Harriet Tubman: Biography

Harriet Tubman was born a slave. She escaped slavery on the Underground railroad and became one of the most active

"I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that I was free." Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Ross was born the child of slaves sometime between 1816 and 1823 on the Brodas Plantation in Bucktown, Maryland to African parents. As a slave child, she was the victim of frequent beatings. In about 1835 her skull was fractured when an overseer beat her for refusing to help tether a slave who was trying to escape. The injury resulted in narcolepsy, which plagued her for the rest of her life.

In 1844 Harriet Ross married Freeman John Tubman. In 1849, fearing being sold south away from her family, she accepted a piece of paper with two names written on it from a white neighbor who told her how to get to the first house on her route to freedom.

The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad, but a series of safe houses and places along the way where escaping slaves could find food and shelter and receive further directions. It was called 'underground' because it was operated in such extreme secrecy that it may as well have been buried.

When Tubman reached the first house, she was put in a wagon and covered with a sack to be driven to her next stop. Continuing along like this she passed through Delaware and reached Philadelphia. There she met William Still, a "Station Master" on the Underground Railroad. He and members of the Philadelphia Anti Slavery Society explained to her how it operated. "Conductors" were people who acted as guides or drove carts with false bottoms or covered wagons to drive slaves to safety. A lantern on a lamp post meant it was a safe house. Many conductors and owners of safe houses were sympathetic white people.

After freeing herself, Tubman returned to Maryland to help her family escape. In 1851 she moved them to St. Catherine's, Ontario, Canada.

Tubman earned the nick name "Moses" as she personally went to Maryland many times, risking her own life and freedom to act as a conductor.

It is estimated that she helped 300 people reach freedom before the war. She was called "General Tubman" for her threats to shoot any of the slaves in her care who thought to turn back. She spoke harshly to any who voiced feelings of despair along the way, letting it be known that "no foolishness would be indulged in on the road". She was quoted as saying "a live runaway could do great harm by going back, but a dead one could tell no secrets." She repeatedly risked capture by slave hunters and slave holders as she worked to save slaves from desperate situations. Had she been captured, her punishment, and theirs would have been severe. It may well have jeopardized the efficacy of the entire Underground Railroad System, for the law of the times was on the side of the slave owners.

Philadelphian Nelson Davis was a black man, born free, who could read and write. He recorded the journeys told to him by escaping slaves. It was he who informed them that they may have gotten as far as a free state, but under United States law they could still be returned home by bounty hunters. They had to get all the way to Canada before they could fully relax. Although the northern states did not permit slavery, they were compelled by law to cooperate with southern slave owners and bounty hunters who sought the return of runaway slaves.

Along the road Tubman met a number of Quakers and abolitionists who assisted her. US Senator and former New York State Governor William H. Seward and his wife Francine provided a home for Tubman's niece Margaret, and another for Tubman's parents. This latter home, in Auburn, New York, was sold to her for a modest sum, and she stationed herself there when she was not physically on the road.

During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served as a nurse, a spy and even a soldier. She acted as a guide for black troops throughout South Carolina. During the war she is believed to have helped 750 southern slaves escape. After the war she was denied payment for her heroism and was forced to ride home to Auburn in a baggage car.

After the Civil War, in 1867, John Tubman died. Harriet Tubman later married Nelson Davis and they lived in a house they built near the little house Tubman bought from the Sewards. Davis died in 1888.

After the war, Tubman promoted women's rights along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1908 Tubman directed the construction a home for aged and indigent former slaves and she herself spend her final years in it. She died in 1913 and was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York with full military honors.

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