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Facts about Harriet Tubman

Manali Oak
Harriet Tubman, a slave by birth, played a vital role in the abolition of slavery. Because she led several slaves to freedom, she came to be known as the Moses of Her People. Read the story to discover more about her.
"I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other"
~Harriet Tubman

Fast Facts

Birth: 1820 (exact year of birth unknown)
Name: Araminta Harriet Ross (adopted the name Harriet after marriage)
Married to: John Tubman, a free Black in 1844; Nelson Davis, a Civil War veteran in 1869
Best Known for: Her efforts towards abolition of slavery
Death: March 10, 1913
Harriet Tubman, a slave by birth, devoted her life to the banishment of slavery. All her life, she worked towards freeing the Blacks. They were enslaved, ill-treated and denied even their basic rights by the Whites.
To guide them out of this misery and show them light, rose a woman - Harriet Tubman. She chose to fight against the system that deprived the Blacks of their fundamental rights. Her life was a story of great sacrifices. It was a story of great courage and relentless struggle. It was a story of success. But success hadn't come easy.

Harriet Tubman Facts


  • Harriet Tubman was an African-American, born to parents Harriet Greene and Ben Moss in Maryland. There exists no proof about her exact year of birth. Some believe it was 1819, some believe it to be 1820 while others say she was born in 1825.
  • Edward Brodas plantation near Bucktown in Dorchester County, Maryland was her birthplace. Her birth-name was Araminta Ross.
  • Her mother Rit worked as a cook in the Brodess family while her father Ben worked on the Thompson's plantation as a woodworker. Harriet was one of the nine children they had.
  • At the early age of five or six, her master rented her to Miss Susan. Tubman was assigned the work of checking muskrat traps in the rivers. Her master used to beat her badly. She protected herself from the beating by wrapping herself in multiple layers of clothes.
  • Due to malnutrition and exposure to cold, she became sick. Soon after recovering, she worked as a nurse to a planter's child.
  • At the age of twelve, she began working as a farm laborer. Around that time, she suffered from a severe head injury that had resulted from a slave's overseer throwing a two-pound weight at her.
After this accident, she started having narcoleptic seizures. She used to have frequent dreams, which she believed, were her means of divine communication. She suffered from intermittent periods of unconsciousness following her brain injury. She said she was aware of her surroundings while she seemed unconscious to those around.


  • In 1844, she married John Tubman. He was a free black man. She was allowed to marry but had to continue working for her master. Soon after marriage, her name was changed from Araminta to Harriet. It was her mother's name. Her biographers are divided over whether it happened after marriage or it bore a connection with her plans to escape from slavery.
  • If Harriet and John Tubman were to have kids, the kids would be enslaved since it was customary for the mother's status to pass on to her children. Harriet Tubman would have never liked this. She was against slavery and had a dream of abolishing it from society. Sadly for her, John didn't share her dream.
  • While she wanted to go North and lead a free life, her husband was against that. He gave lame excuses to not accompany her. However, unmoved by his decision, she chose to walk alone on the road to liberty.
  • After her first escape from slavery, when she returned to Dorchester in 1851, she visited her husband. By then, he had married another woman, Caroline.
  • Tubman invited him to join her in her anti-slavery campaign. This time too, he refused.
  • John and Caroline were together for 16 years till John was killed during an argument with a White.
  • Much later in life, which was in 1869, Tubman married Nelson Davis, a Civil War veteran who was 22 years younger to her. He was one of the tenants at her residence in Auburn. He worked as a bricklayer. They married on March 18, 1869 at the Central Presbyterian Church. In 1874, they adopted a baby girl, Gertie. They were together for 20 years.
I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.
~ Harriet Tubman

Escape from Slavery

  • In 1849, Harriet's master tried to sell her. She was against this decision. She said she had prayed for her master's death that time and God had listened to her. She fled from her master's house soon after his death.
  • She went to Philadelphia, where she took up work in laundering, scrubbing and cooking. Around the same time, she associated herself with anti-slavery organizations and the organizers of the Underground Railroad.
  • In September 1849, Harriet, with her brothers Ben and Henry tried to escape from slavery. At that time, Harriet was working on Thompson's plantation in the Poplar Neck area in Caroline County. Possibly, her brothers Ben and Henry were also working with her.
  •  Eliza, Edward Brodess' widow did not know of their absence for two weeks after they had fled. After realizing that they had escaped, she issued a runaway notice in their name. They reconsidered their decision and returned to the Brodess family, taking Harriet along. Their escape had failed.
  • But such was her conviction, that within a few months after that, she escaped again. This time - alone. She is believed to have taken the Underground Railroad route then.
  • Guided by the North Star she embarked upon her 90-miles' journey towards Pennsylvania, on foot. Conductors on the route helped her seek refuge in their homes and she hid in the marshes during the day. On reaching Pennsylvania, she said she had felt like Heaven.

Return with a Reason

  • Towards the end of 1850, when she came to know that her niece Kessiah (Linah's daughter) would be sold, she returned to enslavement. Harriet's sisters, Mariah, Soph and Linah had already been sold and tracing them had become impossible.
  • Gradually, she started getting her relatives out of the state and began helping several other slaves to attain freedom. Kessiah was the first family member Tubman helped escape from slavery.
  • By around 1854, Harriet had started feeling strongly about freeing her brothers who were still leading a wretched life as slaves, working in Maryland. She planned to visit them in the fall that year and assist in their escape to the North.
  • Communicating with them directly was risky. Plus, Harriet could not read or write. She had a friend write a letter to Jacob who was a free Black living near the plantation her brothers worked on.
  •  The letter was signed in the name of Jacob's son who lived North, away from him. It read, "Read my letter to the old folks, and give my love to them, and tell my brothers to be always watching unto prayer, and when the good old ship at Zion comes along, to be ready to step on board."
  • Letters written to free Blacks were looked at with suspicion. Given that Jacob's son had neither old folks nor brothers, the postmaster suspected something fishy in the content. The letter was read aloud and Jacob was asked for an explanation.
  • Jacob pretended to understand nothing of the content and said it made no sense to him. However, he had well-understood what the letter said.
  • He quickly told Harriet's brothers about her plans of rescuing them. Harriet reached there on December 23rd. The same night, she headed back North, with Ben, Henry and Catherine (Henry's fiance who had dressed as a man).

