Conductor on the Underground Railroad:

The Life of Harriet Tubman

by Martha Nelson

Harriet Beecher Stowe brought the cruelty of slavery before the American public in the 1850’s through her bestselling novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The heroes of her fictious story helped slaves escape from the South to freedom in the North. But a lesser known character – a real life slave from Maryland named Harriet Tubman – has her own amazing story to tell.

Harriet Tubman’s name is well known by most American schoolchildren as a remarkable woman in U.S. history. Her life began as the child of slaves on a plantation in Bucktown, Dorchester County, Maryland – c. 1820 (as a slave her owners did not record her actual birth date.) At the age of 5 she was loaned out to another plantation and sent away from home – checking muskrat traps in icy cold rivers until she became too sick to work and returned home ill and malnourished. However, she had loving parents and her father taught her how to survive in the woods surrounding the plantation, and how to step noiselessly through the underbrush in search of game. This ability to navigate the forest and follow the stars was to prove vital later.

By the age of 12, Harriet was working as a field hand, plowing and hauling wood six days a week. Like most slaves, her days were filled with backbreaking labor, with no control over her own life. At 13, while defending a fellow slave who tried to run away, her overseer struck her in the head with a two-pound weight. . The blow nearly killed her, and resulted in recurring narcoleptic seizures (sleeping spells) that could come upon her at any time and which plagued her all her life.

Death or Liberty

For years Harriet had dreamed of running away, but the risks were huge and the consequence of being caught was to be whipped and then “sold down south” to the auction houses in Georgia – a fate worse than the life on the plantation. She was quoted as saying, “There’s two things I got a right to and these are Death and Liberty. If I could not have one, I would have the other.” 1

So at age 29 she ran away to Pennsylvania, a free state. Two of her brothers had started out with her, but lost their nerve and returned to the plantation the night they left. When Harriet crossed the border alone, “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”2 Harriet then spent the rest of her life helping others to escape north on the Underground Railroad. This was a network of anti-slavery supporters (many Quakers) who helped slaves escape north by offering food, shelter in a barn, or transport in a wagon covered with straw – always at a risk to their own livelihood or freedom, as it was illegal to help such runaways.

Harriet had to travel at night through the woods – avoiding the roads -- often sleeping in the underbrush during the day, or crossing rivers to escape the hounds used to track her and her “passengers”. Several times on these journeys she fell into a deep sleep – it could come upon her at any time – and her “passengers” could only wait the many hours until she woke up. Yet with a bounty of $40,000 on Harriet’s head, she undertook some 20 hazardous missions from Maryland to the North to allow more than 300 others to find freedom. What gave her the courage to do this – despite the many dangers and discomforts she faced?

Why Did She Do It?

Certainly no books could have inspired her, as she had no education, and was illiterate her entire life. From a young age, however, she had heard the Bible read and her strong faith was one thing that seemed to carry her through the many dark times in her life. Her vision to allow others to escape slavery was inspired by the Biblical story of Exodus in which Moses freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt – and she soon was nicknamed “Moses”. The slave owners feared and resented her – a good slave was worth $2,000 or more -- so the rumour that Moses was in the neighbourhood would send them scrambling to find “him” – but they never did.

Neither was Harriet an attractive or charismatic figure. In fact, the few images that survive of her – and descriptions by those who knew her – show a plain woman – short, stocky and strong - hardened by many years working as a field hand. The heavy scar on her forehead could easily identify her as the “Moses” on the posters offering the $40,000 reward – but she wore a bandana on her head to cover it and refused to consider her personal risk.

William Still (who recorded activities of the Underground Railroad) described her as: “a woman of no pretensions, indeed, a more ordinary specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking farm hands of the South. Yet, in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-men… she was without her equal.”3

Could a husband have helped her? Far from it! At the age of 25, Harriet had married John Tubman, a freeman. As a freeman he had the right to hire himself out at his own wages, but Harriet (who had to gain permission to marry John from her owners) was required to keep working for her master. When Harriet first shared her idea for escape with John she expected him to support her in it. Instead he threatened to turn her in if she tried – so at the age of 29 she had to leave him and escape alone. Later she returned to try again to bring John to freedom, only to find he had taken another wife. So once again, she was on her own.

