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11
Mar
2014

Harriet Tubman (African-American Abolitionist/Humanitarian)

Categories // Profiles & Bios

harriet-tubman.jpgHarriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. 1820 or 1821 – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War.

After escaping from slavery, into which she was born, she made thirteen missions to rescue more than 70 slaves using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.

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She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era struggled for women's suffrage.

As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her various masters to whom she had been hired out. Early in her life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when she was hit by a heavy metal weight thrown by an irate overseer, intending to hit another slave.

The injury caused disabling seizures, headaches, powerful visionary and dream activity, and spells of hypersomnia which occurred throughout her entire life. A devout Christian, she ascribed her visions and vivid dreams to premonitions from God.

In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom.

Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or "Moses", as she was called) "never lost a passenger," as she later put it at women's suffrage meetings. Large rewards were offered for the capture and return of many of the people she helped escape, but no one ever knew it was Harriet Tubman who was helping them.

When the far-reaching United States Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, she helped guide fugitives farther north into Canada, and helped newly freed slaves find work.

When the American Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than seven hundred slaves.

After the war, she retired to the family home in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She was active in the women's suffrage movement until illness overtook her and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African-Americans she had helped open years earlier.

More About Tubman's Roots

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta "Minty" Ross to slave parents, Harriet ("Rit") Green and Ben Ross. Rit was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess (and later her son Edward), while Ben was legally owned by Mary's second husband, Anthony Thompson, who ran a large plantation near Blackwater River  in Madison, Maryland. As with many slaves in the United States, neither the exact year nor place of her birth was recorded, and historians differ as to the best estimate.

Kate Larson records the year 1822, based on a midwife payment and several other historical documents while Jean Humez says "the best current evidence suggests that Tubman was born in 1820, but it might have been a year or two later."

Catherine Clinton  notes that Tubman herself reported the year of her birth as 1825, while her death certificate lists 1815 and her gravestone lists 1820. In her Civil War widow's pension  record, Tubman claimed she was born in 1820, 1822, and 1825, an indication, perhaps, that she had only a general idea of when she was born.

Modesty, Tubman's maternal grandmother, arrived in the US on a slave ship from Africa; no information is available about her other ancestors. As a child, Tubman was told that she was of Ashanti lineage (from what is now Ghana), though no evidence exists to confirm or deny this assertion.

Her mother Rit (who may have been the child of a white man) was a cook for the Brodess family. Her father Ben was a skilled woodsman who managed the timber work on the plantation. They married around 1808, and according to court records, they had nine children together: Linah, born in 1808, Mariah Ritty in 1811, Soph in 1813, Robert in 1816, Minty (Harriet) in 1822, Ben in 1823, Rachel in 1825, Henry in 1830, and Moses in 1832.

Rit struggled to keep their family together as slavery tried to tear it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters (Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph), separating them from the family forever. When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit's youngest son Moses, she hid him for a month, aided by other slaves and free blacks in the community. At one point she even confronted her owner about the sale.

Finally, Brodess and "the Georgia man" came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, where Rit told them: "You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open." Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale. Tubman's biographers agree that tales of this event in the family's history influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.

 

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