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Tubman, Harriet

By: Margaret Washington
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Tubman, Harriet

Tubman, Harriet
Tubman, Harriet

Harriet Tubman.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-7816).

legendary Underground Railroad conductor, was born Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, the daughter of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene, slaves. Often a hired-out worker, at age five she did household chores and child-tending. At seven she ran away to avoid a beating for stealing a lump of sugar. After taking refuge for five days in a pigpen, where she competed unsuccessfully for food, Minty returned and accepted her flogging. As a child nurse and housekeeper at nine, Minty was disabled by physical abuse and starvation. Placed in the fields at thirteen, she was glad to be among the folk and taking in the wonders of nature.

A dutiful worker, Minty was also a natural rebel who defied unjust orders. Her life was transformed and almost ended at fifteen. She refused to help an overseer tie a fellow bondsman and blocked the overseer’s pursuit path as the man fled. The overseer threw a two-pound weight at the fleeing man, which struck Minty a “stunning blow to the head.” She suffered immensely with brain fever but survived, although considered hopelessly maimed, unproductive, and dull-witted. A spiritual awakening, family support, and a strong will guided Minty through a slow but miraculous physical and emotional recovery.

By nineteen Minty Ross, well-formed and five feet tall, was a match for the strongest men on the plantation. Still partial to outdoor work, she drove oxen, carted, chopped wood, plowed, lifted huge barrels of produce, and was an expert runner. Stories of heroic strikes for freedom always inspired her. Freedom aspirations were intensified by her marriage in 1844 to freeman John Tubman, by the discovery that her mother was freed by a previous owner but was never told, and by news of her family’s impending sale. In 1849 Araminta Tubman escaped to Philadelphia and adopted her mother’s given name, Harriet.

In 1851, having worked and saved, Harriet Tubman daringly stole back into Maryland for her husband, but he had another wife and refused to join her. Tubman transformed her initial anger and grief into a commitment to live for her people’s freedom. Already befriended by William Still, the black abolitionist and “chief brakeman” on the Pennsylvania Underground Railroad, Tubman returned with a party of escaped bondspeople.

Tubman’s physical appearance has been described as both “magnificent” and “fierce.” Always commonly dressed, except for colorful head scarves, she had small “appraising” eyes and a round, “rocklike” chin. Her most revealing physical feature was a permanently convexed forehead, which, along with her lifelong somnolence, were marks of bondage left by an overseer. Although nonliterate, she had expert strategical sense, military genius, discipline, and leadership skills. She gathered money and planned her route beforehand, kept her movements secret, collected people privately through trusted sources, and never entered a plantation but instead established a meeting place some miles away. Travel North occurred during cold, dark winter months, when people stayed inside, and began on Saturday, thereby taking advantage of the Sabbath “rest” day.

With the North Star as a guide, Tubman was completely comfortable in natural terrain, able to tell time by the sun and moon and administer roots and herbs as cures. Travel was by foot, stagecoach, railroad, and sometimes boat. She was ingenious at deceptive tactics and countless tricks of travel, including forged passes and gender crossovers. When her group, heading North, was closely pursued by slave catchers, Tubman turned them South. Once, overhearing men discussing her whereabouts, she picked up a book, pretended to read, and prayed she had it right side up. Despite a gentle, caring character, Tubman was a strict, commanding, undisputed leader who always carried a revolver. “Dead men tell no tales,” she said, and once the trip began even the fainthearted had to “move or die.” Tubman made nineteen recorded trips South and led hundreds of bondspeople out of enslavement, including her parents and other relatives. A constant procession of single and group flights out of Maryland occurred independent of Tubman but were ignited by her example. A total of $40,000 was offered for her capture.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 forced Tubman to transport newly emancipated groups into Canada-West (now Ontario), placing them “under the paw of the British lion” since England had abolished enslavement. Routes from Canada to Maryland depended on the exigency of the moment. Tubman’s favorite route, also the most dangerous because of proslavery attitudes, was the Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania circuit, where Thomas Garrett, a Delaware Quaker, was her main contact. Her staunchest supporters were on the Central New York Road, where she met abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Oliver Johnson, and Reverend J. W. Loguen, as well as future suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In 1858 Tubman met archrevolutionary John Brown, whose radical, military fiber matched hers. Together they plotted the Harpers Ferry raid, but illness prevented Tubman’s participation. In 1860 she successfully led a bloody battle regarding an escaped bondsman in Troy, New York.

The Civil War found Tubman condemning a reluctant President Abraham Lincoln, agitating for immediate emancipation, and spending 1862 in Union-occupied areas nursing white soldiers and black “contrabands” injured while fleeing enslavement. In 1863, when blacks joined the military, Tubman hand-picked and commanded a black corps of spies, scouts, and river pilots who conducted daring surveillance, espionage, and intelligence operations throughout the southeastern seaboard. She strategized and guided a band of black soldiers (under Colonel James Montgomery) into the Confederate-held Combahee, South Carolina, region and successfully disabled their supply line. Tubman witnessed the Fort Wagner battle involving the heroic Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Black Regiment and described the carnage: “And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and then we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.” In 1864 Harriet Tubman met Sojourner Truth, also a former slave transformed into a popular reformer and public woman.

In the postwar years Tubman settled with her family in Auburn, New York, supported woman suffrage, established a home for the aged and indigent, and engaged in a 35-year unsuccessful struggle for recognition of her war service. In 1890 she received a meager pension only because her second husband, Nelson Davis, whom she had married in 1869, was a Civil War veteran. Despite this personal insult, when Tubman died in Auburn, her last rites were military and presided over by a representative of Auburn’s Grand Army of the Republic.

Harriet Tubman was the most daring, legendary, and courageous conductor on the human network of self-freed blacks called the “Underground Railroad.” A Civil War freedom fighter and woman suffrage advocate, African Americans called Tubman “Moses,” symbolizing her premier leadership, and “Old Chariot,” a term taken from spirituals she sang to alert the enslaved of her presence.

Annotated Bibliography

•Important sources on Tubman are Sarah Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869; repr. 1992), and Earl Conrad, Harriet Tubman (1943). See also Dorothy Sterling, Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman (1954), and Benjamin Quarles, “Harriet Tubman’s Unlikely Leadership,” in Black Leaders in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Leon F. Litwack and August Meier (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times, 14 Mar. 1913.


  • Bradford, Sarah H. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869; repr. 1992).
  • Conrad, Earl . Harriet Tubman (1943).
  • Sterling, Dorothy . Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman (1954).
  • Quarles, Benjamin . “Harriet Tubman’s Unlikely Leadership,” in Black Leaders in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Leon F. Litwack and August Meier (1988).
  • Obituary, New York Times, (14 Mar. 1913).

Online Resources

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