Harriet Tubman Biography

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery to Bengamin Ross and Harriet Greene—both slaves of Edward Brodas—as their 11th child. Her birth name was Araminta and was called “Minty” as a child. By the time she reached adulthood, she was calling herself Harriet. She was born on Edward Brodas’ plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her exact date of birth is not known, because slaves holders didn’t record birth days of their slaves; and different accounts list her to be born in the year 1820 or 1821.

Because of her status, Harriet Tubman was denied an education, considering the fact that slave owners did not want their slaves to know how to read or write. Like most slaves, Harriet began working at an early age. At five years old, she was “loaned out” to another plantation to check muskrat traps in ice cold rivers. She quickly became too sick to keep working there, from being malnourished and suffering from the cold, and was returned home. Once she was better, she was loaned out again, this time to work as a nurse to the planter’s infant child.

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By the age of 12, she was working as a field hand, hauling and plowing wood. When she was 13, she was hit in the head with a two-pound weight, as she was defending a fellow slave who tried to run away. Because of this, she had recurring narcoleptic seizures, that plagued her for the rest of her life. At about 25 years of age(1844), Harriet married a freeman named John Tubman. She got permission from her owners to live in his cabin, but she still had to work for her master. On one of her first return trips to Maryland, she went to John’s cabin to ask to go North with her; finding out that he had married someone else.

Later she married Nelson Davis in 1869. Harriet Tubman never had any children. The Biblical story of Exodus in which Moses freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel, saw repetition in the years before the Civil War when Harriet Tubman freed over 300 blacks from slavery in the South to freedom in the North. For her amazing work she was nicknamed “Moses. ” Despite the hardships inflicted upon her and the unfairness of them, Harriet used her labors for self discipline and set for herself the goal of escaping to the North.

She accomplished this goal in 1849, when alone and on foot she ran away from the plantation in the middle of the night and followed the north star to free land in Pennsylvania. It came about after her master died and she heard rumors that she and two of her brothers were to be sold to a chain gang. Her brothers left with her, but became scared, deciding not to take the risk, and so returned to the plantation. She traveled only at night, until she knew she had crossed the border between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states.

Harriet had bravely won her freedom, but realizing how alone she was, she made a vow that she would help her family and friends win their freedom as well. She went to Philadelphia, found work cooking, laundering and scrubbing, and saved money to finance rescue trips. She became involved with the city’s large and active anti-slavery organizations and with organizers of the Underground Railroad– a secret network through which slaves were helped in escaping from bondage in the South to freedom in the North and Canada.

Using the Wilmington, Delaware, home of Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett (1789-1871) as a checkpoint, Harriet Tubman undertook some 20 hazardous missions in which she covertly journeyed down south, pinpointed slaves, and led them to freedom up north, at times going as far as Canada. In leading these flights, with a long rifle in hand, she warned her escapees that, if any of them even considered surrendering or returning, the penalty would be death. Her persuasiveness was evident in that never on any of her missions did she lose a “passenger” on the Underground Railroad.

Her name quickly spread throughout the slave quarters and abolitionist societies. All this angered the Southern slaveholders, who offered $40,000 for her capture. But Harriet always evaded slave catchers and would not quit, even when her illiteracy nearly got her caught when she fell asleep under her own wanted poster. As for her family, Harriet successfully rescued her sister in 1850, her brother in 1851, her other three brothers in 1854, and her parents in 1857. For her parents, she purchased a home in Auburn, New York, from Senator William H. Seward of New York, an advocate of hers.

In the 12 years from her escape in 1849 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad became the most dominant force of abolitionism. Around 1858, Harriet teamed up with John Brown as he plotted a raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His plan was to raid the armory there, distribute weapons among slaves and instigate a rebellion. She helped him with fund-raising, and most likely would have participated in the raid had she not been ill. During the Civil War (1861-1865), Harriet Tubman served with the Union Army as a cook, laundress, nurse, scout, and spy behind Confederate lines.

In 1862, she moved to Beaufort, South Carolina , and with several missionary teachers, helped hundreds of Sea Islander slaves transition from bondage to freedom. She also undertook scouting and spying missions, identifying potential targets for the Army, such as cotton stores and ammunition storage areas. In 1865, Harriet began caring for wounded black soldiers as the matron of the Colored Hospital at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. She continued helping others after the war. She raised money for freedmen’s schools, helped destitute children and continued caring for her parents.

In 1868, she transformed her family’s home into the Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. She also lobbied for educational opportunities for freedmen. She believed she had been called by God to help her people. Also in 1868, Harriet began working on her autobiography with Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a white schoolteacher in Auburn, New York. It was published in 1868, then later under a revised title in 1886. Still not finished, Harriet took up the suffragist cause. In 1896, she was a delegate to the National Association of Colored Women’s first annual convention.

She believed the right to vote was essential to preserving their freedom. Around the turn of the century, she bought 25 acres of land near her home with money raised through benefactors and speaking engagements, and made arrangements for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to take over the Home. She had worked closely with this church since the 1850s. In 1911, Harriet herself was welcomed into the Home. Upon hearing of her destitute condition, many women with whom she had worked in the NACW voted to provide her a lifelong monthly pension of $25.

Living past ninety, Harriet Tubman died in Auburn on March 10, 1913. She was given a full military funeral and was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery. The women of the NACW also paid the funeral costs and purchased a marble headstone. One year later, the city of Auburn commemorated her life with a memorial tablet at the front of the Cayuga County Courthouse. In 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt christened the Liberty Ship Harriet Tubman, and in 1995 the U. S. Postal Service honored her life with a postage stamp. Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York.

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