One of the most mythical women found in American history, the name Harriet Tubman is synonymous with the Underground Railroad.
But Tubman, who singlehandedly liberated over one hundred slaves during her time as a conductor, is so much more than what we learned in school.
Join me this week as I dive into part one of the life of this amazing woman.
Bradford, Sarah Hopkins. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. United States: W.J. Moses, printer, 1869.
Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. United States: Little, Brown, 2004.
Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero. United States: Random House Publishing Group, 2004.
“Harriet Tubman.” National Park Service. (LINK)
“December 1850: Harriet Tubman Engineered First Rescue Mission.” Zinn Education Project. (LINK)
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” Harriet Tubman.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
In 2030, Harriet Tubman is scheduled to make her appearance on the face of the twenty dollar bill, replacing seventh president - and bank of the united states critic - Andrew Jackson.
While we learn about Tubman’s exploits while she served as a conductor along the Underground Railroad, relatively little is shared - or known - about her life outside these activities. For example, many may be surprised to learn Harriet wasn’t Tubman’s name given at birth. There is so much more to her and her life that I just couldn’t fit everything into one episode.
So this week, I am starting the dive into the life of Harriet Tubman. Who was she? How did she become a conductor along the underground railroad? And what motivated her various acts of bravery?
Grab your cup of coffee, pees. Let’s do this.
Born Araminta Ross along the eastern shore of Maryland, likely on a plantation belonging to the Brodess family anywhere between March 1820 and 1822, the future conductor who would later be known as the Moses of her people was one of many children.
In what was an unfortunately common occurrence during the time period, Tubman’s birth was not recorded in any official record and those who considered themselves her owner neglected to document her birth in their various records. As such, much of Tubman’s childhood is hazy and even the year of her birth remains a best estimate by historians. Tubman’s parents, Ben and Rit Ross, gave Tubman several siblings; however, given the nature of the institution that dominated their lives, they were unable to provide any sense of consistency or normalcy for their family, often subject to the economic whims of those who went by the title master.
Despite the constant fear of being separated from their family, both Ben and Rit maintained a sense of quiet strength that served as an influence to Tubman later in her own exploits. After losing several daughters to the auction block, Rit learned a slave dealer from Georgia was in town and one of her sons was due to be sold. In a daring and dangerous demonstration of rebellion, Rit successfully hid her son for over a month to prevent the sale. Stashing her son, Moses, in the woods or with friends, Rit evaded her master’s desire to sell off a member of her family. In an attempt to compel her to give up her son, both Edward Brodess and the Georgia slave trader journeyed to the slave quarters. In what can only be described as one of the bravest displays of a mother’s love, Rit blocked their entry saying quote, “the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open,” end quote.
This woman - who was denied her humanity in so many ways and considered property - took a potentially life threatening step to assert her role as not only a mother, but as a human being who would not be separated from her family. And what is even more amazing is that this worked. Brodess backed off from the sale of her son and later supposedly told Rit he was glad she pushed back.
So it is safe to say Tubman had a strong female role model in her youth. She was hired out at just five, apparently to care for a young infant. However Minty, as she was known in her youth, was small and had to sit on the floor while holding the infant to insure the baby didn’t fall. And failing to realize she put the care of her infant and the work of domestic chores on the shoulders of a five year old, Minty struggled to please the mistress of the house and she was later returned to the Brodess’ severely undernourished.
While still developing into a young woman, Minty suffered a traumatic brain injury when she got between an overseer and an enslaved man trying to flee. As the overseer was trying to blunt the bondmen's attempt at running away by throwing a two pound weight, he missed and Tubman was struck in the head. It was severe enough to likely cause a fracture of her skull and her parents could do nothing more but pray that she made a full recovery. Her convalescence took several months, during which time her owner made attempts to offload her through a sale.
