Harriet Tubman, a name familiar to most school age children, garnered her place in African-American history as the conductor of the Underground Railroad through which she led more than 300 slaves up North to freedom.
Tubman, born in 1820 or 1821 in Maryland’s Dorchester County, to Ben and Araminta Ross, lived on the Brodas Plantation with her parents and 10 siblings. Her exact date of birth is unknown because slaves were not allowed to record their births and deaths.
She was called Araminta after her mother and nick named Minty. She was given her adult name, Harriet at age 13. At age six, she was rented out to a couple to work as a weaver, but they thought she was too slow, so they made her wade in the streams to collect muskrats from hunting traps. A born humanitarian, instead of collecting the muskrats, Harriet freed those she found still alive.
In the 1869, Sarah Elizabeth Hopkins wrote Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, an authorized biography of Tubman.
In her own words, Tubman said, “I was strong as an ox, and I was good at hard labor. By the time I was 11, Master decided I was best suited for outdoors work, and he let me cut wood with my father.”
Outside is where her thirst for and dreams of freedom were born.
“My father taught me all about the forest and showed me how to walk without making a sound,” Tubman said. “He explained which plants could be used for medicine and which plants were good to eat.”
“He also taught me how to find my way up North by looking for the North Star and finding the moss on the trees,” Tubman recalled. “‘Look for the moss,’ he said. ‘The moss always grows on the side leading North.'”
“My father knew I had a strong desire to be free, so he was teaching me how to survive if I was to ever run,” Tubman added.
Tubman’s most notable quote, “There’s two things I’ve got a right to, and these are death or liberty. One or the other I mean to have,” resonates her life’s mission of freeing slaves.
In 19 missions, assisted by the antislavery activist network and safe houses, Tubman rescued and led more than 300 slaves up North to safety. In 1860, during her final trip, Tubman rescued her parents and brought them to live with her in Auburn, NY.
Know as Black Moses and the Conductor, Tubman suffered from sleeping spells and would sometimes fall asleep during a rescue mission and wake up lying in the middle of the road in plain sight.
The sleeping spells were the result of an injury she sustained as a teenager when she was hit in the head by a cast iron pot meant for a slave attempting to run from the master. Harriet jumped between the two to allow the slave time to run, and when the master threw the pot at the slave, Tubman was hit instead.
During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse and spy for the Northern Army. As a free woman, Tubman had many white friends, among them the Mayor of Auburn and Susan B. Anthony, with whom she fought with to achieve women’s rights. In 1869, Tubman married Nelson Davis, a patient she cared for as a nurse during the war. No children were born to this nearly 20-year union. Davis died 1888.
In 1908, Tubman opened a nursing home in Auburn, NY for older African-Americans. Tubman died there on March 10, 1913 at the believed age of 93.