UNDERGROUND RAILROAD CONDUCTOR,
Harriet Tubman was an African American
whose daring rescues helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom. She became the
most famous leader of the Underground Railroad, which aided slaves fleeing to the free
states or to Canada. Blacks called her Moses, after the Biblical figure who led the
Jews from Egypt. Tubman was born a slave in Bucktown, Maryland, near
Cambridge. Her name was Araminta Ross, but as a child, she became known by her
mother's name, Harriet. Her father taught her a knowledge of the woods that later
helped her in her rescue missions. When Harriet was 13, she interfered with a
supervisor to save another slave from punishment. The enraged supervisor fractured
Harriets' skull with a 2-pound weight.
She recovered but suffered blackouts for
the rest of her life. She married John Tubman, a freed slave, in 1844. Harriet
Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 and went to Philadelphia via the Underground Railroad,
without her husband. She then vowed to return to Maryland and help other slaves
escape. Tubman made her first trip back shortly after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
This law made it a crime to help a runaway slave. Tubman returned 18 more times
during the 1850's and helped about 300 slaves escape. On one rescue mission, she
sensed that pursuers were close behind, so she and the fugitives got on a southbound train
to avoid suspicion. On another mission, Tubman had just bought some live chickens in
Bucktown when she saw her former master walking towards her. She quickly let the
chickens go and chased after them before he could recognize her.
In 1857, Tubman led her parents to freedom
in Auburn, New York. Tubman never caught and never lost a slave on any of her 19
rescue trips. She carried a gun and threatened to kill anyone who tried to turn
back. Rewards for her capture once totaled about $40,000. In the late 1850's,
Tubman met with the radical abolitionist John Brown, who told her of his plan to free the
slaves. She considered Brown the true liberator of her race. Soon afterward,
Tubman also became active in the women's rights movement. In the civil War
(1861-1865), Tubman served as a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army in South
Carolina. During one military campaign, she helped free more than 750 slaves.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, where she helped raise money for Black
Revised: July 18, 2013.