For the rest of Tubman’s life she would struggle with effects of her head injury, often suffering from hallucinations, headaches and bouts of narcolepsy. She would often find herself mid-sentence then suddenly drift off to sleep, only to awake seconds, or sometimes minutes, later and resume her story without missing a beat. Given the lack of medical care provided to slaves in general, and the limits of science and medicine of her time, historians are only left to guess at what her condition might have been, with many pointing to temporal lobe epilepsy, or TLE. Despite her injury, upon recovery, Tubman demonstrated an immense strength in performing her duties, including chopping and hauling wood that paced with the men on the plantation. She was so effective in her efforts that she was able to hire herself out to others within Dorchester County. A fairly common practice of the time, Minty would work in neighboring plantations, earning a little extra money, perhaps in an effort to save enough to buy her freedom.
Around 1844, Harriet met, fell in love with and married a free black man named John Tubman. Little is known about Tubman other than he was free and, despite living in a community where there were other free black women with whom he could have entered into a relationship, he chose Minty. Given that the status of children born to black women followed that of the mother, it speaks to the connection they must have shared that he was willing to marry and potentially start a family with a woman whose children would be held in bondage. Perhaps Tubman planned to purchase her freedom and therefore her status wasn’t as big of a concern as the two entered into wedded bliss.
Whatever the motivation for their marriage, they were wed in a likely small ceremony that was, of course, unrecognized by the family who owned Minty. Slaves had no legal rights, but marriage could produce children. And children, in the eyes of the master, decreased the chance a slave might flee. And so despite lacking any legal recognition, slave owners permitted, and sometimes encouraged, their human property to marry.
Being married to a free man, and living in a county with a free black population, Tubman, like others held as property, yearned to be free. A devout believer in God, Tubman had been praying for the lord to change Brodess’ mind about slavery and emancipate her and her family. Despite her constant prayer, she remained in bondage. Frustrated, Tubman shifted her prayers; if God could not convince Brodess to change his ways, then he should kill him. In 1849 Tubman got her wish; Edward Brodess had passed away. Upon hearing the news of his death, the deeply religious Tubman felt immense guilt, believing it was her prayers that caused his downfall. And far from delivering her from slavery, Brodess’ death put Tubman’s future in further doubt. As was the norm, Tubman was chattel and as such, the death of any owner threw the fates of those held as property into a chaotic frenzy. Would she be willed to another family member? Sold off to pay off the estate’s debt?
In Brodess’ case, Tubman heard she would likely fall into the latter and be sold to pay off debt. Upon learning this, Tubman resolved to take her freedom. Later sharing her story, Tubman said quote: “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other,” end quote.
Tubman had previously hired an attorney to look into the status of her parents, believing they should have been emancipated long ago. Much to her horror, though I doubt surprise, the attorney confirmed Tubman’s suspicions. When her mother Ritt was willed to Mary Pattison, the woman who later married Edward Brodess, it was under the condition that Ritt would be manumitted at the age of 45, in accordance with the laws of the time. However, despite this supposedly legally binding contract, both Ben and Ritt remained held in bondage. What is worse, based on their ages, it is likely that several of their children were technically born free.
Of course, as an enslaved woman unable to testify in court against white people, Tubman could do little else than fume in her anger at the mistreatment of her parents. It also justifiably made her distrustful of the white race and made her choice clear. As historian Catherine Clinton argued, quote: “it was the discovery of this betrayal that fueled her resolve to liberate herself,” end quote.
And so it was; one night in September 1849, Tubman took matters into her own hands and emancipated herself. Residents of Dorchester County permitted enslaved men and women a bit of freedom of movement to attend things like church service or even visit fellow family members on neighboring plantations and so Saturday was considered the optimal time to make an escape. Because Sundays were often a free day, the soonest owners may notice a missing bondsmen would be Monday and the earliest an announcement could be placed into a newspaper was Tuesday. This gave Tubman the much needed headstart she required in order to capture her freedom.
