Harriet Tubman was a poor slave girl who ran away from her plantation at the age of 28. Throughout the course of her life many people and many things challenged her. Each situation she was faced with tested either her mental or physical strength, usually both. She persevered through all of her trials stronger and wiser, and was willing to always help others through their own. Not one to instigate unless extremely necessary, Harriet was known for her quick thinking and her reactions to each ordeal she was faced with. She responded to them with a sharp mind, and strong faith in deliverance through the Lord.
Harriet Tubman was born under the name of Araminta Ross in either 1820 or 1821 on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Records were not kept of slave births so her birth date is a mystery. She was one of eleven children born to slaves Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross. Araminta was put to work at the age of five and served as a maid and children’s nurse before becoming a field hand when she was 11. Approximately one year after she began working in the fields she suffered a near-fatal blow to the head while protecting a fellow slave from a white Overseer.
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The Overseer, attempting to stop a would-be runaway, threw a 2-pound weight in his direction. Araminta tried to foil the Overseer’s attempts to stop the runaway, consequently suffering a blow to her forehead. A portion of her skull was pushed against her brain and she suffered blackouts for the rest of her life as a result. This incident also left a dent in the middle of her forehead and she was disabled for almost a year. As was customary of all plantations, when Araminta turned 12 she started wearing a bright bandana around her head indicating she was no longer a child.
Araminta wore this bandanna like a badge – a sign of her courage and the spirit that had brought her through times of trouble. She was also no longer known by her “basket name”, Araminta. Now she would be called Harriet. Yet she always insisted that the Lord addressed her by the name “Araminta.”
In 1844, Harriet received permission from her master to marry John Tubman, a free black man. For the next five years, Harriet lived in a state of semi-slavery: she remained legally a slave, but her master allowed her to live with her husband. Since Harriet was still a slave she knew there was a chance that she could be sold and her marriage split apart. Harriet dreamed of travelling north.
There, she would be free and not have to worry about her marriage being split up by the slave trade. But John did not want her to go north. He said he was fine where he was and that there was no reason for moving north. He told her that if she ran off, he would tell her master. She did not believe him until she saw his face and then she knew he meant it.
The death of her master in 1847, followed by the death of his young son and heir in 1849, made Tubman’s status uncertain. Amid rumours that the family’s slaves would be sold to settle the estate, Tubman fled to the North and found freedom. But when there, in Philadelphia, she grew terribly lonely. She worked for the year and saved her money, determined to bring “her people” to freedom, as well. In 1850 Harriet helped her first slaves escape: her sister and her sister’s two children.
That same year Harriet was made an official “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. This meant that she knew all the routes to free territory and she had to take an oath of silence so the secret of the Underground Railroad would be kept secret. In 1851 she rescued her brother James and other friends. She also tried, on this trip, to get her husband John to come with her, but he had remarried since she left and did not want to leave.
Tubman made eleven trips from Maryland to Canada from 1852-1857. During the ten years she worked as a conductor Harriet managed to save 300 people, making 19 trips altogether. She never lost a passenger on the way. Her career in the Railroad ended around December 1860, and for her safety, her friends took her to Canada.
Tubman returned to the U.S. from living in Canada in 1861. The Civil war had begun and was enlisting all men as soldiers and any women who wanted to join as cooks and nurses. Tubman enlisted into the Union army as a contraband nurse in a hospital in Hilton Head, South Carolina. She treated her patients with medicine from roots and miraculously never caught any of the deadly diseases the wounded soldiers would carry.
Not only did she nurse the sick and wounded back to health, but she also tried to find them work. In the Civil War, she was also helped to prepare food for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (Composed entirely of black soldiers and known as the Glory Brigade), and was also a scout. She put together a group of spies who kept Colonel James Montgomery informed about slaves who might want to join the Union army.
After the war, Harriet returned home to Auburn, NY where she once stayed with her parents. In 1869 she married Nelson Davis and together they shared a calm, peaceful 19-year marriage until he died. She donated a piece of property to the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1908 in hopes of a home for elderly and poor black people to be constructed on that land. It eventually was and she lived there, telling her stories to visitors until she died on March 10, 1913.
Harriet was never the only slave with rebellion on her mind. She had grown up hearing whispered stories of slave revolts. Back in the days of her grandmother, white refugees had ran to Baltimore, fleeing from a bloody slave uprising in Haiti where a black republic was successfully established. In the United States, Gabriel Prosser had planned a night attack on Richmond, Virginia with a group of more than a thousand blacks, but he failed. Around the time Harriet was born, Denmark Vesey recruited thousands of supporters in a plan to kill the whites in Charleston, South Carolina. But he was betrayed and hanged.
The peace was further threatened in August of 1831 when Harriet was about 11 years old. In Harriet’s neighbouring state of Virginia, Nat Turner led a band of black men in killing 57 white men, women, and children. They began late on a Sunday night, slaying Turner’s master and his family in their bedrooms. And they continued through the night and the next day, killing every white person they found.
It took three U.S. Army regiments to stop them and Nat eluded pursuers for two months before he was arrested and hanged in November. To slaveholders this news was a nightmare come true. In areas where whites retaliated, fifty-five blacks were killed without a trial. But the dream of deliverance lived on.
In 1846 Dred Scott, a slave living in St. Louis, Missouri, sued to prove that he, his wife, and his two daughters were legally entitled to their freedom. After being tried several times the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856. The following year, the Court rejected Scott’s claim concluding that blacks, even when free, could never become citizens of the United States.
In September of 1850, the same year that Harriet escaped, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. It allowed anyone the right to capture any black person and send them back to the South. This law caused the Underground Railroad to tighten security. It created a code to make things more secret. It also sent the escaping slaves into Canada instead of the “North” of the U.S. In 1861 the Civil War had begun.
Harriet Tubman responded eloquently to the historical events that she has become famous for being involved in. Escaping slavery when she was 28 , she did so out of fear of being traded to a plantation further South, which was almost positive death for any slave. When she had escaped to Philadelphia she looked only to put an end to the loneliness that she had been plagued with since she left her family back in the South.
This is why she made the first of many trips back to Maryland to bring her brother and friends to freedom. Harriet never began to disguise herself on her trips until pictures and descriptions of her were sent across the South for her capture. She then began to use her street smarts to disguise herself as many things: a decrepit old man, an old woman, even a young male slave. When the Civil War had begun, Harriet returned to the U.S. from her hiding in Canada in order to help her country and further her ongoing fight for freedom.
Harriet Tubman responded to every situation she faced with bravery and tact. She was truly a great woman, a great American, and a great human being.
1. Judith Bentley. Harriet Tubman. U.S.A.: Double Day & Company Inc., 1990
2. Dorothy Sterling. Freedom Train. Garden City, N.Y.: Country Life Press, 1954
3. Otey M. Scruggs, “Tubman, Harriet,” World book Online Americas Edition,
http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wbol/wbPage/na/ar/co/569550, May 1, 2001
4. “Tubman, Harriet Ross,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2001
http://encarta.msn.com Copyright 1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation.
5. “Dred Scott Case,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2001
http://encarta.msn.com Copyright 1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation.
6. Africans In America.
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