Born: c. 1820, Dorchester County,
Died: March 10, 1913, Auburn, New
Tubman was a runaway slave from Maryland who became known as the "Moses
of her people." Over the course of 10 years, and at great personal risk,
she led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a
secret network of safe houses where runaway slaves could stay on their
journey north to freedom. She later became a leader in the abolitionist
movement, and during the Civil War she was a spy with for the federal forces
in South Carolina as well as a nurse.
Although not a traditional railroad,
the underground railroad was a critical system of transporting slaves to
freedom in the mid-1800s. One of the most famous conductors was Harriet
Tubman. Between 1850 and 1858, she helped more than 300 slaves reach freedom.
Harriet Tubman's Early
Years and Escape from Slavery
Harriet Tubman's name at birth was
Araminta Ross. She was one of 11 children of Harriet and Benjamin Ross
born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. As a child, Ross was
"hired out" by her master as a nursemaid for a small baby, much like the
nursemaid in the picture. Ross had to stay awake all night so that the
baby wouldn't cry and wake the mother. If Ross fell asleep, the baby's
mother whipped her. From a very young age, Ross was determined to gain
As a slave, Araminta Ross was 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 Ross 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 Ross instead.
The weight nearly crushed her skull and left a deep scar. She was unconscious
for days, and suffered from seizures for the rest of her life.
In 1844, Ross 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,
and followed the North Star in the sky to guide her north to freedom. Her
brothers became frightened and turned back, but she continued on and reached
Philadelphia. There she found work as a household servant and saved her
money so she could return to help others escape.
Harriet 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 was especially helpful because she
knew the land well. 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 150 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. But 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
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 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 saved many people
in her lifetime. On her grave her tombstone reads "Servant of God, Well
Harriet Tubman : Conductor
of the Underground Railroad
poster for runaway slaves from 1847
After Harriet Tubman escaped from
slavery, she returned to slave-holding 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, and ads like you see here described slaves in detail. 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 was a fugitive slave
herself, and she was breaking the law in slave states by helping other
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 19 trips to Maryland
and helped 300 people to freedom. During these dangerous journeys she helped
rescue members of her own family, including her 70-year-old parents. At
one point, 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."
Tubman : Moses of the Civil War
Life of Harriet Tubman
and Photo Provided by the The Library of Congress - America's Library
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