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Harriet Tubman Biography
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In December of 1850 Harriet Tubman returned to the South to make her first daring rescue, freeing her niece Kizzy and Kizzy's two children from slavery. Over the next ten years, Harriet would act as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, aiding slaves in their flight to freedom. She conducted around 13 rescues, guiding some 70 slaves through the Underground Railroad. Many of these slaves were her relatives.
Danger and the Fugitive Slave Act
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the flight north became even more dangerous. Escaped slaves were no longer safe in the Northern United States. The Fugitive Slave Act said captured fugitive slaves had to be returned to their masters in the South. People caught harboring or aiding escaped slaves in the North could be fined or imprisoned.
The Underground Railroad expanded through the northern states and into Canada where escaped slaves were protected by the law. Slave catchers constantly hunted fugitive slaves hoping to cash in on rich rewards. While everyone involved in the Underground Railroad took on some risk, escaped slaves like Harriet Tubman had to worry about being captured themselves. With every rescue, Harriet risked losing her freedom. If caught, she would be sent back to the South, beaten, and would likely die an early death in the fields.
Harriet's second trip to the South took place in the spring of 1851. She went to rescue her brother James. In addition to James she also led two other fugitive slaves, likely friends of her brother's, to freedom. With the success of her second raid, Harriet was now an experienced conductor. Counting her own escape, she had safely navigated the Underground Railroad three times.
Harriet spent the summer working and saving money for her next rescue. She planned to reunite with her husband John Tubman. When Harriet originally escaped, John refused to go with her. He even threatened to turn her in if she caused trouble. John liked his life in Maryland and didn't want to leave. However, Harriet hoped to tell him of her new life in Pennsylvania and convince him to return with her so they could be a family again.
In the fall of 1851, Harriet traveled back to Maryland and hid out near where John Tubman lived. She soon discovered, however, that John wasn't interested in going north. As a matter of fact, she found that he was living with another woman. Harriet was deeply disappointed and saddened by this news.
Despite her sadness, Harriet saw an opportunity. She was already in the South and had a rescue plan prepared. If John Tubman didn't want to go north, she would lead others to freedom. Harriet sent out the word and soon had eleven "passengers" ready to travel on the Underground Railroad including her brother William and his girlfriend Catherine.
Harriet led the group of eleven fugitives slaves all the way to Canada. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1851, she no longer trusted "Uncle Sam" with her passengers and now considered Canada the "Promised Land." Along the way, some historians think that Harriet and the eleven stayed at the home of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
An Experienced Conductor
With each rescue, Harriet's confidence grew. She gained new contacts on the Underground Railroad and varied her escape routes. Most of her rescues took place in the spring and fall months when the nights were long, but not too cold. Harriet planned her rescues in great detail. She used code words and sometimes sang spiritual hymns to signal whether the path was safe. She traveled at night and carried a gun for protection from slave catchers. Some stories tell of her using the gun to force scared runaways from turning back and endangering the entire party.
Harriet Tubman Biography Contents
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- Overview and Interesting Facts
- Born into Slavery
- Early Life as a Slave
- Dreaming About Freedom
- The Escape!
- The Underground Railroad
- Freedom and the First Rescue
- The Conductor
- The Legend Grows
- Harper's Ferry and the Civil War Begins
- Life as a Spy
- Life After the War
- Later Life and Death
More Civil Rights Heroes:
Susan B. Anthony
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Booker T. Washington
Ida B. Wells
More women leaders: