Women in History: Harriet Tubman
As life got tougher, Hariet Tubman became a stronger woman. She was a woman with a mission because of her horrible childhood. She is known this day to be one of the most famous African American women in history due to her bravery to escape slavery, her work to save any slaves using the Underground Railroad, and the role she played during the Civil War to change slaves lives. Here is her story.
Hariet was born Araminta “Minty” Ross to slave parents, Harriet (Rit) Green and Ben Ross. The exact year of Hariet’s birth is not known. Tubman claims she was born in 1820, 1822 and 1825 and indication that she herself had only a general idea of when she was born. Tubman’s mother Rit, was a cook for the Brodess family and her father Ben was a skilled woodman who managed the time work on Thompson’s plantation. TAHey married around 1808 and had nine children together. Her mother struggled to keep the family together but slavery threatened to tear it apart. The owner of the plantation sold three of the daughters separating them from the family forever. Tubman’s mother was assigned to the “Big Houses” and had very little time for her family consequently Hariet took care of a younger brother and baby. When she was five years old, Brodess hired her out as a nursemaid to a woman named “Miss Susan”. She was ordered to keep watch on the baby as it slept and if it woke up and cried, she was whipped., She later recounted a particular day when she was whipped five times before breakfast and carried the scars with her the rest of her life,.
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As a child Tubman also worked at the home of a planter names James Cook. She had to check the muskrat raps in nearby marshes, even after contacting measles. She became so ill that a cook sent her back to Brodess where her mother nursed her back to health. Brodess then hired her out again. As she grew older and stronger, she was assigned to field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing and hauling logs.
As an illiterate child, she was told Bible stories by her mother. She acquired a passionate faith in God. She rejected teachings in the new testament that taught slaves to be obedient and found guidance in the old testatment that taught tales of deliverance. She was devout and when she began experiencing visions and vivid dreams she interpreted them as revelations from God.
As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten by masters to whom she was hired out. As was the custom on all plantations, when she turned eleven, she started wearing a bright cotton bandana around her head indicating she was no longer a child. She also would not be called Hariet, after her mother. At the age of 12 she suffered a severe head wound when hit by a heavy metal weight. The injury caused disabling epileptic seizures, headaches, powerful visions and dream experiences which occurred throughout life. She had gone to a dry goods store for supplies when she encountered a slave owned by another family who had left the fields without permission. His overseer demanded that she help restrain him. She refused, and as he ran away the overseer threw a two pound weight at him. He struck her instead and she said “broke my skull”. She later said that her hair that had never been combed and stuck out like a bushel basket might have saved her life. Bleeding and unconscious she was returned to her owners house and laid on the seat of a loom where she was without medical care for two days. She was sent back into the fields with blood and sweat rolling down her face until she couldn’t see. Her boss said she was worthless and sent her back to her owner who unsuccessfully tried to sell her. She began having seizures and would fall unconscious although she claimed to be aware of her surroundings while appearing to be asleep. This condition remained with her for the rest of her life.
Although slaves were not allowed to marry, In 1844 at the age of 25 she married John Tubman, a free black man who did not share her dream. Since she was a slave, she knew there could be a chance that she could be sold and her marriage would be split apart. Hariet dreamed of traveling north. There she would be free and would not have to worry about having her marriage split up by the slave trade. But her husband did not want to go with her. Her goal was too large for her to give up so in 1849 she left her husband and escaped to Philadelphia. She immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Her success led slaveowners to post a $40,000 reward for her capture or death. Tubman made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad. This informal but well-organized system was composed of free and enslaved blacks, white abolitionists, and other activists. Most prominent among the latter in Maryland at the time were members of the Religious Society of Friends, often called Quakers. This was her first her first stop during her escape. From there, she probably took a common route for fleeting slaves-nrtheast along the Choptank ARiver, through Delaware and then north into Pennsylvania. A journey of nearly 90 miles, her traveling by foot would have taken between five days and three weeks.
In honor of her courageous efforts to rescue family and friends from slavery, abolisitionist William Lloyd Garrison names her “Moses”, alluding to the prophet in the Book of Exodus who led the Hebrews to freedom from Egypt. Though nicknamed “Moses”, Tubman’s daring missions to Maryland remained virtually unknown, and her identity was a carefully guarded secret. She did sing “Go Down Moses” to signal toher refugees along the path to freedom. She changed the tempo to indicate that it was eithere safe or too dangerous to proceed. Tubman used various methods of communication specific to her own needs.
Tubman had to travel by night, guided by the North Star and trying to avoid slave catchers eager to collect rewards for fugitive slaves. The “conductors” in the Underground Railroad used deceptions for protection. At an early stop, the lady of the house instructed Tubman to sweep the yard so as to seem to be working for the family. At night, the family hid her in a cart and took her to the next friendly house. Given her familiarity with the woods and marshes of the region, Tubman during the day hid in the bushes. Her first journey remained in secrecy until she crossed into Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled the experience years later.
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see
if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything;
the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and
I felt like I was in Heaven.
Hariet Tubman remained active during the Civil War. Working for the Union Army as a cook and nurse, Tubman quickly became an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Caroline. Tubman saw a Union victory as a key step toward the abolition of slavery.
As Tubman aged, the head injuries sustained early in her life became more painfl and disruptive. She underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to alleviate the pains and “buzzing” she experienced regularly. Tubman was eventually admitted into a rest home for needy blacks that was named in her honor. Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913 at the age of 93. She was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
Although Tubman was widely known and well respected while alive, she became an American Icon after she died. Hariet Tubmanl’s life was a monument to courage and determination that continues to stand out in American history.