Harriet Tubman

Harriet Ross Tubman (ca. 1820-1913) was a black American who, as an agent for the Underground Railroad, a clandestine escape route used to smuggle slaves to freedom in the North and Canada, helped hundreds flee captivity.

Born in Dorchester County, Md., in the early 1820s, Harriet Ross was a slave child who suffered the usual hardships of black children during the period of Southern slavery. Her wasted youth of hard work, no education, and sometimes harsh punishment led, predictably, to a desire to escape slavery. In 1848, with two brothers (who later became frightened and returned), she ran away, leaving her husband, John Tubman, a free man who had threatened to expose her, behind.

During the next 10 years Harriet Tubman returned to the South 20 times to help approximately 300 slaves, including her own parents, to escape. Using a complicated system of way stations on the route from the South to Canada, she is believed never to have lost a charge. In 1850 the Federal Fugitive Slave Law was reinforced with a clause that promised punishment to anyone who aided an escaping slave. In addition, a price of $40, 000 was set for Tubman's capture. Thus she began transporting some slaves past the North to refuge in Canada.

Tubman supported John Brown's insurrection. Deeply disappointed after it failed, she began an intensive speaking tour in 1860, calling not only for the abolition of slavery, but also for a redefinition of woman's rights. In 1861, when the Civil War began, she served as a nurse, spy, and scout for the Union forces. Well acquainted with the countryside from her days as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, she was considered especially valuable as a scout.

After the war, owing to government inefficiency and racial discrimination, Harriet Tubman was denied a pension and had to struggle financially for the rest of her life. To ease this pressure, Sarah Bradford wrote a biography of Miss Tubman (1869), and the profits from its sales were given to her. A friend of many of the great figures of the day, she did finally receive a small pension from the U.S. Army. Meanwhile, she continued lecturing.

In 1857 Harriet Tubman had bought a house in Auburn, N.Y. During her last years she turned it into a home for the aged and needy. She died there on March 10, 1913, leaving the home as a monument to her character and will.


Further Reading on Harriet Ross Tubman

Harriet Tubman is represented in John F. Bayliss, ed., Black Slave Narratives (1970). Biographies include Sarah Elizabeth Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1869; rev. ed. 1961), and Earl Conrad, Harriet Tubman (1943). Anne Parrish, A Clouded Star (1948), and Ann Petry, Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955), are fictionalized accounts.