Slavery is a stain that will forever remain in the American psyche. From its early founding through the Civil War of the 19th century, millions of African slaves were brought to the New World to power the early economic engine of the United States. Bound in servitude on plantations throughout the American South, slaves were ripped apart from their families, left to live in subhuman conditions, and treated more as property than human beings.
Numerous figures in American history pushed for the abolition of slavery, but few took the active role that Harriet Tubman pursued. Not satisfied to escape slavery herself and call for its abolition from the safety of the North, Tubman returned to the South repeatedly to free her family members and perfect strangers from the iron grip of slavery.
Born into Slavery
Tubman was born Araminta Ross to slave parents in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her mother, Harriet Green, was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess. Her father, Ben Ross, was owned by a man named Anthony Thompson. Tubman’s parents were brought together by chance when Thompson married Brodess, becoming her second husband. She was, by all accounts, a second-generation slave in the United States.
Specific documents for slaves are rare in US history, but her maternal grandmother (Modesty) arrived in the US aboard a slave ship from Africa. Modesty’s family is believed to have come from the Ashanti tribe, which occupied a region of the continent now located within modern-day Ghana.
Tubman’s mother was the household cook for the Brodess family, while her father was a skilled woodworker who managed the timber operations on the Thompson plantation. Her parents reportedly married in 1808 and had nine children together, with Tubman arriving around 1822 as the couple’s fifth child. Throughout her life, Tubman had no clear idea of her birthdate. Tubman reported her own birthdate as being in 1820, 1822, and 1825 on various Civil War widow’s pension records. Historians believe she was born in either 1820 or 1822, but definitive proof remains elusive.
Escape from Slavery
During her childhood, Tubman cared for her younger brother and a baby in the family. When she was old enough to work outside the house, she was loaned out to work at the home of James Cook. He sent her to check his traps in the nearby marshes, where she contracted measles and became so ill that she was sent back to the Brodess family. After regaining her health, she was assigned to field and forest work driving oxen teams and plowing fields.
Despite marrying a free black man in 1844, John Tubman, Harriet remained in servitude throughout the 1840s. Suffering from frequent illness and struggling with the effects of severe head injuries suffered as a child, her use in the fields was diminished. Fed up with a broken family and the treatment of slaves, she escaped from slavery in 1849. Her initial attempt to flee was foiled by her own brothers who reportedly opted to return to their masters.
Following their return, she attempted to flee again. Harriet left behind her husband and family and used the young Underground Railroad to escape some 90 miles away to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was not content with her own freedom though. Harriet began to use her voice as a representative of the abolitionist movement to bring about an end to slavery in the US.
A “Moses” for her People
In December 1850, Harriet made the first of nearly 20 trips back to the South to help rescue other family members and non-relatives from the bonds of servitude. Despite a bounty on her own head, she returned to Maryland to help her niece Kessiah escape to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Throughout the 1850s, Tubman made countless trips into the South to help rescue her parents, siblings, and roughly 60 non-relative slaves. She initially led people into the North via the Underground Railroad, but the route of the secretive network of safe houses had to change following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. The document stated that law enforcement officials in the North must return fugitive slaves to their master in the South, regardless of their personal views on slavery.
Tubman was instrumental in rerouting the Underground Railroad to Canada. Guiding slaves further north put them outside the reach of American officials and provided life-long safety as Canada was categorically opposed to slavery. Prior to the Civil War, Tubman took on a more active role in the demolition of slavery as an institution. She met with abolitionist John Brown to plan what would become the attack on Harper’s Ferry.
Civil War Activism and Later Life
With the onset of the Civil War, Tubman took on an active role as a spy, cook, and nurse in the Union Army. Her dogged determination to abolish slavery and hard-nosed attitude eventually led to her becoming the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war. She guided a company of Union troops on the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, freeing 700 slaves in the process.
After the war, Tubman retired to a property near Auburn, New York that she had purchased in 1859. Though she was retired, she never stopped working. In 1874 she married a man named Nelson Davis. Davis, a Civil War veteran, had originally stayed in Harriet’s home as a paying guest. Tubman performed numerous side jobs to support her aging parents and herself. Her deteriorating health never stopped her from participating in causes beneficial to African-Americans and women. Though quieter and less active physically, Tubman chimed in on social matters such as women’s suffrage.
Tubman made a handful of appearances at women’s suffrage rallies, and even appeared alongside Susan B. Anthony at one time. She was once asked by a white woman whether she believed women should have the right to vote. Her response seemed to fit the simple, determined nature that defined her as an individual:
“I suffered enough to believe it.”
As she aged, the injuries Harriet sustained as a child began to prove painful and disruptive. In an effort to alleviate pain and buzzing in her head from severe skull injuries in her youth, Harriet underwent an operation at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. She eventually lived out her final days in a rest home near her property in Auburn. On March 10, 1913, at the age of 91, she died peacefully following a battle with pneumonia.
Today, Tubman is remembered in the US not only as a leading abolitionist figure and proponent of women’s suffrage, but as one of the nation’s greatest individuals. A survey conducted at the end of the 20th century named Harriet as one of the most influential and famous American civilians in the pre-Civil War history of the nation. Her profile stands just behind those of Betsy Ross and Paul Revere in the minds of millions of Americans to this day.