c1820 – 1913
Harriet tied the scarf under her chin and shuffled along the dirt roadway. She looked just like an old slave woman, taking the chickens to market. Along the way, she whispered to the slaves she met. Tonight she would be waiting in the woods to lead slaves out of the South to the North.
As she turned a corner, she sucked in her breath. Her former master was coming toward her. He might see through her disguise! She had to get away from him. Quickly she loosed the cords that held the chickens. He laughed as the squawking chickens flew over a fence, but he kept on walking when Harriet chased after them, stumbling and waving her arms.
Harriet got the last laugh. That night, several slaves escaped with her to freedom in the North.
Harriet Ross was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1820. Her parents, Harriet and Benjamin Ross, told her stories of their past life in West Africa. They were from the Ashanti tribe of warriors. Harriet saw that warrior spirit in herself.
Her “cradle name” was Arminta, Minty for short. Eventually, she changed her name to Harriet after her mother. It wasn’t legal for slaves to go to school, so Harriet never learned to read or write. Her owner, Mr. Brodas, hired out his slaves to work on his neighbors’ plantations. From the time Harriet was five or six years old, she lived on other nearby plantations, working long hours even though she was very young.
One time when Harriet was setting the table, she reached for a taste of sugar when her mistress’s back was turned. She’d never had it before, and it looked so good! Her mistress caught her and beat her so hard that she spent weeks at home under her mother’s gentle care. Harriet got a reputation as being uncooperative. Other mistresses didn’t want to hire her, so she was sent into the fields. She was only five feet tall, but she developed strength driving oxen and splitting logs to make fence rails. Harriet often worked side by side with her father, who showed her the North Star and told her how to use it like a compass so she’d never get lost.
When she was about fifteen years old, Harriet tried to protect a slave from a beating. As the slave broke free, the overseer threw a heavy lead weight at him, and hit Harriet’s forehead instead. She was in a coma for weeks, and for the rest of her life she was subject to sudden blackouts and severe headaches. As Harriet recovered, once again under her mother’s care, she began to think about the nature of slavery. Didn’t slaves have the right to liberty too?
Harriet married a free black man, John Tubman. Even though Harriet’s husband was free, he thought Harriet got too upset about being a slave. He even threatened to turn her in if she attempted to run away. When Harriet eventually escaped, he wanted nothing to do with her.
Harriet didn’t stop thinking about the injustice of slavery. When she heard that two of her sisters were about to be sold to plantations in the deep South, her heart sank. She couldn’t help them—they were already in chains. That day, she convinced her brothers to run away with her.
Tramping through the cypress swamp in the dark of night, her brothers worried that they’d never make it, that they’d end up getting lost or being caught by the overseer and get a terrible beating. Eventually, her brothers stopped and refused to walk any further. Harriet went back to the Brodas plantation with them.
But when she crept back into bed that night, she knew next time she wouldn’t give up. Next time she’d go alone.
Two days later, as darkness fell, Harriet set out on the path she would take many more times over the years, leading other slaves to freedom. After hiding during the days and trudging night after night, she finally stood on free soil in Pennsylvania. “I looked at my hands,” she recalled later, “to see if I was the same person now that I was free.” As the sun warmed the fields she thought it was how heaven must feel.
Soon after that, Harriet started the work she is most famous for—being a conductor on the Underground Railroad, the secret network of people who helped slaves escape to freedom in the North. Later, when the Civil War began, Harriet had another mission: to be a spy.
Over a ten-year period, Harriet led some 300 slaves to freedom. No one who went with her ever got lost! Between trips, she supported herself as a cook and a maid in local hotels. She brought her entire family to freedom, including her two sisters. Her mother and father settled with her in Auburn, New York.
A reward of $40,000 was offered for Harriet’s capture. When war broke out, her friends hurried her off to Canada. Unable to stay hidden when there was work to be done, Harriet went to South Carolina to assist blacks who sought refuge with the Union forces. As the war progressed, the Union officers needed information. They knew about Harriet’s work slipping secretly through the countryside on the Underground Railroad. Could she help them now?
Harriet organized a small band of black men to act as scouts, searching out where the enemy stored food, ammunition, and livestock and reporting on the location of troops. For two years she spied on the Confederates. She also lead a famous raid on South Carolina’s Combahee River. In several gunboats, she and Union soldiers headed upriver to destroy bridges and ammunition. On the way back, the gunboats picked up 750 slaves along the riverbank and carried them to freedom.
Harriet’s old head injuries started causing her serious problems, and she returned to her home in Auburn for awhile. She was on her way back to South Carolina when the war ended. She worked as a nurse in Washington D.C. for several months. Then, while boarding a train to go back to Auburn, she was yanked off the coach and tossed into the baggage car. It seemed the idea of equality for blacks had not gotten through to everyone.
After the war, Harriet supported herself and her parents by working in her garden and selling vegetables and apples. She raised funds to start schools for blacks in the South. She married Nelson Davis but kept her famous surname, Tubman.
Harriet gave speeches for women’s rights with Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists. She believed that no one—woman or man, black or white—would be truly free until everyone was free. She nursed sick neighbors, and eventually started a home for aged and impoverished blacks. She moved into it herself a few years before her death.
England’s Queen Victoria read a biography of Harriet. The Queen was so impressed she sent Harriet a silver medal, which Harriet treasured. Harriet was not awarded any honors by the U.S. government for her service, but local Civil War veterans led a military service for her when she died. A bugler played Taps (a melody traditionally played at official military funerals) for this woman they so admired.
After her death, William Still, an anti-slavery activist who worked with Harriet on the Underground Railroad, wrote of her courage, her cunning, and her tireless work:
“She was without equal.”