Harriet Tubman: Biography, Facts, And Things You Didn't Know About The Slave Liberator

By Karen Harris
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), American Abolitionist, Portrait, circa 1885. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Harriet Tubman was many things—a former slave turned abolitionist, advocate, activist, spy, and scout who earned the nickname "the Moses of her people" for leading escaped slaves to freedom—but there's a lot we still don't know about this icon of civil rights. We don't even know for sure when she was born.

Becoming Harriet

Historians believe Harriet Tubman was probably born January 29, 1820, but some documents, including a receipt for a midwife payment and her runaway slave advertisement, suggest she was born in 1822. Meanwhile, Tubman's death certificate lists the year of her birth as 1815, and other evidence suggests she may have actually been born in March. We do know that she was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, then a slave state, to Ben Ross and Harriet "Rit" Green as Araminta Ross, later known affectionately as Minty.

Li'l Minty was only five years old when her masters rented her to their neighbors to work as a domestic servant, during which time she became all too familiar with the cruel treatment of slaves. She had enough by the time she was 12, when she tried to stop her master from beating another slave who had tried to run away, but all she accomplished was getting in the way of a heavy weight he had thrown at his target, which struck her in the head. Thanks to the injury, she suffered from lifelong headaches, dizziness, and narcolepsy. She also tended to have vivid dreams and hallucinations that likely stemmed from the injury but she believed to be messages from God.

In 1844, Tubman entered into a marital union—the closest thing to marriage that slaves were permitted—with a free black man named John Tubman and changed her first name to Harriet in honor of her mother.