Harriet Tubman was an African American who was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. She had a difficult childhood during which she was whipped numerous times and suffered a serious head injury due to which she experienced pain and seizures throughout her life. Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 and over the course of the next decade she used the Underground Railroad to help at least 70 slaves do the same, including her family members. She then played an active part in the American Civil War assisting the Union forces by acting as a nurse and a cook as well as a scout and spy. Harriet Tubman married twice. Her first husband remarried while she was away after her escape and her second husband died of tuberculosis in 1888. Tubman is an icon of courage in America and is considered among the greatest African Americans ever. Know about the family, early life, escape from slavery, civil war years, later life and death of Harriet Tubman through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 She was born Araminta Ross and her nickname was Minty

Harriet Tubman was the fourth of nine children born to enslaved parents in Dorchester County, Maryland. The exact year of her birth is not known with estimates usually ranging from 1820 to 1825. Her official name was Araminta Ross while her nickname was Minty. Tubman’s father Ben Ross was a skilled woodsman who managed timber work of his master Anthony Thompson. Her mother Harriet “Rit” Green was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess and was a cook for the Brodess family. Anthony Thompson became the second husband of Mary Pattison and Tubman’s parents married around 1808. Tubman’s maternal grandmother, Modesty, arrived in US on a slave ship from Africa. Tubman was told that she was of Ashanti lineage, from what is now Ghana.

Plantation where Harriet Tubman was born
Marker near the plantation where Harriet Tubman was born and enslaved, Dorchester County, Maryland

 

#2 She was frequently whipped when she was a child

Tubman’s mother Rit found it difficult to keep her family together. Three of her daughters, Linah, Mariah Ritty and Soph, were sold by Mary’s son Edward Brodess. When Brodess came to take away her youngest son Moses too, Rit warned him, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.” Tales of this incident were often told in the family and her mother’s act of courage made Tubman believe in the possibilities of resistance. At the age of 5 or 6, Tubman was hired her out as a nursemaid to a woman named “Miss Susan”. She was tasked to keep watch on a baby while it slept and when it woke up and cried, she was whipped. Once, Tubman was lashed five times before breakfast. She carried the scars for the rest of her life.

Minty, A Story Of Young Harriet Tubman
Minty, A Story Of Young Harriet Tubman – A fictionalized children’s book on her early life

 

#3 Tubman experienced seizures and pain throughout her life due to a head injury

Photo of young Harriet Tubman
Photo of young Harriet Tubman

As a child, Harriet was frequently hired out and experienced homesickness. She was also frequently beaten by her various masters. As she grew up she was assigned field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing and hauling logs. In her adolescent years, Harriet once encountered a slave who had left the fields without permission. His overseer demanded her to help him restrain the slave. When she refused, the overseer threw a two-pound weight at the runaway slave but it struck Harriet on her head. She was returned to her owner’s house, where she remained without medical care for two days. Harriet experienced seizures, severe headaches, and spells of dizziness and excessive sleepiness, for the rest of her life due to this head injury.

#4 The prospect of being sold led to her decision to escape

In 1844, Araminta Ross married John Tubman, a free African American. Little is known of how they met and of their relationship. Soon after her marriage, Tubman changed her name from Araminta to Harriet, the name of her mother. In 1849, Tubman fell ill and her owner Edward Brodess started making plans to sell her. Tubman began praying for his death and incidentally, a week later he died. Tubman was regretful for her earlier sentiments as she was very religious. In estate settlements slaves were often sold and thus the death of Edward Brodess increased the probability of members of Harriet’s family being sold. Fearful of being sold further south, Harriet decided to keep her fate in her own hands and began making plans of an escape.

 

#5 She escaped from slavery by traveling around 90 miles to reach the free state of Pennsylvania

Harriet Tubman, along with her two younger brothers Ben and Henry, escaped on the night of 17th September 1849. On October 3, a notice appeared in a local newspaper offering a $100 reward for the return of each of them. Scared of what lay ahead, Harriet’s brothers decided to return back. After making sure her brothers returned safely, Harriet parted north. She traveled at night so that she would not be seen by slave catchers and was guided by the North Star. The first person to help her was a Quaker white woman, who sheltered her and gave her instructions on what to do next. After traveling a distance of nearly 90 miles, Harriet Tubman reached Philadelphia in the state of Pennsylvania, where slavery was illegal. Her exact escape route and the duration of her journey is not known.

