Harriet Tubman

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She risked her life to escape from slavery. Once free, she risked her life again... and again... to help others gain their freedom as well.

No one knows exactly when Araminta “Minty” Ross was born. Few bothered to record the origins of the enslaved. We know only that her mother was called Rit, short for Harriet, and was a cook on the Brodess family plantation in Maryland.

Rit had nine children. Three of her daughters were sold into the Deep South by her master and never heard from again. When her master attempted to sell her youngest son Moses, Rit hid him in her cabin and promised to split the head of the first man who entered to take him. That time, the sale was called off.

As a child, Minty did chores for local white families. She was beaten frequently for working too slowly. On one occasion, a white man she offended struck the five-foot slip of a girl in the head with a two-pound weight, fracturing her skull. After that, she suffered seizures, likely from epilepsy, the remainder of her life.

In her 20s, Minty could no longer bear life as a slave. She proclaimed that she feared captivity more than than she feared death. She decided to run away to the North, where slavery had been abolished. Unable to openly tell her mother goodbye, she bid adieu with a song: "I'll meet you in the morning … I'm bound for the promised land." That's also when she changed her first name to Harriet, in owner of her mother, and adopted the last name Tubman.

Harriet made her escape in 1849, following the "Underground Railway," a secret network made up of free blacks and white abolitionists who helped to guid fugitive slaves from the South to safety in the North. During the day, escapees posed as working slaves at "safe houses." By night, they traveled on foot following the North Star. The journey was slow and dangerous for all involved, both enslaved and free, for in the South escape was punishable by death. 

When Harriet arrived in the North, she is said to have looked at her hands, to see if they belonged to the same person. She was free and vowed never be enslaved again.


Shortly after Harriet arrived in the State of Pennsylvania, however the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which empowered slave catchers to hunt down and kidnap escapes Southern blacks even in the North. To ensure their newfound freedom, escaped slaves had to pick up and run again. But now, they were forced to travel all the way to Canada. Though still not out of danger, Harriet went the other way, determined to return to Maryland to help her family and anyone else she could. Her reasoning was simple: "I was free, and they should be free."

In 1850, Harriet helped her niece and two children escape from Baltimore to Philadelphia on a log canoe, and then on to Canada. The next year, she returned again and was able to help her brother Moses escape. Despite the danger, she returned again. Over 11 years, Harriet guided roughly 70 slaves to freedom in thirteen expeditions across field, forests, and towns. All too often, there were mere minutes from being caught by the slave patrol.

To avoid detection, Harriet wore disguises and carried a revolver, threatening to shoot any slave who threatened to turn back out of fear, lest they betray the rest of the group. Her methods helped were severe. But she never left a slave behind.

In 1861, the Civil War broke out. Harriet immediately offered to help the Union Army and worked to help fugitive slaves escape to the Northern lines. When Abraham Lincoln hesitated abolishing slavery in the Southern states, a frustrated Harriet declared "God won't let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing." In January 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in the southern "rebellious states" of the US.

That same year, Harriet became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War. Using her knowledge of Southern geography, she guided a battalion of Union troops around Confederate mines to land on the coast of South Carolina, where they set fire to plantations. When the steamboats that brought the Union troops sounded their whistles, hundreds of slaves emerged from hiding and stampeded towards the boats knowing their day of liberation was at hand. The steamboats escaped just as Confederate soldiers arrived on the scene, carrying their human cargo to freedom. More than 750 slaves were rescued in the raid.

Harriet's heroism inspired many escaped slaves to join the Union Army, making her a legend in her own time. Yet despite her service to the war effort, Harriet never received a salary and was denied a pension as a war hero until 1899.

Harriet's miraculous life and many achievements finally ended when she passed away in 1913 at about the age of 90. Her extraordinary legacy, only briefly touched on here, has made her an icon in the United States. Few have done more to earn the label "hero" that Harriet Tubman. That's why we're thrilled to call her a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero this Women's History Month 2018. Many thanks to Tracy Ann Essoglou for nominating her!

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