Tubman as the Underground Railroad Conductor

The Underground Railroad Route to Freedom

The railroad route was a complex network of routes to escape to the North. There were some among both Blacks and Whites who supported the cause.
With their help, slaves were abducted and given directions to places of refuge on the route. They were provided with details of locations where they could seek food and shelter on their way North. Anonymity was maintained about the identities of the slaves and their supporters.
  • Around 1849-50, Tubman became associated with the Underground Railroad. The railroad was not actually underground. It was a network of routes that slaves and abolitionists secretly used, to escape to Mexico or to British North America where slavery didn't prevail.
  • Thousands of people, the Underground Railroad fugitives, as they were called, are said to have escaped using this secret route. The routes in the Underground Railroad network were pretty complex and confusing so that the runaways weren't easily traceable.
  • William Still, an African-American abolitionist and Father of the Underground Railroad played a very important in leading hundreds of slaves to freedom.
  • Harriet Tubman supported him and was one of the most famous abductors. She worked as the Underground Railroad conductor for eight years and helped over a hundred slaves attain freedom. She is said to have made several trips South to rescue the slaves and lead them into the North. Each trip posed a threat to her life.
  • Advertisements describing the runaways were published and there were rewards on their capture. Completing the journey to the North took great courage. There were several instances when the slaves backed out midway.
  • Tubman knew how risky this was, for her and the slaves she led. Any time a slave would say he wished to return, she would pull out a gun and say, "You'll be free or die a slave."
  • She became the most successful conductors of the Underground Railroad and came to be known as the 'Moses of Her People'.
  • In November 1860, Tubman rescued members of the Ennals family. Their journey to freedom was extremely difficult. It was terribly cold and they had to remain in hiding for longer than expected. They reached Auburn on December 28, 1860 thus completing the journey successfully. This was Tubman's last rescue mission.

Raid at Combahee Ferry

  • In the American Civil War of 1861, Tubman and her supporters saw a Union victory. After this accomplishment, Tubman joined the group of abolitionists from Boston and Philadelphia. She worked for the Union.
  • She launched an armed attack in the Civil War in 1863. She was the first woman to lead an armed attack in the war. This was at the time of the Raid at Combahee Ferry, a military operation of the Union troops against the Confederates, aimed at freeing the slaves in South Carolina.
  • On June 1, 1863, three US Navy ships started off for Combahee. The ship John Adams had Tubman aboard, with some troops from the 2nd South Carolina Regiment.
  • They bombed the Confederates and destroyed the bridge they were using to approach the troops. The slaves, on realizing that the troops were there to free them, boarded the Union ships in large numbers.
  • The raid was led by Colonel Montgomery.

The Smoking Car Incident

  • Once while traveling from Auburn to New York in a train, Tubman was asked to vacate the seat and move into the smoke car.
  • She refused to get down saying that she was in government service and had a right to occupy the seat. The conductor, with the help of some White passengers, threw her into a smoking car.
  • The Civil War had actually ended by then. But it was clear from this incident that the Whites' approach towards the Blacks had hardly changed.

Later Life and Legacy

The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged

It is a rest home named in Tubman's honor that opened in June 1908. It is located on a 26-acre plot at 180 South Street, Auburn, New York. It was in 1896 that Tubman had purchased this piece of land during an auction.
Unable to raise enough money for the purchase, she had to sell it off to the AME Zion Church in 1903. Today, this Church takes care of the property. This site housing two buildings, an assembly hall and a library, commemorates the life and work of Harriet Tubman.
  • Harriet Tubman was awarded a pension of twenty dollars in 1889. Ironically, it was not for her service to humanity. It was rather because she was Mr. Davis' widow.
Tubman was a strong advocate of women's right to vote. In the 1890s, she worked for the cause of women's suffrage. She said she had suffered enough to believe that women should have the right to vote and run for office. She was the keynote speaker for the first meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women.
During a brain surgery that she underwent due to her childhood injury, she refused to be given anesthesia. Instead, she chewed on a bullet during the procedure. She had seen the Civil war soldiers do this when their limbs had to be amputated.
By 1911, Tubman's health had deteriorated. She was admitted to the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Tubman died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913. She was entombed at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn. The rituals of her burial were performed with military honors.
It is proposed that the Harriet Tubman National Monument be constructed in Maryland. The construction of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park has also been proposed. It is planned to have a bridge built in the name of Harriet Tubman commemorating her heroic feat in the Combahee Raid.
Two volumes of Tubman's biography have been published. Sarah Hopkins Bradford, one of her admirers, has authored both of them. The first volume titled 'Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman' was released in 1869 while the second volume 'Harriet, the Moses of her People' came out in 1886.
March 10, the day of Tubman's demise is observed as the Harriet Tubman Day in the United States. Many important institutes across the US have been named after Harriet Tubman.
She is one of the most notable figures in human history. A survey at the end of the twentieth century revealed that she is among the most famous women in American history.