Harriet Tubman: The Most Famous “Conductor” on the Underground Railroad

By Jim Weaver

Much has been written about Harriet Tubman, the black slave who escaped to
freedom from her Cambridge, Maryland, plantation only to return again more than a dozen times to help other slaves escape on the Underground Railroad.

In August 2011, Maryland officials announced sufficient funding had been secured to establish a state park and visitor center bearing Tubman’s name near Cambridge. It is slated for completion in 2013, the 100th anniversary of Tubman’s death. The new state park will be located on Maryland Rt. 335 nine miles south of the city near the entrance to
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Tubman was a fearless woman of incredible courage and bravery. An “Outlaw” with a price on her head ($40,000), she knew every time she returned to the south she might be captured and killed. When someone asked her to help them escape she would tell them they could not change their mind or she would have to kill them, since if they returned
they would be forced to reveal her secrets. There is no doubt she would have done this although there are no accounts that it was ever necessary. During a ten-year span she made over a dozen trips into the south and escorted over 300 slaves (including a number of family members) to freedom. And, as she once proudly told Frederick Douglass, in all of her journeys she “never lost a single passenger.”

Runaway slaves who were captured were often “sold south” to cotton plantations in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi where life was even more oppressive and opportunity to escape far more difficult.

Tubman was born a slave at the Ross Plantation outside Cambridge, Maryland,
around 1820. At age five or six, she began to work as a house servant. Seven years later she was sent to work in the fields. While she was still in her early teens, she was struck in the head by an angry overseer and suffered a brain injury (causing narcolepsy – sleeping seizures) that would follow her for the rest of her life.

Around 1844 she married a free black named John Tubman and took his last name. (She was born Araminta Ross; she later changed her first name to Harriet, after her mother.) In 1849, her master died and fearing she and other slaves on the plantation would be sold, Tubman resolved to run away. She traveled on foot, only at night, until she knew she
had crossed the border into Pennsylvania. She later said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free.
There was such a glory over everything … and I felt like I was in
 heaven.”

She made her way to Philadelphia on foot where she found work. A year
later she returned to Maryland to bring her sister and her sister’s two children to freedom. Soon after, she returned to rescue her brother and two other men. On her third trip, she went after her husband, only to find he had taken another wife. Undeterred, she
found other slaves seeking freedom and escorted them north. Tubman had made the perilous trip to slave country more than 13 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. By 1856, Tubman’s capture would have brought a $40,000 reward.

Befriended by northern abolitionists, Tubman became a “celebrity” spokesperson against slavery and for the Underground Railroad. In the 12 years between her escape in 1849 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad became the most dominant force of abolitionism.
Around 1858, Tubman teamed up with John Brown as he plotted a raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His plan was to raid the armory there, distribute weapons among slaves and instigate a rebellion. She helped him with fund-raising, and most likely would have participated in the raid had she not been ill. At one of her last interviews, in 1912,
she referred to John Brown as “my dearest friend.”

Following her escape to freedom in the north, she found work cooking, laundering and scrubbing in Philadelphia, and saved money to finance additional rescue trips south. She became involved with the city’s large and active abolitionist organizations and with
organizers of the Underground Railroad. From the Wilmington, Delaware, home of Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett she began her highly dangerous rescue missions, locating slaves ready to escape, and leading them to freedom at times as far north as Canada.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), Harriet Tubman served with the Union Army as a cook, laundress, nurse, scout, and spy behind Confederate lines. In 1862, she moved to Beaufort, South Carolina (when it was occupied by the Union Army), and with several missionary teachers, helped hundreds of Sea Island slaves escape from bondage to freedom. She also undertook scouting and spying missions, identifying potential
targets for the Army, such as cotton stores and ammunition storage areas.

In 1865 as the Civil War drew to an end, Harriet Tubman began caring for wounded black soldiers as the matron of the Colored Hospital at (Union held) Fort Monroe, in Hampton, Virginia. She continued helping others after the war. She raised money for schools for former slaves, helped destitute children and continued caring for her parents. In 1868, she transformed her family’s home in Auburn, New York into the Home for
Aged and Indigent Colored People.

The same year, Tubman (who was illiterate) began working on her autobiography with Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a white schoolteacher. It was published in 1868, then later under a revised title in 1886. In 1869, Harriet married Nelson Davis, a Union veteran half her age who had been a boarder at her house. He died of tuberculosis in 1888.

Still not finished, Harriet took up the suffragist cause and in 1896, she was a delegate to the National Association of Colored Women’s first annual convention. She believed the right to vote was vital to preserving freedom. About 1900, she bought 25 acres of land near her home with money raised from benefactors and speaking engagements, and
made arrangements for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to take over the Home she had established. She died on March 10, 1913, at age of 93.

There are a number of interesting Harriet Tubman sites in the Cambridge,
Maryland area. For information contact Dorchester County Tourism at
1-800-522-8687 or view www.visitdorchester.org.