28 Days Of Black History Day #9 Harriet Tubman
The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war
Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Harriet Ross; 1820 – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made more than nineteen missions to rescue more than 300 slaves using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era struggled for women’s suffrage.
As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten by masters to whom she was hired out. Early in her life, she suffered a severe head wound when hit by a heavy metal weight. The injury caused disabling seizures, narcoleptic attacks, headaches, and powerful visionary and dream experiences, which occurred throughout her life. A devout Christian, Tubman ascribed the visions and vivid dreams to revelations from God.
In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Traveling by night, Tubman (or “Moses,” as she was called) “never lost a passenger.” Large rewards were offered for the return of many of the fugitive slaves, but no one then knew that Tubman was the one helping them. When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring law officials in free states to aid efforts to recapture slaves, she helped guide fugitives to present-day Southern Ontario, mainly St. Catharines, in the Niagara region. There, the historic Province of Upper Canada had outlawed the importation of slaves as early as 1793, and slavery was abolished altogether in 1834.
When the American Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. After the war, she retired to the family home in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She became active in the women’s suffrage movement in New York until illness overtook her. Near the end of her life, she lived in a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped found years earlier.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross to slave parents, Harriet (“Rit”) Green and Ben Ross. Rit was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess (and later her son Edward). Ben was held by Anthony Thompson, who became Mary’s second husband, and who ran a large plantation near Blackwater River in Madison, Maryland. As with many slaves in the United States, neither the exact year nor place of Araminta’s birth was recorded, and historians differ as to the best estimate. Kate Larson records the year 1822, based on a midwife payment and several other historical documents, including her runaway advertisement while Jean Humez says “the best current evidence suggests that Tubman was born in 1820, but it might have been a year or two later.” Catherine Clinton notes that Tubman reported the year of her birth as 1825, while her death certificate lists 1815 and her gravestone lists 1820. In her Civil War widow’s pension records, Tubman claimed she was born in 1820, 1822, and 1825, an indication, perhaps, that she had only a general idea of when she was born.
A map showing key locations in Tubman’s life
Modesty, Tubman’s maternal grandmother, arrived in the United States on a slave ship from Africa; no information is available about her other ancestors. As a child, Tubman was told that she was of Ashanti lineage (from what is now Ghana), though no evidence exists to confirm or deny this assertion. Her mother Rit (who may have had a white father) was a cook for the Brodess family. Her father Ben was a skilled woodsman who managed the timber work on Thompson’s plantation. They married around 1808 and, according to court records, they had nine children together: Linah, born in 1808, Mariah Ritty in 1811, Soph in 1813, Robert in 1816, Minty (Harriet) in 1822, Ben in 1823, Rachel in 1825, Henry in 1830, and Moses in 1832.
Rit struggled to keep their family together as slavery threatened to tear it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters (Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph), separating them from the family forever. When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit’s youngest son, Moses, she hid him for a month, aided by other slaves and free blacks in the community. At one point she confronted her owner about the sale. Finally, Brodess and “the Georgia man” came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, where Rit told them, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.” Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale. Tubman’s biographers agree that stories told about this event within the family influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.
By 1840, Tubman’s father, Ben, was manumitted from slavery at the age of 45, as stipulated in a former owner’s will, though his real age was closer to 55. He continued working as a timber estimator and foreman for the Thompson family, who had held him as a slave. Several years later, Tubman contacted a white attorney and paid him five dollars to investigate her mother’s legal status. The lawyer discovered that a former owner had issued instructions that Rit, like her husband, would be manumitted at the age of 45. The record showed that a similar provision would apply to Rit’s children, and that any children born after she reached 45 years of age were legally free, but the Pattison and Brodess families had ignored this stipulation when they inherited the slaves. Challenging it legally was an impossible task for Tubman.
Around 1844, she married a free black man named John Tubman. Although little is known about him or their time together, the union was complicated because of her slave status. Since the mother’s status dictated that of children, any children born to Harriet and John would be enslaved. Such blended marriages – free people marrying enslaved people – were not uncommon on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where by this time, half the black population was free. Most African-American families had both free and enslaved members. Larson suggests that they might have planned to buy Tubman’s freedom.
Tubman changed her name from Araminta to Harriet soon after her marriage, though the exact timing is unclear. Larson suggests this happened right after the wedding, and Clinton suggests that it coincided with Tubman’s plans to escape from slavery. She adopted her mother’s name, possibly as part of a religious conversion, or to honor another relative.
In 1849, Tubman became ill again, and her value as a slave was diminished as a result. Edward Brodess tried to sell her, but could not find a buyer. Angry at his action and the unjust hold he kept on her relatives, Tubman began to pray for her owner, asking God to make him change his ways.
“I prayed all night long for my master,” she said later, “till the first of March; and all the time he was bringing people to look at me, and trying to sell me.” When it appeared as though a sale was being concluded, she switched tactics. “I changed my prayer,” she said. “First of March I began to pray, ‘Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.”
A week later, Brodess died, and Tubman expressed regret for her earlier sentiments.
Brodess’s death made more likely Tubman’s being sold and her family broken apart, frequent in estate settlement. His widow, Eliza, began working to sell the family’s slaves. Tubman refused to wait for the Brodess family to decide her fate, despite her husband’s efforts to dissuade her. “[T]here was one of two things I had a right to,” she explained later, “liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
Notice published in the Cambridge Democrat, offering a three hundred dollar reward for Araminta (Minty) and her brothers Henry and Ben
Tubman and her brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped from slavery on September 17, 1849. Tubman had been hired out to Dr. Anthony Thompson, who owned a large plantation in an area called Poplar Neck in neighboring Caroline County; it is likely her brothers labored for Thompson as well. Because the slaves were hired out to another household, Eliza Brodess probably did not recognize their absence as an escape attempt for some time. Two weeks later, she posted a runaway notice in the Cambridge Democrat, offering a reward of up to 100 dollars for each slave returned. Once they had left, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts. Ben may have just become a father. The two men went back, forcing Tubman to return with them.
Soon afterward, Tubman escaped again, this time without her brothers. Beforehand, she tried to send word to her mother of her plans. She sang a coded song to Mary, a trusted fellow slave, that was a farewell. “I’ll meet you in the morning,” she intoned, “I’m bound for the promised land.” While her exact route is unknown, Tubman made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad. This informal, but well-organized, system was composed of free and enslaved blacks, white abolitionists, and other activists. Most prominent among the latter in Maryland at the time were members of the Religious Society of Friends, often called Quakers. The Preston area near Poplar Neck in Caroline County contained a substantial Quaker community, and was probably an important first stop during Tubman’s escape. From there, she probably took a common route for fleeing slaves – northeast along the Choptank River, through Delaware and then north into Pennsylvania. A journey of nearly 90 miles (145 kilometers), her traveling by foot would have taken between five days and three weeks.
Tubman had to travel by night, guided by the North Star, and trying to avoid slave catchers, eager to collect rewards for fugitive slaves. The “conductors” in the Underground Railroad used deceptions for protection. At an early stop, the lady of the house ordered Tubman to so sweep the yard as to seem to be working for the family. When night fell, the family hid her in a cart and took her to the next friendly house. Given her familiarity with the woods and marshes of the region, Tubman during the day likely hid in these locales. Tubman only later described her routes because other fugitive slaves used them.
Particulars of her first journey remain shrouded in secrecy. She crossed into Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled the experience years later:
“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