The Truth About Harriet Tubman

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Harriet Tubman

No one disputes that Harriet Tubman was among America’s most remarkable women.

The legends surrounding her, however, have grown over the years and exaggerated her accomplishments..

Early Years of Harriet Tubman

She was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, one of nine children of the slave couple, Ben and Rit Green Ross. As a child she was repeatedly whipped and at the age of thirteen suffered a blow to the head, nearly killing her, which subjected her to seizures during the rest of her life.

Tubman was a small but extremely strong young woman who was able to do hard physical labor usually reserved for men, like working as a lumberjack and dock worker. Working at these jobs brought her into contact with black seaman from whom she likely learned about the escape routes along the Underground Railroad.

In 1844, when she was 22, she married a free black man, John Tubman. However, her owner died in 1849, putting her and her family at risk of being sold South to the dreaded rice and cotton plantations where slaves were worked until exhaustion and many died after only a few years. This led Harriet and two of her brother to make an unsuccessful attempt to escape to the North. She was not to be deterred and in the late fall of 1849, she successfully escape on her own, using the North Star, and information about those who helped along a route through eastern Maryland that led to Philadelphia.

Harriet Tubman Becomes a Conductor on the Underground Railroad

Possessing the knowledge of safe houses and escape routes along the northern shore of Maryland, she soon began her storied activities as a conductor along the Underground Railroad. However, what the legends don’t tell us, is the real reason she did this. Going back into the South for an escaped slave was extremely dangerous and if caught could result in the slave’s execution. It was not out of unselfish, humanitarian motives that Harriet risked her life, but out of a desire to help family members escape slavery. She also returned to entreat her husband to join her in the North. However, he had already become involved with another woman and was not interested.

Tubman’s first rescue mission involved her niece Kessiah and Kessiah’s two children, They were scheduled to be auctioned for sale. To prevent this, Kessiah’s free husband, John Bowley went to auction and outbid everyone. However, before he made payment, he took them and fled to Baltimore. There they were put in hiding until Tubman came and led them along the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia.

Her missions continued throughout the 1850s, rescuing her sister, brother, her parents, and other friends and family members. In all, she conducted thirteen escape missions, personally rescuing about seventy individuals, usually escorting them all the way to Canada across the Suspension Bridge near Niagara Falls. She used a variety of routes. Sometimes she moved up from Philadelphia, to New York City, up through the Hudson Valley to Albany and then across the state to the western New York border. Other times she went up from Philadelphia through eastern Pennsylvania and up through Ithaca and central New York to Rochester, then west to Niagara Falls.

Her network included many important persons involved in the Underground Railroad. Among them were Thomas Garrett in Wilmington, Delaware; William Still and Lucretia Mott in Philadephia; Stephen Myers in Albany; Jermaine Loguen in Syracuse; and Frederick Douglass in Rochester. She also became friends with important abolitionists in Boston. For a time, she also lived in St. Catherines, Ontario, where she brought her parents and where she met John Brown, of whom she was a great admirer and whom she had expressed a desire to join at Harpers Ferry.

Harriet Tubman and Her Use of Subterfuge

Tubman did not accomplish her without the use of the tricks and devices often used by spies, smugglers and others involved in surreptitious activities. For example, she used various disguises, sometimes acting as a very old woman or dressing as a man. She also sang Spirituals like “Go Down Moses” and “Bound for the Promised Land” to signal those she was aiding that it was safe to come out of hiding. She also carried a pistol, not only to protect herself from slavecatchers but to ensure that those she was helping would not turn back out of fear of being caught.

In 1859, her friends in the Underground Railroad helped to purchase a home in Auburn, New York, from William Seward, former Governor of New York and later Lincoln’s Secretary of State. After her last fabled rescue of the fugitive slave, Charles Nalle, in Troy, New York, in 1860, and a stint with the Union Army as an aid, cook, and scout, she retired to Auburn, where she lived out her years, dying in 1913 at the age of 93.

Misinformation about her exploits began in 1869 after the publication of her biography by Sarah Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, and these stories became embellished over the years, creating the larger than life legend we have today. Recent scholarship has corrected some of those errors. Among the best researched and most authoritative books is Bound for the Promised Land: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson, published in 2004.

References:

  1. Catherine Clinton, The Road to Freedom, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.
  2. Jean McMahon Humez, Harriet Tubman: the life and the life stories, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
  3. Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Portrait of an American Hero, New York: Ballantine Books, 2004.