Harriet Tubman, originally named Araminta Ross, was one of 11 children born to slaves Harriet Greene and Benjamin Ross on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland.
She later adopted her mother’s first name. Harriet was put to work at the age of five and served as a maid and a children’s nurse before becoming a field hand when she was 12. A year later, a white man—either her overseer or her master—hit her on the head with a heavy weight. The blow left her with permanent neurological damage, and she experienced sudden blackouts throughout the rest of her life. In 1844 she received permission from her master to marry John Tubman, a free black man.Order now
For the next five years Harriet Tubman lived in a state of semi-slavery: she remained legally a slave, but her master allowed her to live with her husband. However, the death of her master in 1847, followed by the death of his young son and heir in 1849, made Tubman’s status uncertain. Amid rumors that the family’s slaves would be sold to settle the estate, Tubman fled to the North and freedom. Her husband remained in Maryland. In 1849 Harriet Tubman moved to Pennsylvania, but returned to Maryland two years later hoping to persuade her husband to come North with her. By this time John Tubman had remarried.
Harriet did not marry again until after Tubman’s death. In Pennsylvania, Harriet Tubman joined the abolitionist cause, working to end slavery. She decided to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a network of antislavery activists who helped slaves escape from the South. On her first trip in 1850, Tubman brought her own sister and her sister’s two children out of slavery in Maryland. In 1851 she rescued her brother, and in 1857 returned to Maryland to guide her aged parents to freedom. Over a period of ten years Tubman made an estimated 19 expeditions into the South and personally escorted about 300 slaves to the North.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had created federal commissioners in every county to assist in the return of runaways and provided harsh punishments for those convicted of helping slaves to escape. Harriet Tubman was a likely target of the law, so in 1851 she moved to Saint Catharines, a city in Ontario, Canada, that was the destination of many escaped slaves. By the late 1850s a number of Northern states passed personal liberty laws that protected the rights of fugitive slaves, so Tubman was able to purchase land and move with her parents to Auburn, New York, a center of antislavery sentiment. Tubman faced great danger guiding slaves to freedom, as Southerners offered large rewards for her capture. Tubman brilliantly used disguises—sometimes posing as a deranged old man and, at other times, as an old woman—to avoid suspicion when traveling in slave states.
She carried a sleeping powder to stop babies from crying and always had a pistol to prevent her charges from backing out once the journey to freedom had begun. Tubman constantly changed her route and her method of operation, though she almost always began her escapes on Saturday night for two reasons. First, many masters did not make their slaves work on Sundays and thus might not miss them until Monday, when the runaways had already traveled a full day and a half. Second, newspapers advertising the escape would not be published until the beginning of the week, so by the time copies reached readers, Tubman and the fugitive slaves were likely to be close to their destination in the North. Tubman never lost any of her charges and seemed to have an unusual ability to find food and shelter during these hazardous missions. Among African Americans she came to be known as Moses, after the Biblical hero who led the Hebrews out of enslavement in Egypt.
Tubman also served as an inspiration to both white and black abolitionists. She worked closely with black antislavery activist William Still in Philadelphia and with Underground Railroad conductor Thomas Garrett, a Quaker who lived in Wilmington, Delaware. Abolitionist John Brown gave her the title “General Tubman.” She consulted with Brown on his plan to start an armed .