Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and political activist. 

Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman was born around 1820 on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her parents, Harriet (“Rit”) Green and Benjamin Ross, named her Araminta Ross and called her “Minty.”

Rit worked as a cook in the plantation’s “big house,” and Benjamin was a timber worker. Araminta later changed her first name to Harriet in honor of her mother.

 Tubman is one of the most recognized icons in American history and her legacy has inspired countless people from every race and background.

When Was Harriet Tubman Born?

Harriet Tubman was born around 1820 on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her parents, Harriet (“Rit”) Green and Benjamin Ross, named her Araminta Ross and called her “Minty.”

Rit worked as a cook in the plantation’s “big house,” and Benjamin was a timber worker. Araminta later changed her first name to Harriet in honor of her mother.

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Harriet had eight brothers and sisters, but the realities of slavery eventually forced many of them apart, despite Rit’s attempts to keep the family together. When Harriet was five years old, she was rented out as a nursemaid where she was whipped when the baby cried, leaving her with permanent emotional and physical scars.

Around age seven Harriet was rented out to a planter to set muskrat traps and was later rented out as a field hand. She later said she preferred physical plantation work to indoor domestic chores.

A Good Deed Gone Bad

Harriet’s desire for justice became apparent at age 12 when she spotted an overseer about to throw a heavy weight at a fugitive. Harriet stepped between the enslaved person and the overseer—the weight struck her head.

She later said about the incident, “The weight broke my skull … They carried me to the house all bleeding and fainting. I had no bed, no place to lie down on at all, and they laid me on the seat of the loom, and I stayed there all day and the next.”

Harriet’s good deed left her with headaches and narcolepsy the rest of her life, causing her to fall into a deep sleep at random. She also started having vivid dreams and hallucinations which she often claimed were religious visions (she was a staunch Christian). Her infirmity made her unattractive to potential slave buyers and renters.

Escape from Slavery

In 1840, Harriet’s father was set free and Harriet learned that Rit’s owner’s last will had set Rit and her children, including Harriet, free. But Rit’s new owner refused to recognize the will and kept Rit, Harriett and the rest of her children in bondage.

Around 1844, Harriet married John Tubman, a free Black man, and changed her last name from Ross to Tubman. The marriage was not good, and the knowledge that two of her brothers—Ben and Henry—were about to be sold provoked Harriet to plan an escape.

Harriet Tubman: Underground Railroad

Harriet, Ben, and Henry escaped their Maryland plantation on September 17, 1849. The brothers, on the other hand, changed their minds and returned. Harriet made it 90 miles north to Pennsylvania and freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad.
Tubman got work as a housekeeper in Philadelphia, but she didn’t want to be free only for herself; she also desired freedom for her family.

She carried a gun for both her own protection and to “encourage” her charges who might be having second thoughts. She often drugged babies and young children to prevent slave catchers from hearing their cries.

Over the next ten years, Harriet befriended other abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Thomas Garrett and Martha Coffin Wright, and established her own Underground Railroad network. It’s widely reported she emancipated 300 enslaved people; however, those numbers may have been estimated and exaggerated by her biographer Sarah Bradford, since Harriet herself claimed the numbers were much lower.

Nevertheless, it’s believed Harriet personally led at least 70 enslaved people to freedom, including her elderly parents, and instructed dozens of others on how to escape on their own. She claimed, “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

The 1850 Runaway Slave Act allowed for the capture and enslavement of fugitive and released workers in the north. Harriet’s duty as an Underground Railroad conductor became much more difficult as a result of this, and she was obliged to take enslaved people further north to Canada at night, generally in the spring or fall when the days were shorter.

Harriet found new means to resist slavery when the Civil War broke out in 1861. She worked as a nurse, chef, and laundress at Fort Monroe to assist runaway enslaved people. Harriet used her herbal medicine skills to aid in the treatment of sick soldiers and fugitive enslaved people.

In 1863, Harriet became head of an espionage and scout network for the Union Army. She provided crucial intelligence to Union commanders about Confederate Army supply routes and troops and helped liberate enslaved people to form Black Union regiments.

Harriet had a policy of welcoming anyone in need. She financed her charitable endeavours by selling homegrown fruit, rearing pigs, and collecting donations and loans from friends. Despite the fact that she was illiterate, she travelled throughout the northeast, advocating on behalf of the women’s suffrage campaign and collaborating with famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony.

Pneumonia took Harriet Tubman’s life on Walk 10, 1913, however her heritage lives on. Schools and historical centers bear her name and her story has been returned to in books, motion pictures and narratives.

In 2016, the US Depository declared that Harriet’s picture will supplant that of previous President and slaveowner Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar note. Depository Secretary Steven Mnuchin (who served under President Trump) later declared the new bill would be postponed until no less than 2026. In January 2021, President Biden’s organization declared it would accelerate the plan cycle.

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