Details surrounding her self liberation remain elusive. Tubman herself shared very little, only that she was aided on her journey by a white woman who supposedly wrote her a pass to get her to the next station on the underground railroad. By the time Tubman took her freedom in 1849, the railroad was already well established, with various freedom lines available for Tubman to follow. Despite this, the journey was still dangerous. Tubman had to travel nearly 90 miles by foot, traveling at night with only the North Star as her guide. She had to be weary of any potential slave catchers or white residents who may catch glimpse of her and report her movements. Covering the distance by foot likely took her anywhere from ten days or a couple of weeks.
Despite the arduous journey, Tubman made it to the free city of Philadelphia. There is some debate relating to when, exactly, she decided to change her name. Some claim she changed her name upon her marriage to John, while other historians tie her name change to when she was finally liberated from the shackles of slavery.
Given the runaway notice placed in the newspaper shortly after her escape, the evidence tends to lean into Tubman waiting until liberation to secure her name change. A name change post-liberation would also follow the trend of others who ran away like Frederick Douglass, who switched his last name upon realizing his freedom. On October 3, 1849, the Cambridge Democrat posted a runaway notice calling for the recapture of two slaves, one of which being Harriet. The article promised a reward in the recovery of Tubman, describing her as quote, “Minty, aged about 27 years, is of a chestnut color, fine looking and bout 5 feet high” end quote. Tubman’s escape occurred during a period of heightened flights among the slave community. Between June 1849 and June 1850, almost three hundred slaves claimed their freedom from Maryland’s borders, one of the highest fugitive rates for a slave state.
I think no one would blame Harriet if, after securing her liberation, she decided to live out her life as a free woman in the north. Many who took their freedom did so knowing they’d likely never see their family again and made the painful choice to start over alone. However, that wasn’t in the cards for Tubman who yearned to be reunited with her family and her husband. Though she was free, she felt like a stranger in a strange land and missed her family terribly. So, despite the dangers associated with any potential return trip, Tubman resolved to rescue her family from the chains of bondage. She found work as a laundress and domestic worker, saving her earnings to finance future liberation missions.
Her first rescue mission came as the result of hearing her niece was scheduled to be sold. Despite the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which essentially served to invalidate state laws prohibiting slavery by allowing the search for, capture and return of escaped slaves, Tubman was determined to liberate her family and engaged in a plot to help secure the freedom of Kesiah and her children. However, knowing the real life risks attached to such a mission, Tubman exercised a bit of caution. Instead of entering the county herself, Tubman worked with Kessiah’s husband, John Bowley, on a plot that would allow Kessiah and her children to sneak away out of the city of Cambridge, meeting Tubman in Baltimore. From there, Tubman hid her niece and family for several days before shepherding them to Philadelphia. This was the beginning of Tubman’s journeys to the southern states to liberate fellow slaves.
Not satisfied with just her niece’s freedom, Tubman attempted to compel her husband John to join her in one of her many trips to the south, only to find he had moved on to another woman. There is a lot of missing detail as to why this relationship seemed to fail. One reason could be Tubman’s potential parentage of a little girl known as Margaret. While the family story claimed Margaret was of no relation to Tubman, her actions surrounding the little girl were questionable and uncharacteristic when compared to the numerous trips she took to the south.
Unlike her other expeditions, Tubman took great risks to steal Margaret away from her family, which, by all accounts, was a stable and loving home environment. Some historians postulate Tubman may have had a deeper relationship with the young girl, who was described as very light skinned. Given that John Tubman was also black, if Margaret was Tubman’s daughter, it could have been the result of rape. Unfortunately, like most of Tubman’s life, this is a piece of her puzzle historians are left to debate without confirmation. Whether it was the result of an illegitimate child or John simply falling in love with another, Tubman had to deal with the fact that she would face her new life of freedom on her own.
And with that, peeps, we’ll pause on the narrative of Ms. Tubman. Come back next week as I dive into her various journeys south, her work during the Civil War and her later years where she continued her humanitarian efforts to try to leave the world in a better place than she left it.
Thanks, friends. I’ll see you next week.
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