Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad’s “conductors.” During a ten-year span she made 19 trips into the South and escorted approximately 70 slaves to freedom. And, as she once proudly pointed out to Frederick Douglass, in all of her journeys she “never lost a single passenger.”
Tubman was born a slave in Maryland’s Dorchester County around 1820. At age five or six, she began to work as a house servant. Seven years later she was sent to work in the fields. While she was still in her early teens, she suffered a head injury that would follow her for the rest of her life. She never fully recovered from the blow, which subjected her to spells in which she would fall into a deep sleep.
Around 1844 she married a free black named John Tubman and took his last name. (She was born Araminta Ross; she later changed her first name to Harriet, after her mother.) In 1849, in fear that she, along with the other slaves on the plantation, was to be sold, Tubman resolved to run away. She set out one night on foot. With some assistance from a friendly white woman, Tubman was on her way. She followed the North Star by night, making her way to Philadelphia, where she found work and saved her money. The following year she returned to Maryland and escorted her sister and her sister’s two children to freedom. She made the dangerous trip back to the South soon after to rescue her brother and two other men. On her third return, she went after her husband, only to find he had taken another wife. Undeterred, she found other slaves seeking freedom and escorted them to the North.
Tubman returned to the South again and again. She devised clever techniques that helped make her “forays” successful, including using the master’s horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey; leaving on a Saturday night, since runaway notices couldn’t be placed in newspapers until Monday morning; turning about and heading south if she encountered possible slave hunters; and carrying a drug to use on a baby if its crying might put the fugitives in danger. Tubman even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, “You’ll be free or die.”
By 1856, Tubman’s capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. On one occasion, she overheard some men reading her wanted poster, which stated that she was illiterate. She promptly pulled out a book and feigned reading it. The ploy was enough to fool the men.
Tubman had made the perilous trip to slave country about 13 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. Of the famed heroine, who became known as “Moses,” Frederick Douglass said, “Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman].”
And John Brown, who conferred with “General Tubman” about his plans to raid Harpers Ferry, once said that she was “one of the bravest persons on this continent.”
During the Civil War Harriet Tubman worked for the Union as a cook, a nurse, and even a spy. After the war she settled in Auburn, New York, where she would spend the rest of her long life.Tubman spent her remaining years in Auburn, tending to her family and other people in need. She worked various jobs to support her elderly parents, and took in boarders to help pay the bills. One of the people Tubman took in was a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis. He began working in Auburn as a bricklayer and they soon fell in love. Though he was 22 years younger than she was, on March 18, 1869, they were married at the Central Presbyterian Church. They spent the next 20 years together, and in 1874 they adopted a baby girl named Gertie.
In her later years, Tubman worked to promote the cause of women’s suffrage. When asked by a white woman if Tubman believed that women should have the right to vote, she replied “I suffered enough to believe it.” Tubman began attending meetings of suffragist organizations and was soon working alongside women such as Susan B. Anthorny and Emily Howland.
At the turn of the 20th century, Tubman became heavily involved with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn. In 1903, she donated a parcel of real estate she owned to the church, under the instruction that it be made into a home for “aged and indigent colored people. The home did not open for another five years, and Tubman was dismayed when the church ordered residents to pay a $100 entrance fee. She said: “[T]hey make a rule that nobody should come in without they have a hundred dollars. Now I wanted to make a rule that nobody should come in unless they didn’t have no money at all.” She was frustrated by the new rule but was the guest of honor nonetheless when the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged celebrated its opening on June 23, 1908.
As Tubman aged, the seizures, headaches, and suffering from her childhood head trauma continued to plague her. At some point in the late 1890s, she underwent brain surgery. Unable to sleep because of pains and “buzzing” in her head, she asked a doctor if he could operate. He agreed and, in her words, “sawed open my skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable.” She had received no anesthesia for the procedure and reportedly chose instead to bite down on a bullet, as she had seen Civil War soldiers do when their limbs were amputated.
By 1911, her body was so frail that she had to be admitted into the rest home named in her honor. A New York newspaper described her as “ill and penniless,” prompting supporters to offer a new round of donations. Surrounded by friends and family members, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913. Just before she died, she told those in the room: “I go to prepare a place for you.”