Harriet Tubman aka Araminta “Minty” Ross
~ 1820 or 1822 – March 10, 1913
Notable: Abolitionist & Political Activist
The exact date and year of Harriet Tubman’s birth are unknown but it is believed that she was born between 1820 and 1822. What is known is that she was born into slavery on a plantation in Dorchester, Maryland as Araminta “Minty” Ross one of Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross’ nine children. At the age of five, she was hired out to care for a family’s infant and was beaten whenever the child cried. As she got older she continued to be hired out for various jobs that required physical labor such as setting muskrat traps and plowing fields with a team of oxen.
In addition to enduring physical abuse, she and her family also had to endure the emotional pain of three of her sisters being sold away to other plantations. Fortunately, her mother was able to successfully intervene and prevented the sale of her youngest son to a slave trader from Georgia.
At around the age of 12, Minty was sent on an errand to buy supplies at a dry goods store. During the shopping trip, she came across a commotion where a male slave who had left a plantation without permission was being chased by an overseer. Having a hard time catching the slave himself, the overseer called on bystanders to restrain the runaway. As the slave continued to outrun and avoid capture, the overseer picked up and threw a two-pound weight which struck Ross in the head.
The impact likely fractured her skull, causing permanent severe damage to her head and brain. She spent a lot of time recuperating from the injury but eventually recovered. Though Minty would experience severe headaches, seizures, and narcolepsy for the rest of her life in addition to intense hallucinations that she came to view as religious experiences.
During slavery, a mother’s status dictated the status of her children. Minty’s father and mother were both slaves but owned by two different people who eventually married. At the age of 45, her father was emancipated based on the will of a previous owner. Similar circumstances also freed her mother and the children but they remained enslaved as the new slave owner refused to set them free. As Black people, whether free or enslaved, had very limited rights at the time, neither her father nor mother could appeal to the courts for emancipation.
Marriages between slaves or an enslaved and free person were not legally recognized. Yet, in 1844 when Minty was in her early 20s she married John Tubman, a free man. Minty then adopted her mother’s first name and John’s last name, becoming Harriet Tubman. Not much is known about John or their marriage though it is unlikely that they had children. Some sources claim that the marriage was unhappy as John did not support Harriet’s desire to be free and possibly threatened to conspire to have her sold further South.
Having endured innumerable hardships and abuse in her childhood, Tubman had a strong long-held desire to be free. The effects of her earlier injury still lingered and combined with another bout of illness in 1849 made her an undesirable slave. Now owned by the son of the woman who had owned her mother, he continued to refuse to grant the family their freedom and tried to sell Tubman but had difficulties finding a buyer most likely due to her health issues. Initially, Tubman prayed for the man, asking God to help him to have a change of heart. But, as time passed her owner remained cold-hearted towards her and she continued to be assessed for sale. Tubman changed her prayer and began to ask God to kill the slave owner and move him out of her way.
Within a week the slave master was dead and his wife began making plans to sell Tubman and the other slaves. With things now moving more quickly and Tubman’s family at greater risk of being broken up, she decided to take matters into her own hands. No longer would she wait and hope that her family’s owners would show some humanity and set her and her family free. Instead, she would risk her life and attempt to run away to freedom.
Taking her quest for freedom into her own hands, Harriet Tubman plotted her escape from slavery after her owner died and his wife began selling off the family’s slaves. Due to her permanent health issues, she was considered an undesirable slave and would have likely been separated from her family if they were sold off to other plantations. On September 17, 1849, Tubman and two of her brothers, Ben and Henry, fled the Thompson plantation in Poplar Neck in Caroline County, Maryland for Philadelphia. Unfortunately, her brothers changed their minds and Tubman turned back to see them safely home before continuing on her 90-mile journey to freedom.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia Tubman felt an immense sense of relief and the world appeared glorious and bright as though seen through new eyes. To support herself, Tubman found work as a housekeeper and also did odd jobs. But, freedom for herself wasn’t enough. She couldn’t rest easy knowing that her family members were still being held in bondage in Maryland.
A year later when she learned that her niece was in danger of being sold along with her two young children, Tubman returned to Maryland to rescue them. Fortunately, her niece’s husband was able to successfully bid for his wife at a slave auction in Baltimore and Tubman helped the family travel safely to Philadelphia. During a return trip to the South, Tubman also attempted to reunite with her husband but he had remarried and declined to move to the North. Despite this personal setback, Tubman continued to help people, mostly family members, escape to the North.
It’s often cited that as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman escorted approximately 300 people to freedom during 13 excursions into the slave states during the 1850s. But, Tubman herself put the figure for people she escorted closer to 50 with most of those people being family members. Though Tubman did also help other people to escape on their own first to the North and then to Canada after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. William Still helped to finance some of her excursions into slaveholding Maryland and Tubman supported John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
Tubman moved with her family and lived for a while in Canada to remain out of reach of the Fugitive Slave Law. Towards the end of the decade, she moved back to America and settled with her parents in a home on some land she was able to purchase in Auburn, NY. Because the Fugitive Slave Law was still in effect some of her family members were concerned about the move. But the home eventually became a gathering place for Tubman’s family and friends.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Tubman left her family home to assist the Union Army. She began as a cook and nurse, using knowledge of roots, herbs, and natural remedies to care for Union soldiers and slaves. Given her experience moving along the East coast by stealth she was later recruited to serve as a scout and built a spy ring in South Carolina.
Making her way through Confederate lines she was able to obtain information about supply routes and troop movements while also evading capture. One of her most notable achievements was her participation in a Union assault along the Combahee River where over 700 slaves were freed. She was likely the first Black woman to serve in the United States military.
After the Civil War, Tubman returned to her home in Auburn and married Nelson Davis, a former slave and Union soldier who was 20 years her junior. Together the two would adopt a little girl named Gertie and their marriage would last for 20 years only ending with Davis’ death.
Harriet Tubman also continued her life of activism although in less dangerous forms than her earlier work. Tubman would remain financially insecure for the rest of her life though she managed to survive by selling produce and food items as well as with the support of friends. In addition to her home, Tubman shared the little that she had with those who were in need. She helped to raise money and provided care and support for the freedmen. Tubman also became involved with the women’s suffrage movement and went on speaking tours despite being illiterate. She later deeded a parcel of her land to Auburn’s AME church on which the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People was established next to her family home.
Yet, her brain injury continued to cause her pain and other issues which resulted in her undergoing brain surgery in an attempt to ease the pain. In her early 90s, Tubman became a resident in the rest home that was her namesake.
On March 10, 1913, Harriet Tubman passed away from pneumonia. Friends and family were present at the time the five-foot-tall giant of a woman took her final breath. It had taken Tubman decades to receive recognition and compensation for her service in the Union military. But, she was buried with full military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
- “Harriet Tubman.” 2020. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. June 5, 2020. https://www.biography.com/activist/harriet-tubman.
- Michals, Debra, ed. n.d. “Harriet Tubman.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed June 23, 2020. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/harriet-tubman.
- History.com Editors. 2020. “Harriet Tubman.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. February 21, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harriet-tubman.
- “Harriet Tubman.” 2019. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. October 29, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/people/harriet-tubman.htm.
- “Harriet Tubman.” 2020. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. June 28, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman.
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