During the latter half of the 19th century, the name Harriet Tubman was known far and wide. Many people in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Canada were interested in the deeds of a little black woman in America who was known to her people as “Moses”.
In America, opinion was polarised; hailed by some as a courageous martyr to her cause, for others Tubman was a witch-like menace and evil-doer. William Seward, ex-Governor of New York State, and Secretary of State in the Presidential Cabinet, espoused her cause and pleaded for a pension for her from Congress.
Many from the literary group of New England, the Emersons, the Alcotts, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, listened to her graphic accounts of slave life and helped her in her work.
1. She was born ‘Araminta Ross’
Sometime between 1820 and 1821 Tubman was born into slavery in Buckland, Eastern Maryland. Araminta Ross was the daughter of Ben Ross, a skilled woodsman, and Harriet ‘Rit’ Green. Tubman worked from the age of six, as a maidservant and later in the fields, enduring brutal conditions and inhumane treatment.
She adopted her mother’s name after escaping slavery, and her surname came from her first marriage in 1844, to a free black man John Tubman. This blended marriage was complicated by her slave status, passed on by her mother, but was not uncommon. By this time half the black population on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was free.
2. She suffered a severe head injury as an adolescent
An overseer threw a 2 pound weight at a fellow field hand as they attempted to flee, it struck Harriet instead, and in her words “broke my skull”.
She experienced life-long headaches, seizures and vivid dreams. Tubman interpreted those visions as revelations from God, informing her deep religiosity and a passionate faith that helped guide her on many rescue trips to lead other slaves to freedom.
When she later had brain surgery to address associated sleep problems, Tubman refused anaesthesia and instead opted to chew on a bullet, similar to Civil War amputation procedures.
3. She escaped slavery in 1849
The death of her owner, Brodess, increased the likelihood that Tubman would be sold and her family broken apart. An initial attempt to escape in September 1849 led to capture and the return of Tubman and two of her brothers, with $100 rewarded to slave catchers for each of their returns.
Soon after, Tubman used the Underground Railroad – an elaborate series of secret houses, tunnels and roads set up by abolitionists to guide slaves to freedom – to make the 90 mile journey to the free state of Pennsylvania.
Guided by the North Star, she had travelled mainly at night, and later recalled the experience of crossing state lines:
“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.”
4. Nicknamed ‘Moses’, she never lost a single one of the many slaves she guided to freedom
Her work as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad was extremely dangerous; in 1850 Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, severely punishing those who assisted runaway slaves, and the bounty on Tubman’s head was at least $12,000, equivalent to $330,000 today.
Between 1851 and the onset of the Civil War, Tubman made 18 expeditions south. She used a variety of subterfuges to avoid detection; on one occasion Tubman carried two live chickens and wore a bonnet to create an appearance of running errands.
Tubman carried a revolver and was not afraid to use it; she later recalled pointing it at a fugitive slave’s head when morale was low, “You go on or you die.”
Spirituality was another resource for Tubman’s work, forming coded messages for fellow travellers.
While slaveholders in the region knew that “Minty”, a petite, five-foot tall, disabled slave, was responsible for the escape of many of their slaves, neither Tubman nor any of the fugitives she guided were captured.
5. She was the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War
Tubman saw Union victory in the Civil War as a crucial step towards abolition and joined the war effort as scout, a nurse, a cook and a spy to Federal troops.
In June 1863, Tubman worked alongside Colonel James Montogomery to assault plantations along the Combahee River. Using intelligent from escaped slaves, she guided Union riverboats through Confederate torpedo traps. At least 750 slaves were freed in the mission.
Despite Tubman’s years of service, she never received a regular salary and was denied veteran’s compensation for 34 years.
6. She worked with many leading abolitionists, including John Brown
From her arrival in Philadelphia, Tubman joined the city’s active abolitionist movement. In April 1858, she was introduced to John Brown, an insurgent who sought the destruction of slavery by violent means. “General Tubman”, as Brown knew her, assisted in recruiting supporters for an attack on slave holders.
Brown’s raid on the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on 16 October 1859, and his subsequent trial for treason was a significant factor in the secession of the South and the onset of the Civil War.
7. She was an active proponent of women’s suffrage
Tubman worked alongside women suffragettes such as Susan B Anthony and Emily Howland. She travelled to New York, Boston and Washington speaking about her actions during the Civil War, and highlighting the sacrifices of countless women throughout modern history to forward the cause of women’s voting rights.
By crafting a narrative that emphasised her role as an Underground Railroad conductor, Tubman validated the struggle for women’s rights. She gave the first key note speech of the newly established ‘National Federation of Afro-American Women’ in 1896.
8. She died in relative poverty in 1913
A contemporary biography by Sarah Hopkins Bradford in 1869 brought impoverished Tubman around $1,200 in income. Tubman died, aged 91, in the Home for Aged she had founded herself and was buried with full military honours at Fort Hill Cemetery in New York 1913.
In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that the countenance of Harriet Tubman would appear on a new $20 bill.
While representations of Tubman in contemporary culture, from art to children’s literature to Hollywood films to public memorials, blur the line between legend and historical reality, she nonetheless retains her iconic status as a self- and communal liberator.