Widely known for her immense courage, persistence, and selflessness, Harriet Tubman is one of the most recognized and admired figures in women, civil rights, and American history. She risked her life escaping bondage at a young age through the UGRR (Underground Railroad) and subsequently became a “conductor” for the secretive network. Before the Civil war, she managed to lead dozens of slaves to freedom despite the constant threat of her capture. Her service to society did not cease in the wake of the war, rather she went on to become a nurse, and eventually an incredibly valuable Union spy. Harriet remains one of the most celebrated historical icons, and her legacy continues to inspire countless people across the world.
Although the specific date of her birth is unknown, Harriet is believed to have been born somewhere between 1820 and 1825. Araminta “Minty” Harriet Ross was one of nine children to Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross, both slaves who labored in separate plantations in Dorchester County, Maryland. Araminta later changed her first name to Harriet around the time of her first marriage in honor of her mother. Young Harriet experienced an incredibly harsh and unforgiving childhood. Several of her siblings were sold to other owners at a young age, under the strong impression that they would never be reunited. This, unfortunately, was often the case for most enslaved families and caused much pain and resentment, although they could never do anything to prevent it. Aside from constant separations and strenuous labor, physical violence was also prevalent in Harriet’s childhood.
At five years old she was forced to care for her owners’ infant child, being severely punished when the baby showed any small sign of discomfort. This obviously inflicted major emotional trauma on young Harriet. One of the most crucial incidents during Harriet’s time in bondage occurred when she was only twelve. She had been sent to retrieve supplies from a nearby dry-goods store when she encountered a field hand attempting to leave the plantation without permission. Pursuing the runaway was his owner, who, upon noticing Harriet, demanded her to assist in recapturing him. In response to Harriet’s bold refusal, the overseer hurled a heavy weight at her, striking her in the head. Consequently, Tubman suffered severe trauma, resulting in recurring seizures, severe headaches, and narcoleptic episodes she would have to endure for the rest of her life.
In 1840, Harriet’s father was set free. After his release, the family discovered that Harriet Green’s previous owner had intended for her and her children to be set free as well, as was stated in his will. However, the succeeding owner directly disregarded this intention, forcing the remaining members of the Ross family to stay in bondage. Harriet would have her first experience with the Underground Railroad nine years later when she began hearing rumors that she and two of her brothers would soon be sold. Before any auction took place, Harriet, Ben, and Harry decided to escape slavery entirely via the Underground Railroad.
On September 17, 1849, the trio departed Maryland in hopes of eventually reaching Philadelphia. Not long after their departure, however, a notice was published in the Cambridge Democrat, offering anyone who could return the three siblings a generous reward of $300, equivalent to over $10,000 in modern conditions. Harriet’s brothers, now fearing being a high-bounty target more than the possibility of being separated from their family, returned to the plantation. After taking responsibility for ensuring her brothers’ safe return, Harriet turned right around and once again, set out on this menacing journey alone. Covering nearly 90 miles with the assistance of a few white abolitionists and others involved with the Railroad, Harriet finally entered into the free state of Pennsylvania. “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven,” she would later recall, overwhelmed with the relief and amazement of finally obtaining her freedom.
Although she now had the opportunity to live a much more secure and comfortable life as a free woman in the North, Harriet instead dedicated the next decade of her life to retrieving and delivering the rest of her enslaved family members from bondage. In 1850, after mastering each of the routes to free territory and swearing an oath of devotion and secrecy, Harriet became an official “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Her first mission began in December of that year when she received word that her niece, Kessiah, and her two children were going to be auctioned off in Baltimore. Fortunately, Kessiah’s husband, John Bowley, who had been set free a few years prior, was able to make the winning bid for his wife and children. Harriet helped deliver the entire family to Philadelphia shortly thereafter. It was around this time where the entire goal of the Underground Railroad would be further threatened with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. The act’s purpose was to ensure the decline of escaped slaves as much as possible, making it illegal for free citizens to assist runaways. Additionally, any United States Marshall who refused to return a fleeing slave would be forced to pay a staggering penalty of $1,000. Harriet, however, was not phased by this new obstacle.
