What are your first thoughts when you hear the name Harriet Tubman? Underground Railroad conductor, freedom fighter, abolitionist—these were the roles Tubman played in her lifetime. She was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1820, one of eleven children born to a slave woman named Rit and her slave master, Benjamin Ross. In 1822, Rit convinced her owner to allow her husband to purchase his freedom and that of their three youngest children. The rest of their children remained enslaved.
As a child, Tubman worked in the fields and suffered physical abuse from her mistress. She became ill with a chronic illness after being severely beaten by a slave owner for hoarding food for herself and other slaves. In 1849 she escaped to Philadelphia, where she joined the local Vigilance Committee and helped others fleeing slavery reach freedom. During this time she adopted the surname “Tubman” after an English preacher who had helped her during her escape. She never legally married, but took care of several younger siblings of friends who had escaped with her.
During the 1850s she began leading groups of slaves northward on what became known as the Underground Railroad or Freedom Trail. Slaves traveled at night through Northern states along riverbanks and wooded areas. Tubman was also well known for her care of elderly slaves and former slaves in need; she played an important role in organizing relief efforts during the war. For the remainder of her life, Tubman was dedicated to the abolitionist cause. She died in 1913, at the age of 93.