Join me as I wrap up the narrative of Harriet Tubman; abolitionist, Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War spy.
In this episode I dive into her time on the railroad, her efforts to help the Union Army achieve victory in the Civil War and her later efforts at establishing a home to care for the elderly in her home of upstate New York.
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)
“I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.” 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.
Last week, I started on the life of underground railroad conductor and humanitarian Harriet Tubman. From her time as a young child where she experienced a massive head trauma, to her first trip to the south, we’re just getting started on this amazing woman.
This week I am wrapping up the life of Tubman. How was she so successful during her time on the underground railroad? What did she do during the Civil War? And how did she spend her later years?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
When I last left you, Tubman had discovered her husband had married another woman, leaving her to figure out the future without the man she had hoped to spend her life with. However, Tubman remained committed to reuniting her family and though she was pained by her husband’s rejection, she continued her plots to liberate others from the chains of slavery.
It is estimated that Tubman undertook 13 trips to the southern region and saved over one hundred individuals; she also provided instruction to nearly a hundred others looking to secure their own freedom, making her one of the most successful conductors of the railroad’s history. Her exploits were so well known and widely respected that she even made fellow conductor William Still’s records book. The fact that Tubman, a woman, was given this distinction speaks to the high regard she was seen as most women were left out of any story involving the railroad. As historian Catherin Clinton writes, quote: “if a woman did appear in the UGRR records, she was almost always cast in the role of helpmeet, as the wife or sister of a prominent male leader,” end quote.
Tubman was proud of the work she performed as a conductor. In her later years, while on speaking tours to help raise funds for herself and various causes, Tubman often celebrated her record, saying quote: “I was the conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say - I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” end quote.
A master of disguise and diversion, Tubman was able to come up with plenty of plots and plans that would allow her to go undetected in enemy territory and became intimately familiar with the various liberty lines along the underground railroad. While most who decided to ride the underground railroad chose to do so on a solo mission, Tubman helped and seemed to specialize in the expeditions securing large parties to freedom. Tubman often shepherded groups of ten or twenty to the secure borders of Canada, a promise of freedom. It is thought that on one of these missions, she landed on Frederick Douglass’ door with eleven freedom seekers. Though he never mentioned Tubman by name, the two were acquainted and given Tubman’s expertise with large parties, most historians believe this stop along the railroad was at Tubman’s direction.
So good she was hiding in plain sight that often former masters would walk right past her without ever knowing whose presence they were in. One amazing example involves Tubman who, on a mission, secured a massive sun bonnet to cover her face and also procured two chickens tied at their legs. Upon seeing a former master, she pulled at the string, causing the chickens to squawk and create a scene. She quickly made a show of caring for her fowl, thereby fooling the white man who walked right by without recognizing the woman who he used to claim as property.
Tubman took her role as conductor seriously and understood the dangers associated with making the journey north. She would allow for no weakness or second guessing for her charges, carrying a pistol with her to help scare potential slave catchers and motivate runaways who may start to doubt their commitment. In one especially telling story, Tubman was transporting a number of runaway slaves when one man became fatigued and wanted to turn back. Knowing his departure could endanger the lives of the rest of her charges, Tubman told the man to continue on. When he remained steadfast in his desire to turn back, Tubman walked up to him, cocked her pistol and, aiming it at his head, said simply quote, “Move or die,” unquote. The man chose to move and made it to Canada.
As I mentioned last week, the underground railroad had long been established by the time Tubman secured her freedom in 1849. Upon her return her visits, though there were several options, historians believe Tubman likely used the main line which was a route out of Maryland through Delaware via Wilmington. At least initially all of Tubman’s rescue missions were self-funded. She fell into a rhythm where she would perform one or two rescue missions in the fall, spend her winter in Canada and then work as a laundress or domestic in the spring and summer months in order to earn enough money to finance her freedom expeditions.
While working as an agent of the underground railroad, Tubman had the pleasure of meeting fellow abolitionist John Brown. Brown, who had been a staunch defender of abolition, charmed the dedicated Tubman, who saw Brown as a brother in arms. While they both bonded over their hatred and distaste for slavery, Brown helped propel Tubman from feeling slavery was simply a moral failing into a more miitant view that slavery equated to a war among the races.
Hearing of his plans to raid Harper’s Ferry and instigate an uprising of slaves to finally put an end to the institution, Tubman was one hundred percent committed. She used her name and reputation to help raise funds for Brown’s efforts and to attract recruits to serve in his army. Brown had a tremendous amount of respect for Tubman and her killset, often referring to her as General Tubman. Brown hoped Tubman would join him on his raid and help lead the charge to once and for all put an end to the practice of slavery and secure liberty for the millions of black bodies held in captivity.
While it is unclear whether she had planned to join the efforts, when the raid on Harpers Ferry took place in October 1859, Tubman was nowhere to be found. It is believed that Tubman was in recovery from one of her many ailments and was unaware of Brown’s attack date as it had continued to shift given lack of funds and manpower. Whatever the reason, Tubman remained committed to Brown’s idea of total annihilation of the institution of slavery and believed it’s death would be the only way her brother and sisters would ever experience true freedom.
