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

Civil War | January 29, 2021

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.

Notice published in the Cambridge Democrat (1849), offering a reward for the return of Harriet Tubman and her two brothers. (Cambridge Democrat/Wikimedia Commons)

The Underground Railroad

Records show that abolitionists and escaped slaves used the system of safe houses and escape routes known as the Underground Railroad as early as the late 1700s, so it was well established by the time Tubman and two of her brothers navigated the network to the North in 1849. As her husband refused to accompany her, likely afraid that he would be sent back into slavery if he was caught, the couple permanently parted ways. He later married a free black woman in 1851 while his erstwhile wife settled in Philadelphia and became acquainted with the local abolitionist movement.

After escaping slavery, Tubman devoted herself to helping others achieve the same. Traveling under the cover of darkness, she made 13 return trips to the South, guiding each group through the Underground Railroad. In 1850, after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed slave owners to retrieve escaped slaves living in the North, Tubman simply rerouted the network to Canada. She was nicknamed "the Moses of her people” after the Biblical figure who guided his people out of slavery, and it was certainly well earned: She rescued close to 70 slaves, including some of her family members, none of whom were ever caught. Meanwhile, she became public enemy number-one to Southern slave owners, who offered a reward of $40,000 for her capture, dead or alive.

Not content with even that stake in history, Tubman met up with famed abolitionist John Brown in 1858 after experiencing visions of helping him end slavery in the South, and they became such good friends that he turned to her for assistance with the planning of his infamous raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. She provided him with the names of anti-slavery advocates in Virginia and Maryland, mapped out escape routes, recruited manpower, and raised funds, but despite all their careful planning, the raid on Harper's Ferry ended in historical tragedy.

A woodcut of Tubman in her Civil War clothing. (W.J. Moses/Wikimedia Commons)

Harriet The Spy

When civil war broke out, Tubman went to work for the Union Army as a cook, dishwasher, and nurse, but the higher-ups soon recognized that her network of contacts and knowledge of the South was an even greater asset than her herbal remedies. Disguised as an old woman, she slipped unnoticed into Confederate-controlled cities and towns, where she met with slaves to glean information about the enemy's movements and supply lines.

On June 2, 1863, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War when she guided three Union steamboats around Confederate mines to a group of plantations on the Combahee River. Union soldiers burned buildings and seized food and supplies while Tubman blew the steamboat whistles to alert the plantations' slaves to their rescue. More than 750 slaves were freed as a result of the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman in 1887 (far left), with her husband Davis (seated, with cane), their adopted daughter Gertie (beside Tubman), Lee Cheney, John "Pop" Alexander, Walter Green, "Blind Aunty" Sarah Parker, and her great-niece Dora Stewart at Tubman's home in Auburn,

Harriet Tubman's Later Years

When the Civil War ended, Tubman's abolitionism was done. She retreated to the home she had purchased in 1859 in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents and redirected her activism toward the cause of women's suffrage. As she grew older and her health began to fail, she moved into an all-black rest home that she had founded many years before, where she died on March 10, 1913.

Tags: civil war | famous people | slavery

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.