“I would fight for my liberty so long as my strength lasted, and if the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.” Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross around 1820 to Harriet Green and Ben Ross and raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Dorchester County, in an area where freedom was just in there imagination. Araminta was injured as a child. Crossing paths with a runaway slave caused her to get hit in the head with a heavy metal weight. She started having seizures which she believed to be visions from God and her way of communicating with God. After the death of Mary Brodes, Harriet Tubman’s early life became full of hardship and pain. Mary Brodess’ son Edward sold three of her sisters to plantations in the south and north, separating the family as whole. When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit’s youngest son, Moses, Rit successfully resisted the further fracturing of her family, setting a powerful example for her young daughter. Physical violence was a part of daily life for Tubman and her family. The violence she suffered early in life caused permanent physical injuries. Harriet later recounted a particular day when she was lashed five times before breakfast. She carried the scars for the rest of her life. The line between freedom and slavery was hazy for Tubman and her family. Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben, was freed from slavery at the age of 45 years old. Ben had few options but to continue working as a timber estimator and foreman for his former owners. She found out that her mother’s owner’s will specify that she and her children be manumitted when they reached the age of 45 years old. Brodess didn’t care about honoring his mother’s will. In 1844, Harriet married a free black man named John Tubman.
At the time around half of the African-American people on the eastern shore of Maryland were free, and was not unusual for a family to include both free and enslaved people, as did Tubman’s. Little is known about John Tubman or his marriage to Harriet, including whether and how long they lived together. Any children they might have had would have been considered enslaved, since the mother’s status dictated that of any offspring. John declined to make the voyage on the Underground Railroad with Harriet, preferring to stay in Maryland with a new wife. On September 17, 1849, Harriet and her brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped from the Poplar Neck Plantation. Ben and Henry had second thoughts and returned to the plantation. The newspaper The Cambridge Democrat published a $300 reward for the return of Harriet and her two brothers. Harriet travelled 90 miles to Pennsylvania, a free state, using the Underground Railroad. It was not unusual for families in this area to include both free and enslaved members. Harriet’s own husband, John Tubman was a free black man. Harriet fell ill. Her owner, Brodess, died leaving the plantation in a dire financial situation. Three of her sisters, Linah, Soph and Mariah Ritty, were sold. Her status, however, remained unchanged until she fled to Pennsylvania a free state in 1849. She crossed into the free state of Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled 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.” She would later adopt the name “Harriet” after her mother: Harriet Ross. Her husband did not make the journey and ultimately re-married after Harriet’s departure. Harriet would return to Maryland many times over the next decade to rescue both family and non-family members from the bondages of slavery. Harriet earned the nickname “Moses” after the prophet Moses in the Bible who led his people to freedom.
In all of her journeys she “never lost a single passenger.” Tubman’s work was a constant threat to her own freedom and safety. Slave holders placed a bounty for her capture and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was an ever-present danger, imposing severe punishments on any person who assisted the escape of a slave. In December 1851, Tubman guided a group of 11 fugitives northward. There is evidence to suggest that the party stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. In April 1858, Tubman was introduced to the abolitionist John Brown, who advocated the use of violence to disrupt and destroy the institution of slavery. Tubman shared Brown’s goals and at least tolerated his methods. Tubman claimed to have had a prophetic vision of Brown before they met. When Brown began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders at Harper’s Ferry, he turned to “General Tubman” for help. After Brown’s subsequent execution, Tubman praised him as a martyr. Harriet 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 Carolina. In early 1859, abolitionist Senator William H. Seward sold Tubman a small piece of land on the outskirts of Auburn, New York. The land in Auburn became a haven for Tubman’s family and friends. Tubman spent the years following the war on this property, tending to her family and others who had taken up residence there. Harriet wore many hats: She was an active proponent of women’s suffrage and worked alongside women such as side Susan B. Anthony. During the civil war, Harriet also worked for the Union Army as a cook, a nurse and even a spy. Harriet was acquainted with leading abolitionists of the day, including John Brown who conferred with “General Tubman” about his plans to raid Harpers Ferry. Harriet had one daughter, Gertie, whom she and her second husband (Nelson Davis) adopted after the Civil war. Harriet suffered life-long headaches, seizures and had vivid dreams as a result of a traumatic head injury she suffered as a teenager while trying to stand up for a fellow field hand. These same symptoms gave her powerful visions that she ascribed to God and helped guide her on many trips to the North while leading others to freedom. Just before Harriet’s death in 1913 she told friends and family, “I go to prepare a place for you.” She was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in New York.
Harriet Tubman, widely known and well-respected while she was alive, became an American icon in the years after she died. A survey at the end of the 20th century named her as one of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War, third only to Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. She continues to inspire generations of Americans struggling for civil rights with her bravery and bold action. When she died, the city of Auburn commemorated her life with a plaque on the courthouse. Tubman was celebrated in many other ways throughout the nation in the 20th century. Dozens of schools were named in her honor, and both the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge serve as monuments to her life. A 1978 movie, A Woman Called Moses, commemorated her life and career. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that the countenance of Harriet Tubman will appear on a new $20 bill.
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