Underground Railroad Conductor, Social Reformer, Nurse, Spy: 1820? - 1913
The hundreds of slaves she helped to freedom and the thousands of others she inspired called her “Moses.” Harriet Tubman became the most famous leader of the Underground Railroad, an elaborate and secret series of houses, tunnels, and roads set up by abolitionists and former slaves to aid slaves escaping from slave states to free states or Canada.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery as Araminta Ross in Bucktown, Maryland in 1820. Her parents had been taken from the Ashanti tribe of West Africa. After her owner died, fearing that she would be sold further south, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia in 1849. “When I had found that I had crossed the [Mason-Dixon] line, I looked at my hands to see if I were the same person,” she later wrote, “[T]he sun came like gold through the tree and over the field and I felt like I was in heaven.”
After her escape, Tubman worked as a maid in Philadelphia and joined the large abolitionist group in the city. In 1850, after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, making it illegal to help a runaway slave, Tubman joined the Underground Railroad. Her first expedition took place in 1851, when she managed to thread her way through the backwoods to Baltimore and return North with her sister and her sister’s children. From that time until the onset of the Civil War, Tubman traveled to the South at least 18 times and enabled the escape of close to 300 slaves. In 1857, she led her parents to freedom in Auburn, New York, which became her home as well.
Tubman oversaw every aspect of each escape -- planning the route, dispensing drugs to quiet babies, and carrying a gun for protection and to threaten any fearful runaway who wanted to turn back, saying, “You’ll be free or die.” As her reputation grew, rewards for her capture in the South reached as high as $40,000. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union army. She took part in a military campaign that resulted in the rescue of 756 slaves.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn and continued her involvement in social issues including women’s rights. In 1908, when she finally received the veteran’s pay denied her for 30 years, she established a home in Auburn for elderly and indigent blacks that later became known as the Harriet Tubman House. She died there on March 10, 1913.