The story of Harriet Tubman, who died on this date in 1913, is one of bravery, cunning, and commitment to the ideals of freedom, not only for herself but also for others enslaved in the American South in the 1850s and early ‘60s. Born a slave who escaped to freedom, an operator of the Underground Railroad, a fugitive with a bounty on her head, a nurse, Union scout, spy, suffragist, and finally caregiver for the aged and infirm, hers is a story that continues to inspire people around the world.
Born into slavery, Araminta “Minty” Ross was the fifth of nine children born to Harriet “Rit” Green and Benjamin Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, in the early 1820s. Rit served as a cook for Mary Pattison Brodess and after her death, for her son Edward. Mary’s second marriage was to a planter named Anthony Thompson, who owned Benjamin Ross, a skilled forester and foreman. Minty’s childhood was harsh. Though her mother tried to keep her family together, the children were rented out to work on different plantations, often separating the family for long stretches of time. Three of Minty’s older sisters were sold away from the family forever. When another buyer came for Minty’s youngest brother, their mother hid him for a month until the sale was withdrawn. When Minty was around six, she was rented out to a woman she later recalled as “Miss Susan” to care for her infant by rocking the cradle while it slept. When the baby awoke crying, Minty was whipped, leaving her with emotional and physical scars that stayed with her for the rest of her life. As Minty grew older and stronger, she worked as a field hand, cook and timber hand. Minty’s life changed forever when she was about 12 or 13, as she intervened in an altercation between a plantation overseer and a fellow slave. Though the details and reason for the confrontation vary, at one point the overseer lifted a heavy weight to throw at the slave. As he did, Minty stepped between the two and the missile intended for the other slave struck her in the head. Badly injured, Minty would never fully recover from the accident. Not only was she disfigured by the blow which cracked her skull, but she was also left with seizures, chronic headaches, vivid nightmares, and hallucinations. A devoutly religious child, Minty believed these visions were messages sent by God. The injury also left her with narcolepsy, which caused her to fall suddenly into a deep sleep at random times. From that day forward, pain would be a constant in Minty’s life. The National Women’s History Museum notes that “Tubman’s place in disability history is often overlooked. It is important to note that narcolepsy was a prominent part of both her identity and story. Vivid visions of freedom came to her while experiencing these seizures… Tubman’s dedication to her faith and her experience with chronic pain hold equal weight. Both elements were key in her determination to seek liberation for the enslaved.” Minty convinced Edward Brodess to allow her to select her own work assignments on the condition she paid him a fee. She selected jobs that would take her into new geographic areas, allowing her to become familiar with the Maryland landscape. One assignment allowed her to work alongside her father in forestry, an opportunity she treasured as she had barely known him before then. She also met a group of sailors who worked there. These men shared both their knowledge of the area’s geography as well as the names of others who were interested in liberating the enslaved. Around 1844, Minty married a free black man name John Tubman. Soon after taking his surname, she changed her first name to Harriet, in honor of her mother. Though married now, Harriet continued to work for Edward Brodess and his wife, Eliza. Acquiring more debt than he could manage, Brodress decided to sell some of his slaves, including two of Minty’s brothers, Ben and Henry. Harriet wanted to escape before she lost more of her family. Recalling that time for her biographer, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, in 1869, Harriet said she dreamed of crossing the Mason- Dixson line “and on the other side of that line were green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies who stretched out their arms to me over the line.” Using her knowledge of the area’s geography, she mapped out a plan for her and her two brothers to make a run for freedom on Sept. 17, 1849. While in route, however, they learned that Brodess was offering a reward for their return. Afraid of capture and its consequences, the brothers decided to return to the plantation, coercing Harriet to join them. Rumors continued to swirl of Brodess’s intent to settle his debts through the sale of his slaves, including Harriet, if he could find a buyer. She would later tell Bradford: “I prayed all night long for my master till the first of March; and all the time he was bringing people to look at me, and trying to sell me.” When an offer for Harriet was made, she changed her prayer: “First of March, I began to pray, ‘Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.” A week later, Brodress died. As his widow, Eliza began to settle her husband’s estate, it appeared even more likely that the Ross family would be divided up and sold. A month or two after her first effort at escape, Harriet tried again, alone, and this time, with the help of the Underground Railroad, she made it to Philadelphia 90 miles away. Now free, Harriet found a job there as a housekeeper, yet she missed her family. After meeting a number of abolitionists in the area, she decided to get involved with the Underground Railroad, which provided safehouses for enslaved escapees along the route north. In 1850, Harriet secretly returned to Maryland to escort her sister, brother-in-law and two nieces to freedom. That was the first of at least 13 dangerous forays Harriet made back into her home state, where there was a bounty on her head as a fugitive slave. Nevertheless, she returned the next year to rescue her youngest brother, Moses, and several others.
