slave, in 1844.

Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 and went to Philadelphia via the underground railroad, without her husband. She then vowed to return to Maryland and help other slaves escape. Tubman made her first trip back shortly after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This law made it a crime to help a runaway slave. Tubman returned 18 more times during the 1850's and helped about 300 slaves escape.

On one rescue mission, she sensed that pursuers were close behind, and so she and the fugitives got on a southbound train to avoid suspicion. On another mission, Tubman had just bought some live chickens in Bucktown when she saw her former master walking towards her. She quickly let the chickens go and chased after them before he could recognize her. In 1857, Tubman led her parents to freedom in Auburn, New York.

Tubman never was caught and never lost a slave on any of her 19 rescue trips. She carried a gun and threatened to kill anyone who tried to turn back. Rewards for her capture once totaled about $40,000.

In the late 1850's, Tubman met with the radical abolitionist John Brown, who told her of his plan to free the slaves. She considered Brown the true liberator of her race. Soon afterward, Tubman also became active in the women's rights movement.

In the Civil War (1861-1865), Tubman served as a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army in South Carolina. During one military campaign, she helped free more than 750 slaves.

After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, where she helped raise money for black schools. The author Sarah H. Bradford wrote Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869), which described Tubman's work against slavery. In 1908, Tubman established a home in Auburn for elderly and needy blacks. It became known as the Harriet Tubman Home. The people of Auburn erected a plaque in her honor. A U.S. postage stamp bearing her portrait was issued in 1978.

Contributor: Otey M. Scruggs, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Syracuse Univ.

Additional resources

Bentley, Judith. Harriet Tubman. Watts, 1990. Also suitable for younger readers.

Conrad, Earl. Harriet Tubman. Eriksson, 1970. First published in 1943.

Taylor, M. W. Harriet Tubman. Chelsea Hse., 1990. For younger readers.


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