Alongside the other conductors of the UGRR, Harriet would then create and utilize alternative, more discreet routes. Additionally, they were forced to change their end destination to Canada, where their “passengers” would stand more promising chances being further North. Between 1850 and 1860 alone, Harriet made about 19 journeys, transporting dozens of passengers from the South to the North, including all of her siblings but one, who unfortunately passed away before Harriet could reach her. Although it has been said that Harriet emancipated around 300 slaves, this number had been exaggerated by biographer and avid Harriet Tubman admirer, Sarah Bradford. It is much more likely that Harriet guided about 70 individuals to freedom, still an immense and historical accomplishment. She was an incredibly courageous and relentless leader, doing whatever it took to safely deliver her passengers to their destination. She always carried a gun for protection, often drugged infants and young children to prevent their cries leading to their location being exposed, and eventually earned the nickname “Moses” for her abilities and achievements.
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
While working as a conductor, Harriet befriended other widely known abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Thomas Garrett, and Martha Coffin Wright and even established her own Underground Railroad network.
With the beginning of the Civil War unfolding and the UGRR operations coming to a pause, Harriet did not hesitate to find other ways to continue serving others. She immediately gained positions as a cook and nurse for the Union Army, and in 1863, became the head of a scout and espionage spy network. She continued to make history as the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war alongside abolitionist and Black Union regiments commander, James Montgomery. After Harriet provided critical information to Union commanders, she went on to lead the Combahee River Raid, resulting in the liberation of more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. All throughout this process, Harriet, being illiterate, had to commit every piece of intelligence she obtained entirely to memory. She would guide their ships to strategically plotted shore points where freed slaves waited while simultaneously leading steamers out of range from incoming torpedoes. After a successful raid, Harriet and Montgomery recruited the freed men to the Union Army and proceeded to destroy some of the wealthiest plantations, mills, warehouses, and mansions in the region. This proved an immense humiliation and defeat for the Confederacy.
Even after having already dedicated years of her life to serving her family, her people, and her country, Harriet never ceased to help those around her in any way she could. In early 1859, abolitionist Senator William H. Seward had sold Harriet a small piece of land in Auburn, New York. She promptly transformed this property into a haven for her family and friends. During the years following the Civil War, Harriet lived comfortably, tending to those who had taken residence on her property. Despite her own financial struggles, she continued to give freely and devote her time and possessions to those in need. She donated a section of the property to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged on her land in 1908. At the estimated age of 93, Harriet Tubman passed away with pneumonia surrounded by friends and family on March 10, 1913.
Several commemorations were created in honor of Harriet. In response to her passing, the entire city of Auburn dedicated a plaque on the courthouse to recognize her and her incredible achievements. All throughout the 20th century, dozens of schools and institutions were named after her, such as the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge.
Harriet Tubman remains one of the most compassionate, tenacious, and courageous figures in world history. Throughout her entire life, she was forced to live through years of harsh enslavement, endure her recurring intense illness and symptoms, struggle with the lack of education, and constantly be faced with significant obstacles. However, rather than completely giving in and perceiving these as weaknesses and allowing her fate to be controlled by those around her, Harriet Tubman pushed through these setbacks and went on to become one of history’s most astounding icons.
“I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
Even though it has been over a century since Harriet’s accomplishments, she continues to inspire millions today. She reminds us that despite our age, gender, background, and hardships, they do not determine our overall success in life. If you find within yourself the strength to persevere, have a heart of love and servitude, and maintain unfaltering faith in yourself and those around you, there is absolutely nothing you cannot accomplish.
Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom in the North in 1849 to become the most famous…
Harriet Tubman timeline
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Harriet Tubman was an escaped enslaved woman who became a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, leading enslaved…
Harriet Tubman (U.S. National Park Service)
Born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1822, Tubman was named Araminta by her enslaved parents, Ben and Rit…