After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it illegal for anyone to assist escaped slaves and mandated that any escapees must be turned in, Harriet began taking her charges to Canada, where they’d be safe. Though estimates of her success vary greatly, from 1851 to1862, Harriet rescued at least 70 enslaved people traveling along the Underground Railroad, including her brothers Henry, Ben and Robert, along with their families. Though she tried to convince her husband to leave with her, he remarried and decided to stay with his new wife. In one of her last missions, Harriet led her aging parents to freedom in the North. In 1858, she bought a small farm near Auburn, N.Y., where she and her parents lived for the rest of their lives. The issue of slavery came to a head in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president and South Carolina seceded from the Union. Harriet became a nurse and laundress for the Union Army before being recruited as a spy. Beginning in 1863, she used her knowledge of covert travel to lead a band of scouts through the South Carolina Lowcountry, mapping the local terrain and establishing a network of spies and sympathetic abolitionists. The physical appearance of her childhood head injury helped Harriet successfully pose as a mentally disabled slave, as she covertly listened in on conversations about Confederate supply routes and troop placements. Perhaps one of her biggest accomplishments during the Civil War was gathering intelligence for U.S. Col. James Montgomery’s raid at Combahee Ferry. With information she had gleaned about mine placements, Harriet guided three Union ships safely down the Combahee River. At each plantation adjacent to the river, Union troops disembarked to burn the plantation houses, savage food and supplies, and load enslaved laborers aboard their ships to sail to freedom. Tubman later recalled a scene of wonderful chaos as laborers grabbed children and provisions and rushed toward the boats to freedom. It is estimated the raid rescued 750 people. Northern newspapers hailed Harriet as a hero. She spent the rest of the war working for the Union Army, spying on the Confederates and nursing wounded soldiers. Afterward, Harriet received only $200 for her three years of service to the Union Army, as she was not officially on the army’s enlistment rolls. Harriet supported herself, her family, and others she took in by selling produce and baked goods, as well as raising pigs. She also remarried, this time to Nelson Davis, one of the men she had helped escape slavery and who had then enrolled in the U.S. Army. They adopted a young girl named Gertie. With a continuing compassion for others’ suffering, Harriet began taking in orphans and the infirm who had no family to look after them. Occasionally she received donations or loans from friends who wanted to help, though by the time she paid off the mortgage on her farm in 1873, she was left destitute. In 1874, a New York Congressman introduced a bill to grant Harriet a $2,000 subsidy “for services rendered by her to the Union Army as a scout, nurse, and spy,” though the bill did not make it through the Senate. Harriet did, however, begin receiving an $8 monthly widow’s pension after her husband’s death in 1888. In 1897, another New York Congressman introduced a bill to grant Harriet the standard $25 monthly pension for her military service. Again, the bill failed as members of Congress felt uncomfortable paying a woman the same as “regular” soldiers. Finally, 30 years after the end of the Civil War, Harriet was granted a monthly pension of $12, which, when added to her $8 widow’s pension, brought her monthly income to $20, still $5 less than male soldiers. Yet Harriet’s days of making history were not over. She was an avid proponent of women’s suffrage, traveling around the Northeast to speak publicly on the issue. She described her life’s work as well as that of innumerable other women to justify women’s having the same rights as men. In 1896, Harriet was the keynote speaker for the first meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. She had to sell a much-needed cow to afford a train ticket to the event. That same year, with support from her church and private individuals, Harriet established the Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes on her farm, spending her last years caring for her parents and others who had no one else to turn to for help. Meanwhile she continued to suffer from the pain and seizures that began after her head injury as a young teen. By 1911, Harriet’s health had deteriorated to the point where she became a ward of the elderly rest home she had founded. At the age of 91, surrounded by the friends and family to whom she had dedicated her life, Harriet Tubman succumbed to pneumonia on March 10, 1913. Yet her legacy lives on through the many memorials, schools, books and movies that honor her memory as an icon of courage, conviction, compassion, and the pursuit of liberty.