Needless to say, Harriet was not a rich philanthropist and had no fund-raising organization to back her. In between her trips back to Maryland to bring another small group to freedom, Harriet worked hard in Philadelphia or Cape May, New Jersey (a resort area) to earn money for the journeys. She worked long hours cooking, laundering and scrubbing to save money for these rescue trips. She also become involved with Philadelphia’s large and active abolitionist (anti-slavery) organizations, and with the organizers of the famous Underground Railroad, a secret network through which slaves were helped in escaping from the South to freedom in the North and Canada. These organizations gave her valuable assistance in the way of contacts and safe houses, but her raids to the South were largely self-funded.

A Home in New York

Although Harriet managed to bring most of her 11 brothers and sisters north with her, it wasn’t until 1857 that her parents agreed to leave the land they felt was home. By then they were too feeble to walk the long distance from Maryland up to New York, so Harriet had to commandeer an old horse and wagon to transport them off the plantation at night – extremely risky, but again successful. For them, she purchased a house in Auburn, New York from Senator William H. Seward, an advocate of hers.

During the Civil War (1861 – 1865) Harriet served with the Union Army as a cook, laundress, nurse, scout and spy behind Confederate lines. In 1865 she began caring for wounded black soldiers as the matron of the Colored Hospital at Fort Monroe, Virginia. She also raised money for freedmen’s schools, helped destitute children and continued caring for her parents. In the 12 years from her escape in 1849 to the beginning of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad became the most dominant force of abolitionism.4

As Harriet became more famous, she was asked to speak to crowds in Boston, and she badly needed funds to continue her trips south as well as to pay the mortgage on her parents’ home. She felt awkward and was not a natural orator – and yet tried her best to present the plight of her people and the many ex-slaves now trying to make a new life in the north.

In 1868, Harriet transformed her home into a Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. That same year, she began working on her biography with Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a white schoolteacher in Auburn, New York. 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.

In 1896 Harriet took up the suffragist cause and believed that the right to vote was vital to preserving the freedom of her people. In 1911, Harriet herself was welcomed into the Home she had created. She lived past 90 to die in 1913.

No Substitutes

Have you ever spoken or felt the following words about a dear friend or relative?
“What would I do without you?” I have. It seems there are certain people who are used in a special way to get us through the particularly hard bits that life can bring.

As I read of all the remarkable events in Harriet Tubman’s life, I thought of the question others who knew her or were helped by her must have asked themselves: What would I have done without her? Most of us are not as famous or as courageous as a Harriet Tubman – and yet the same question should be asked of each of us – What would the world do without us? What I mean is: Harriet was just one woman – and yet – WHAT IF she had just done nothing? What if she hadn’t done what she felt called to do – however imperfectly?

WHAT IF she had decided it was just too hard – too dangerous – too expensive? Would anyone have noticed? Could anyone have blamed her? And yet Harriet Tubman DID do it – in a unique way. Here are her own words explaining how she felt God had called her to help her people: “Now do you suppose he wanted me to do this just for a day, or a week? No! The Lord who told me to take care of my people meant me to do it just so long as I live, and so I do what he told me to do.”

Our call in life may not appear as heroic as Harriet Tubman’s – and I don’t want to diminish the praise due to her – but the important thing is that we answer that call – fulfil that role, whatever it is. There are no “substitutes” for your life or mine. If we ignore that call or gift we will certainly be missed -- not only by those around us – but by the Loving Creator who made us for “just such a time as this.”5


1. Harriet Tubman biography, Women in History, Lakewood, Ohio(
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. The Bible, Esther 4:14b
Other information from: “Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad” by Ann Petry, (Harper Trophy, New York, 1955)

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