Harriet Tubman capture notice
Notice published in the Cambridge Democrat (1849), offering a reward for the return of Harriet Tubman and her two brothers

 

#6 She rescued all her family members from slavery

In Philadelphia, Tubman found work as a domestic servant and began to save money to aid her family to escape. In late 1850, she got word that her niece Kessiah Jolley Bowley, along with her two children, were being put on auction to be sold. Tubman hatched a plan with Kessiah’s husband, a free black man named John Bowley, by which he surreptitiously placed the winning bid for the three. Before anyone realized, he moved them to a safe house from where he sailed them up the Chesapeake river to Baltimore. From there Tubman guided the family to Philadelphia and on to Canada. Harriet Tubman ultimately rescued all her family members except for her husband John Tubman, who had remarried and insisted that he was happy there.

Harriet Tubman Statue in New York City
Harriet Tubman Memorial in New York City

 

#7 Harriet Tubman guided at least 70 slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in US which was used by African-American slaves to escape into free states and Canada with the aid of people who were sympathetic to their cause. Tubman, who had made use of this network during her escape, became a conductor of the network from 1850 to 1860 and made around 13 expeditions to Maryland rescuing at least 70 slaves. She was nicknamed “Moses” due to her courage and the nature of her work. Tubman used various codes during her expeditions like changing the tempo of the song “Go Down Moses” to signal to her refugees whether it was safe or dangerous to proceed. She also carried a revolver for protection against slave catchers and to threaten any slave who tried to turn back as that would threaten the safety of the remaining group. Tubman was never captured and neither was any person she ever guided.

Harriet Tubman on a rescue mission
Illustration of Harriet Tubman leading a group of slaves during a rescue mission

 

#8 Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed assault during the American Civil War

The American Civil War broke out in 1861 and Tubman believed that a Union victory would be a major step toward the abolition of slavery. She served as a nurse and a cook for the Union forces as well as a scout and spy. As leader of a corps of local blacks, she made several forays into Confederate territory, collecting valuable information. On June 1 and June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman guided the Union Army under Colonel Montgomery in the Combahee River Raid. She thus became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. More than 750 slaves were liberated in the raid and most of these men went on to join the Union Army. Tubman was hailed in the Union newspapers for her courage and patriotism.

Raid at Combahee Ferry
Depiction of the Raid at Combahee Ferry

 

#9 She was a prominent speaker in support of women’s suffrage

After the Civil War, Tubman spent her remaining years in Auburn, New York. She lived on a small piece of land sold to her by abolitionist and US Senator William H Seward in 1859. She took care of her parents till they passed away. Her father died in 1871 and her mother in 1880. She also provided food and shelter to many poor blacks and helped them shape their new lives in freedom. In 1869 Tubman met Nelson Davis, a man who had looked for shelter in her home. On March 18, 1869, Harriet Tubman married Nelson Davis at the Presbyterian Church in Auburn. In 1874, they adopted a girl who they named Gertie. Their marriage lasted for 20 years till Davis died of tuberculosis in 1888. In her later life, Tubman became a prominent voice in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She toured various cities giving speeches in support of women’s right to vote.

Harriet Tubman with her adopted daughter and her husband
Harriet Tubman (left) with Gertie Davis, her adopted daughter, and Nelson Davis, her husband

 

#10 Harriet Tubman is an icon of American courage and freedom

Despite her contributions, Tubman lived in poverty for most of her life. She applied for government compensation for her services during the Civil War but it took more than 30 years for her appeal to succeed in 1899; after numerous documents and letters were provided to support her claims. In 1903, Tubman donated a part of her property to the Church under the instruction that it be made into a home for “aged and indigent colored people”, which had been her dream. The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged opened on this site in 1908. Three years later, due to her frail condition, Tubman had to be admitted into the rest home named in her honor. Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913. Just before she died, she told her friends and family members surrounding her in the room: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Harriet Tubman is an icon in America for her courage. She is considered one of the greatest African Americans in history.

Harriet Tubman in 1911
Harriet Tubman in 1911, two years before her death

 

Harriet Tubman and Her Visions

When she was a child, Harriet Tubman was told Bible stories by her mother. She developed a passionate faith in God and remained a devout Christian throughout her life. She experienced strange visions and vivid dreams, which she interpreted as revelations from God. Her deep religious faith and unfaltering trust that God would protect her provided her assistance during the extremely dangerous expeditions she undertook to help so many African Americans escape from slavery. Also, during the Civil War, Tubman nursed soldiers with smallpox but did not contract the disease herself. This strengthened the rumors that she was blessed by God. Many have attributed the visions Tubman experienced to her head injury, though this can’t be established with certainty.

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