Harriet Tubman was a US abolitionist and humanitarian, but she was born with the name Araminta Ross in 1822. She also acted as an armed scout and spy to the US Army during the American Civil War. Tubman was born into slavery but escaped and made approximately thirteen missions, during which she rescued around 70 families and friends from their enslavement. She used the antislavery activist network known as the Underground Railroad to sneak people out of their situations and into freedom. Later in her life, she helped John Brown recruit men for the raid he ran on Harper’s Ferry, and she was an active participant in the women’s suffrage struggle as well.
Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she was beaten and whipped by vicious masters during her childhood spend in slavery. She suffered a serious head wound early in her life when a slave owner threw a metal weight at another slave and she received the blow instead. The injury caused her to experience pain, spells of sleeping and dizziness, which occurred throughout her life. Tubman persevered and her devout Christian faith helped her move forward and see her visions and vivid dreams as premonitions for the future from God.
In 1840, Tubman’s father was manumitted from slavery as part of a stipulation his former owner mandated in his will, but he continued to work as the timer estimator and foreman for those who held him as a slave. In 1844, Harriet married a free black man by the name of John Tubman. There is not much documentation of their time together, but history shows it was complicated since she was a slave and he was not. The mother’s status dictates the status of any children, so the couple knew any children they had would have been enslaved. Mixing free people of color and enslaved people was not common in the Maryland area, but most of the people in that region were free. The couple may have planned to buy Harriet’s freedom at some point. She changed her name from Araminta to Harriet just after she married and took her husband’s last name as well.
She became ill in 1849, which diminished her capacity and value as a slave. Her owner, Edward Brodess, tried to sell her but couldn’t find a buyer. She was angry with her owner for trying to sell her and for keeping her relatives enslaved, so she prayed to God to have the man change his ways. After nothing happened, she changed her prayer and asked the Lord to take his life instead. A few weeks later, Brodess died and Tubman regretted her sentiments. As his estate settled, it seemed as if Tubman would be sold and her family split, just as she had feared before. She decided not to wait and see what would happen to her and her family, and despite her husband’s wishes, she and her brothers made plans to flee. Tubman escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and then returned to Maryland to help free her family. She took one group at a time out of the state to freedom and then began to guide dozens of other slaves along the same path. They traveled under extreme secrecy using the dark of night. Tubman was sometimes called Moses because of her guidance, and she supposedly never lost a passenger. When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed, she then began guiding fugitive slaves farther north to safety and she also helped newly freed slaves find jobs to support their families. These journeys into and out of the land of slavery were huge risks, and she had to use a variety of methods to avoid detection and arrest. She would sometimes disguise herself in order to get past people who might recognize her as a former slave.
Once the Civil War began, she saw the Union movement as a step towards abolition. She wanted to help further that cause. Harriet Tubman worked for the Union Army, supporting the effort any way she could. She first worked as a cook, then a nurse, and eventually as an armed scout and spy. She was the very first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war when she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry. That raid liberated over 700 slaves from their chains of slavery. When the war ended, she retired to her family’s home, which she purchased in 1859. She cared for her aging parents in Auburn, New York and became active in the women’s suffrage movement. She also became heavily involved with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and in 1903, she donated a parcel of her real estate to the church. This parcel became a home for the aged people of color. When illness took over her days, she was admitted to the home for elderly African Americans, the very home she had helped to establish years before with the donation of her land. Tubman passed away in 1913 and quickly became an icon of American freedom because of her highly courageous acts and perseverance through it all. In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department even announced that they planned to replace Andrew Jackson with a portrait of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.
Harriet Tubman was widely respected and well known when she was alive and she has become an American icon since her death. According to a recent survey, she is one of the most famous people in American history during the Civil War, only behind Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. She inspired an entire generation of African Americans to struggle for their rights and equality, and leaders have praised her across the board. She was buried with semi-military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn. The city has a commemorative plaque in her name outside the courthouse. Her former home was abandoned in 1920, but the AME Zion Church later renovated it and now welcomes visitors onto the premises as a museum and education center.