Devoutly religious and a believer in her visions, Tubman believed she saw the coming of the Civil War. She compared slavery to a venomous snake; in her eyes, by trying to cut out the bites of the snake, or trying to keep the country together without addressing slavery, then President Lincoln was only delaying the inevitable. The country would die from the bites or, in this case, the maintaining of the slave system. His initial hesitation to take action to eliminate slavery and providing freedom for the enslaved bondsmen and women initially soured Tubman against Lincoln. She wanted a president who was forceful and clear in their opinion on the freedom of those who were held in bondage.
Regardless of her reservations about President Lincoln, Tubman did what she could to help effectuate a union victory. She helped recruit troops to serve and put herself on the front lines, acting as laundress, nurse and, eventually, spy for the union side. Given her knowledge of the southern landscape, Tubman proved to be quite the asset for the Union army. In one successful mission, Tubman’s intelligence led to the liberation of almost 800 slaves. If that wasn’t enough, Tubman also joined the fight and is believed to be the first black woman to lead an armed attack into enemy territory. And while she initially was given a stipend to help meet her needs, Tubman chose to forgo any payments given the reaction of the surrounding black men and instead supported herself throughout the war by selling homemade treats like pies and rootbeer. Despite her work, Tubman was never officially recognized as a member of the Union army and had to fight for a military pension for years after her service.
Once the Civil War was over and slavery was dead, Tubman continued to champion causes she believed in. Like most abolitionists, Tubman was a staunch supporter of the reconstruction efforts and became interested in securing the votes for women. In her later years she would often give speeches and talks about the need to secure the right to vote, even meeting fellow women’s rights leader and former episode topic, Sojourner Truth.
The end of the war also provided Tubman an opportunity to secure a small house for herself and her parents in Auburn, New York. Purchased via an overly fair deal from New York Senator and abolitionist William Seward, Tubman was finally able to relocate her parents from the harsh winters of Canada and provide a place for them to live out the remainder of their years in relative comfort. Tubman never asked for money for herself, but had no issues requesting money for those in her charge, hoping to one day open a home for people who were destitute or otherwise unable to care for themselves.
Like most involved in the abolitionist cause, Tubman often struggled for money. As such, she finally resorted to sharing her story, in a last ditch effort to raise much needed funds to care for herself, her home, and the various individuals she took in.
A woman who never learned to read or write, Tubman was at the mercy of white benefactors who would purportedly tell her story as she deemed fit. The woman who took charge, Sarah Bradford, helped tell Tubman’s story, however with several limitations. Unfortunately the time period held a massive amount of white supremacy and Bradford refused to capture any of Tubman’s story that couldn’t be independently corroborated. This has led to a large part of Tubman’s story being omitted from the historical record as much of her exploits occurred without a second witness to confirm the validity of her story. Tubman also suffered from the treatment of historians of the time where a certain dialect was attributed to Tubman.
While the book helped secure a much needed financial windfall for Tubman, it did not solve all of her monetary problems. In what was an all too common problem, Tubman would struggle to meet her financial obligations for the rest of her life as she often gave away what little money she had to others who she felt were in greater need. This meant Tubman was susceptible to conmen who would pry on her reputation to help con her and others out of money, including one incident involving a supposed buried treasure.
In 1869, after the death of her first husband, Tubman found love a second time with a younger man named Nelson Davis. A former slave who served in the Union army, Davis was almost twenty years younger than Tubman when they married. He seemed supportive of her endeavors to open a home for individuals who were unable to care for themselves and assisted her in her efforts to see its creation.
To help finance the cost of building said home, Tubman appealed to the United States government for a military pension, payment for the years she served as nurse and spy for the union army. Unfortunately, Tubman’s request continued to fall on deaf ears and she was consistently left to languish without any pension to speak of. There were several legislative initiatives proposed aimed at providing Tubman with much deserved funds, including a resolution in the house, however these proposals never succeeded. It wasn’t until her husband Davis passed away, that Tubman finally secured a financial payment from the government. Of course, it wasn’t a pension based on her own blemish free record of service, but instead a widow’s pension of just $8 per month. With the help of others, Tubman eventually got her pension increased to $20, which included both the widow’s pension and payment for her time as a nurse during the Civil War.
Finally, in 1903, Tubman saw her dreams realized with the establishment of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Though Tubman wanted the home to be free to all who needed the help, those in charge decided on a fee of $150. Despite this, Tubman was happy to see her decades long dream become real. The Harriet Tubman Home became the only charity in upstate New York whose mission was the shelter and care of the African American community.
Though she had a hard life and struggled with various physical ailments, Tubman managed to live into her nineties. In 1913, Tubman contracted pneumonia and succumbed to her illness at the age of 90. Her final words? “I go to prepare a place for you.”
And with that, peeps, we’ve come to the end of the life of one Harriet Tubman. Tubman is one of the strongest female figures found in American history. A fighter without ego, she proved what was possible when one simply relied on themselves and believed their path was correct. She was determined, yet unassuming, in her role as one of the bravest women in history. Despite the many, many accolades we could bestow upon Tubman, I venture to guess her proudest accomplishment is the hundreds of individuals she helped liberate and to the end this episode on her life, I will share a quote I think resonates just as much today as it did during her lifetime: “if you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.”
Thanks peeps. I’ll see you next week.
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