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Harriet Tubman is considered an American hero and an influential role model. She was a five-foot tall African American abolitionist who lead hundreds of slaves away from something that was considered inescapable. She is a well-known female that many people believe is inspirational. Harriet Ross Tubman, born Araminta “Minty” Ross, was born a slave on the plantation of Edward Brodess in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her mother was Harriet “Rit” Green, owned by Mary Pattison Brodess; and her father was Ben Ross, owned by Anthony Thomason. (Harriet Tubman Historical Society) Arminta was born a slave, and no records of her birth were kept. The date of her birth is unknown, but many believe it was in 1825.
During her early life as a young girl, she lived in harsh and violent conditions. As a child of about age 5, Arminta was hired out to other households as a servant. She was a nursemaid to a tiny baby and was frequently and violently beaten when the baby cried. She was later hired to set muskrat traps, but because of the nature of the job she was constantly wet from the waist down and developed the measles and was sent back to Brodess. At about the age of thirteen, Araminta refused to help a slave owner restrain his young slave boy and the owner threw a 2-pound weight and hit Arminta in the head. This caused a severe brain injury that would affect her for the rest of her life.
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Although slaves were not legally allowed to marry, in 1844 Arminta married a free black man named John Tubman. He was born in Dorchester County, but it is not known if he was born free or into slavery. Little is known about how they met or about their relationship. (Harriet Tubman Historical Society) Marriage between a slave and a free man was not uncommon in this part of the country because over half of the African American population was free. (Harriet Tubman Historical Society) However their marriage was not legally bound union but an informal arrangement. (Harriet Tubman Historical Society-Coming of Age and Marriage) These unions were always at risk because there was always the risk of a slave being sold. Any child born into the union would follow the mother’s status, if the mother was free, the children would be born free and likewise if they were slaves, the children were born slaves.
In 1849 Arminta’s owner, Edward Brodess, needed to sell some slaves in order to cover his debts. (Harriet Tubman Historical Society- How did Harriet Tubman Escape?) Tubman had heard rumors from others that she and her brothers were going to be sold to a different slave owner. A week later, the slave owner Edward Brodess died. The death of her master brought more uncertainty over her and her brothers future. (Harriet Tubman Historical Society- How did Harriet Tubman Escape?) They had already seen three of their sisters being sold and she was not going to let that happen to them. (Harriet Tubman Historical Society-How Did Harriet Tubman Escape?) She resolved that trying to escape, even if they were caught, was a better option than being sold to the south. (Harriet Tubman Historical Society- How Did Harriet Tubman Escape?)
In preparation for her escape, she changed her name to Harriet, after her mother, and adopted her husband’s last name, Tubman. Harriet gathered her brothers, Harry and Ben and convinced them to escape with her. On Monday, September 17, 1849 they escaped the Poplar Neck Plantation. When Harry and Ben learned of a $300 reward offered for their capture, they became afraid and decided to return. After seeing her brothers safely return back home, Harriet sets off for Philadelphia alone, resolved that she would not return and remain bndage. Making use of the network known as the “Underground Railroad” Harriet traveled nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia. She soon found work at hotels and in club houses which abled her to save money. She planned to come back and rescue her family after she saved enough money.
The “Underground Railroad” was not underground nor was it a literal railroad. It was called “underground,” because of its secretive nature and “railroad,” because it was an emerging form of transportation. The underground railroad was an informal network and had many routes, most going to the Northern states. Historians estimate that nearly 100,000 slaves escaped through the Underground Railroad. The history of the Underground Railroad goes back to the 1780’s and became known as such in the 1830’s. It reached its height in the 1850’s and ended in 1863 when President Lincoln announced The Emancipation Proclamation. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made it more dangerous for those who helped slaves escape or offered them shelter. The consequence could be jail or hefty fine. Even knowing this, there were many people, including Harriet who would not think twice about helping someone.
Once Harriet settled in the North, she built a support network consisting of trusted black and white friends who would host and arrange transportation for fugitive slaves. To Harriet, freedom felt empty unless she could share it with people she loved, so she resolved to go back and rescue friends and family. Harriet was nicknamed “Moses” by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The name was used as an analogy to the biblical story of Moses, who attempted to lead the Jews into promised land.
Her first trip back to the South was for her niece Kessiah and her children. She had heard that they were about to be sold so she rushed south, crossing the Mason Dixon Line to Baltimore where she hid in the house of John Bowley, Kessiah’s husband who was a free African American. Kessiah and her children immediately fled and found shelter in a safe house belonging to a free African American family. The following night they sailed to Baltimore where they met Tubman. She guided them all the way to Philadelphia.
Next to be rescued was her brother Moses. By this time the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was in effect making her work much more difficult and risky. However she thought that returning over and over again was a risk worth taking. Because of the Fugitive Slave Act, slaves had to migrate further north to Canada. Frederick Douglass who lived in Rochester, NY hosted slaves on their way to St. Catharines, Ontario. At one time he had 11 fugitives under his roof.
Harriet developed strategies throughout her years of liberating slaves. To have a head start she urged slaves to escape their masters on Saturday, as Sunday was a day for est, and the owner would not find out until Monday. Harriet always traveled at night and rested during the day, and she preferred to travel during the fall season and occasionally in the spring. Summer had longer days and more daylight time. She would follow the North Star and when it was a cloudy night she would observe the moss growing on the north side of the dead tree trunks. In order to avoid the slave catchers she would use back roads, waterways, mountains, and swamps. Harriet always carried a gun for self protection and she always urged slaves not to give up.
