Harriet Tubman Biography
The Legend Grows
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As Harriet's reputation as an Underground Railroad conductor grew, she became a wanted criminal by slave owners in the South. She often used disguises to avoid getting caught, sometimes dressing as a man or a poor old woman. She also utilized props to distract people such as carrying chickens or reading a book. Harriet usually started her escapes on Saturday night because enslavers were unlikely to notice a missing enslaved person on Sunday. This tactic often gave the group an extra day's head start.
Harriet was given the nickname "Moses" by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Just like the Moses in the Bible, Harriet led her people to freedom. Harriet also felt that she had been called by God to rescue as many of the enslaved as possible. She once recalled praying to God "Oh Lord I can't -- don't ask me -- take somebody else," but she said that God clearly replied to her "It's you I want, Harriet Tubman."
Harriet's belief in God bolstered her courage and kept her going when things got difficult. She became one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad. Describing her success Harriet once said "I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." Which was true. Despite the efforts of enslaves to track her down, neither Harriet nor any of the enslaved she helped were ever captured.
Tales of Harriet's ability to elude slave catchers became legendary. Escaped enslaved people told tales of how they would be heading in one direction when Harriet would suddenly stop and turn around or head off in another direction. Later, they would find out that slave catchers had been planning an ambush not far ahead.
During one rescue mission, Harriet and several escapees were hiding in the swamp. The station where they planned to stay the night had been taken over by slave catchers. Harriet didn't know what to do, so she began to pray. Later that night a man in Quaker clothing walked by and mumbled that there was a wagon and horse available in a nearby farm. Harriet and the fugitives went to the farm and found an unguarded wagon and horse they used for their escape.
Stories of "Moses" spread throughout the enslaved population in Maryland. Harriet's faith in God was unwavering. She exuded confidence that gave courage to those entrusted to her care. Enslaved people knew that when "Moses" arrived, freedom was not far behind.
For eight years Harriet typically mounted two rescue missions a year; one in the spring and one in the fall. Most of her rescues involved either her own family members, or family members of those she had rescued earlier. She felt a strong desire to help families reunite.
During one raid, Harriet rescued three of her brothers. She set up the meeting using coded messages in a letter to a free black man who lived near the brothers. At one point during the mission, Harriet briefly met with her father who she hadn't seen for years. Just like with her niece Kizzy, Harriet whisked her brothers to freedom just in time as they were set to be sold to southern enslavers within the month.
One of Harriet's last missions involved rescuing her seventy year-old parents and moving them to Canada to be with the siblings and family that Harriet had earlier saved. Although Harriet's parents had obtained their freedom, in 1857 they came under suspicion of aiding escaped enslaved. Ben Ross, Harriet's father, had in fact hid the famed "Dover Eight" enslaved during their flight to freedom. Rumor had it he would soon be arrested.
Harriet had little time to plan. Unlike many of her earlier rescues, this one had to take place during the summer. Also, her parents were too old to walk and hide in the swamps, so Harriet obtained a wagon and a horse. She transported her parents by wagon at night into Delaware where they caught a train to Canada.
Hero of the Underground
Even during her own time, Harriet became a legend of the Underground Railroad. In addition to working odd jobs to help fund her rescues, Harriet would also speak at abolitionist meetings. She would tell them exciting tales of traveling through the forest during the night, wearing costumes, and hiding underneath vegetables in wagons to elude slave catchers. Her daring tales would inspire others to help fund future rescues or to get involved and help along the Underground Railroad themselves.
Fact or Fiction
It is often difficult to separate fact and fiction when reading stories about Harriet Tubman. Some abolitionists may have exaggerated her exploits in order to gain support for their cause. One example of this is the common report that there was a $40,000 bounty on her head. There is no evidence that this bounty ever existed. The origin of the story likely comes from an abolitionist who claimed that $40,000 was "not too great a reward for her capture." Another example is the common belief that she led over 300 of the enslaved to freedom, but the evidence points to a number closer to 60 or 70. In addition to the people she directly led to freedom, she provided directions and instructions to another 60 or 70 of the enslaved.
Harriet Tubman Biography Contents
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- Overview and Interesting Facts
- Born into Slavery
- Early Life as an Enslaved Person
- 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
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