Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. 1822 – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and, during the American Civil War, a Union spy. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved families and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era was an active participant in the struggle for women's suffrage.
Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her various masters as a child. Early in life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another slave and hit her instead. The injury caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia, which occurred throughout her life. She was a devout Christian and experienced strange visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions from God.
In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then 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. Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or "Moses", as she was called) "never lost a passenger". Her actions made slave owners anxious and angry, and they posted rewards for her capture. When a far-reaching United States Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, she helped guide fugitives further north into Canada, and helped newly freed slaves find work.
When the US Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than seven hundred slaves. After the war, she retired to the family home on property she had purchased in 1859 in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She was active in the women's suffrage movement until illness overtook her and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African-Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier. After she died in 1913, she became an icon of American courage and freedom.
Modesty, Tubman's maternal grandmother, arrived in the United States on a slave ship from Africa; no information is available about her other ancestors. As a child, Tubman was told that she was of Ashanti lineage (from what is now Ghana), though no evidence exists to confirm or deny this assertion. Her mother Rit (who may have had a white father) was a cook for the Brodess family. Her father Ben was a skilled woodsman who managed the timber work on Thompson's plantation. They married around 1808 and, according to court records, they had nine children together: Linah, Mariah Ritty, Soph, Robert, Minty (Harriet), Ben, Rachel, Henry, and Moses.
Rit struggled to keep her family together as slavery threatened to tear it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters (Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph), separating them from the family forever. When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit's youngest son, Moses, she hid him for a month, aided by other slaves and free blacks in the community. At one point she confronted her owner about the sale. Finally, Brodess and "the Georgia man" came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, where Rit told them, "You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open." Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale. Tubman's biographers agree that stories told about this event within the family influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.
ChildhoodTubman's mother was assigned to "the big house" and had scarce time for her family; consequently, as a child Tubman took care of a younger brother and baby, as was typical in large families. When she was five or six 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; when it woke up and cried, she was whipped. She later recounted a particular day when she was lashed five times before breakfast. She carried the scars for the rest of her life. She found ways to resist, running away for five days, wearing layers of clothing as protection against beatings, and fighting back.
As a child, Tubman also worked at the home of a planter named James Cook. She had to check the muskrat traps in nearby marshes, even after contracting measles. She became so ill that Cook sent her back to Brodess, where her mother nursed her back to health. Brodess then hired her out again. She spoke later of her acute childhood homesickness, comparing herself to "the boy on the Swanee River," an allusion to Stephen Foster's song "Old Folks at Home." As she grew older and stronger, she was assigned to field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing, and hauling logs.
As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten by masters to whom she was hired out. Early in her life, 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 her life. A devout Christian, Tubman ascribed the visions and vivid dreams to revelations from God.
One day, the adolescent Tubman was sent to a dry-goods store for supplies. There, she encountered a slave owned by another family, who had left the fields without permission. His overseer, furious, 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, which she said "broke my skull." She later explained her belief that her hair – which "had never been combed and ... stood out like a bushel basket" – might have saved her life. Bleeding and unconscious, she was returned to her owner's house and laid on the seat of a loom, where she remained without medical care for two days. She was sent back into the fields, "with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn't see." Her boss said she was "not worth a sixpence" and returned her to Brodess, who tried unsuccessfully to sell her. She began having seizures and would seemingly fall unconscious, although she claimed to be aware of her surroundings while appearing to be asleep. These episodes were alarming to her family, who were unable to wake her when she fell asleep suddenly and without warning. This condition remained with her for the rest of her life; Larson suggests she may have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy as a result of the injury.
The severe head wound occurred when Tubman was becoming deeply religious. As an illiterate child, she had been told Bible stories by her mother. The particular variety of her early Christian belief remains unclear, but she acquired a passionate faith in God. She rejected the teachings of the New Testament that urged slaves to be obedient and found guidance in the Old Testament tales of deliverance. Additionally, she began having visions and potent dreams, which she considered signs from the divine. This religious perspective instructed her throughout her life.