During the period of 1849 and 1855, Harriet’s reputation as the liberator of her people started to build up. She continued to live in Philadelphia working and saving money. The more trips she took the more confidence she gained. During this time she made friends with abolitionist who admired her courage. One of her early supporters was Lucretia Mott, an abolitionist and women’s right advocate. It is believed that through her, Harriet gained access to powerful reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Martha Coffin Wright. For ten years Harriet returned 19 times and liberated around three hundred slaves. She was proud to have “never lost a passenger.” Harriet’s missions were admired by those who supported the abolition of slavery. Both black and white abolitionist provided her with funds to continue her activities.
One of Harriet’s last operations was to bring her parents north. The area of the states bordering the Mason Dixon Line was hostile to free African Americans. Some groups wanted to expel them from the state and only keep those enslaved ones. Harriet’s father, Ben Ross, was under suspicion of helping fugitive slaves and under the eye of many slaveholders. Ben was a free man but his wife, Harriet’s mother, Rit, was not free. A provision in Eliza’s Brodess grandfather’s will stated that Rit and her children be freed when they turned 45 years of age. Even though Rit was older than that, Eliza was determined not to let her go free. In 1855 Ben purchased his wife, Rit, from Eliza Brodess for twenty dollars. In 1857 Ben was in trouble with the authorities for having harbored fugitives in his home. Harriet rushed south to help her parents in what would be her only known expedition to have taken place in the summer. It was a challenge to transport her elderly parents who could not walk long distances. She improvised a carriage and managed to transport them to Canada. They settled in St. Catharines where other relatives had settled. Upon arrival in Canada the Rosses changed their last names to Steward, taking their son’s adopted last name. Harriet moved from Philadelphia to St. Catherine’s to help her parents, but her mother’s complaint of the harsh Canadian winters caused Harriet to relocate her parents to Auburn, NY, where she bought seven acres of land and settled there.
In 1860, Harriet took her last mission trip to rescue her sister. For a decade Harriet had tried to rescue Rachel, her sister, but was unsuccessful. In December, Harriet arrived in Dorchester County to retrieve Rachel and her two young children. When she arrived she found that Rachel had passed away. Harriet was unable to find her children, but instead of returning empty handed, Harriet brought the Ennals family back. The Ennals had an infant who had to be drugged with paregoric in order to keep quit as there were many slave catchers on the way. After weeks of traveling north the Ennals arrived safely in St. Catharines, Ontario. This was Harriet’s last trip on the Underground Railroad.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, southern slave states created the Confederacy States of America and seceded from the Union. In his inaugural address Lincoln made clear that his objective was to limit the spread the spread of slavery beyond its existing boundaries while keeping the Union intact. Southern states disagreed with the decision that was made. The Civil War started when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1861, Harriet was recruited as a volunteer as part of the Massachusetts troop led by General Benjamin Butler.
She was the only African American among the all white troops. They were stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on the western shore of The Chesapeake Bay. Her role at Fort Monroe was not official and unrelated to military operations. The fort was overwhelmingly flooded with fugitives or as they were called “contrabands” and most of them came with families and small children. They were not paid, and critics suggested that they had only changed masters. Women were put to cook and do laundry. Harriet was assigned to assist them, she worked as a nurse, cooked and did laundry.
After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, colored people were allowed to enroll in the military. They were under scrutiny and many doubted their commitment and bravery. Harriet became part of a group of scouts in charge of espionage and she was the commander of the team. She reported directly to Generals David Hunter and Rufus Saxton. She was assigned to create lifelines and escape routes for trapped slaves. On the night of June 2, 1863, Harriet guided a troop of one hundred and fifty back soldiers of the Second South Carolina battalion on the Combahee River.
The plan was to liberate as many slaves by catching slaveholders by surprise. The attack became known as Combahee River Raid and liberated more than seven hundred and fifty slaves. Harriet’s accomplishments in the Combahee River Raid stayed anonymous until July 10, 1863 when a journalist, Franklin B. Sanborn published an article “Harriet Tubman.” It was an biographical outline of Harriet’ life. Sanborn’s article was published in the Commonwealth, and antislavery newspaper in Boston. He brought Harriet to the spotlight for the first time praising her for guiding slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad and by risking her life to save people from something that was considered a dangerous act.
When the Civil War ended Harriet returned home to Auburn, NY. Her parents were old and had a good support system during her absence, but they still needed their daughters financial support. Her brothers and their families eventually moved from St. Catherine’s to Auburn. Her parents passed away of old age. Her father died in 1871 and her mother in 1880.
In 1869 Harriet met Nelson Davis, a man who had taken shelter in her home. He had been a slave in North Carolina and served as a soldier in the Civil War. Harriet and Davis were married on March 18, 1869 at the Presbyterian Church in Auburn. In 1874 they adopted a girl who they named Gertie. Davis suffered from tuberculosis, or also know as TB, and could not hold a steady job, leaving Harriet responsible for the household. Their marriage lasted twenty years until Davis died in 1888 from tuberculosis.
Harriet always helped those in need, but her financial situation was dire. Her first authorized biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, provided her with revenue since her government pension was not authorized yet. All the proceeds of the sale of the book went directly to Tubman to help with payments of her mortgage and the support of her older parents. In addition to interviews with Harriet, the biography included stories and letters from prominent officials and former abolitionist.
Later in her life, Harriet donated her property to the African American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn to be converted into a home for the aged and indigent colored people. Harriet was very frail and spent her final years in the Harriet Tubman home for aged. Harriet died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913 at the age of 93. She is buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY.
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