Harriet Tubman: 8 Facts About the Daring Abolitionist

Harriet Tubman: 8 Facts About the Daring Abolitionist

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Her admirers called her “Moses” or “General Tubman,” but she was born Araminta Ross.
It’s unclear exactly when the woman who would be known as Harriet Tubman was born, with dates ranging from 1815 to 1822. Historians do know that she was one of nine children born to Harriet “Rit” and Ben Ross, enslaved people owned by two different families on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

With her parents separated, Tubman’s mother struggled to keep her family together, and three of Tubman’s sisters were sold to other plantation owners. Tubman’s owners, the Brodess family, “loaned” her out to work for others while she was still a child, under what were often miserable, dangerous conditions.

READ MORE: Enslaved Couples Faced Wrenching Separations, or Even Choosing Family Over Freedom

Sometime around 1844, she married John Tubman, a free Black man. Though Tubman remained enslaved, mixed marriages were not uncommon in the region, which had a large percentage of formerly enslaved people who had received (or bought) their manumission. Shortly after her marriage, Araminta, known as “Minty” to her family, changed her name to Harriet to honor her mother.

Tubman suffered lifelong pain and illness due to her mistreatment while enslaved.
From an early age Tubman was subjected to the beatings and abuse that were commonplace in many slave-owning homes. Already frail and small (she was likely no more than 5 feet tall), Tubman’s health began to deteriorate, decreasing her value to her owners and limiting her prospects for work.

When she was in her early teens, Tubman was badly injured when an owner, trying to stop the escape attempt of another enslaved person, threw a large weight across a room, striking Tubman in the head. Tubman was given little medical care or time to recuperate before she was sent back out to work. She never recovered from the damage done to her brain and skull, suffering periodic seizures that researchers believed may have been a form of epilepsy.

Tubman herself used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.
In September 1849, fearful that her owner was trying to sell her, Tubman and two of her brothers briefly escaped, though they didn’t make it far. For reasons still unknown, her brothers decided to turn back, forcing Tubman to return with them.

A few months later, Tubman set off again, this time on her own, leaving her husband and family behind as she made her way north through Delaware and Pennsylvania, stopping periodically at a series of hideouts along the Underground Railroad, before settling in Philadelphia. In late 1850, after hearing of the upcoming sale of one of her nieces, Tubman headed back down south, embarking on the first of nearly two dozen missions to help other enslaved people escape as she had.

It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in Tubman’s life.
One of the most complicated myths about Tubman is the claim (first mentioned in a 19th century biography) that she escorted more than 300 enslaved people to freedom over the course of 19 missions. Tubman herself never used this number, instead estimating that she had rescued around 50 people by 1860—mostly family members.

Historians now believe that it’s likely that she was personally responsible for ushering around 70 people to freedom along the Underground Railroad in the decade before the Civil War. It’s also unlikely that there was ever a substantial bounty offered for Tubman’s capture during her years as an undercover operator, let alone one worth tens of thousands of dollars, as some publications claimed.

It’s unlikely that Tubman’s former owners or the owners of the enslaved people she rescued ever realized that it was the woman formerly known as Minty Ross spiriting their enslaved people away. The only known “reward” offered for Tubman’s capture was a newspaper ad that her owner, Eliza Brodess, published in a Maryland paper after Tubman’s first escape attempt in September 1849. Brodess offered $300 for the capture and return of Tubman and two of her brothers.

Tubman’s “niece” may have actually been her biological child.
Tubman’s first husband, John, had stayed behind in Maryland rather than follow his wife north, eventually remarrying. After the Civil War ended, Tubman was also remarried, to a war veteran named Nelson Davis who was 22 years her junior. The couple later adopted a daughter, Gertie, but it is Tubman’s relationship to her another girl that has puzzled historians for more than a century.

Shortly after Tubman settled in Auburn, New York, in 1859, she travelled once again to Maryland on a rescue mission, this time returning with a young girl named Margaret, who Tubman referred to as her niece. Tubman claimed that Margaret was the daughter of a moderately comfortable family of freed Black people, leaving many to wonder why she would have uprooted the child from a stable home. Margaret’s resemblance to Tubman, and the pair’s unusually strong bond has led to the belief among historians that Margaret was Tubman’s own daughter, though her paternity remains unknown.

The Combahee Ferry Raid was one of her greatest achievements.
Shortly after war broke out in 1861, Tubman joined a group of other abolitionists who headed south to assist refuge enslaved people who has escaped to safety behind Union lines. Working in a series of camps in Union-held portions of South Carolina, Tubman quickly learned the lay of the land and offered her services to the army as a spy, leading a group of scouts who mapped out much of the region. Tubman’s reconnaissance work laid the foundation for one of the more daring raids of the Civil War, when she personally accompanied Union soldiers in their nighttime raid at Combahee Ferry in June 1863.

After guiding Union boats along the mine-filled waters and coming ashore, Tubman and her group successfully rescued more than 700 enslaved people working on nearby plantations, while dodging bullets and artillery shells from slave owners and Confederate soldiers rushing to the scene.

The success of the raid, which had also included the brave service of African-American soldiers, increased Tubman’s fame, and she went on to work on similar missions with the famed Massachusetts 54th Infantry before spending the final years of the war tending to injured soldiers. One hundred years after Tubman’s successes in South Carolina, a recently formed Black feminist group took the name Combahee River Collective in her honor, also paying honor to Tubman’s work later in her life as a powerful advocate for women’s suffrage.

READ MORE: After the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman Led a Brazen Civil War Raid

It took years for the U.S. government to pay Tubman for her Civil War work.
Despite her contributions to the war effort, Tubman received little compensation, likely earning less than $200 during the war itself. Compounding the issue was Tubman’s clandestine work as a spy, making it difficult for the federal government to formally recognize her work. For years, Tubman repeatedly requested an official military pension, but was denied. Two decades after the wars end, a U.S. congressman went so far as to introduce legislation calling for Tubman to receive a $2,000 pension, but the bill was defeated. In the end, Tubman received some military benefits, but only as the wife of an “official” veteran, her second husband, Nelson Davis.

Despite her fame and achievements, Tubman died in near poverty.
Tubman’s lifelong charity and generosity towards her family and fellow formerly enslaved people, coupled with a series of financial reversals late in her life left her in desperate straits. She struggled to pay off the purchase of a plot of land in Auburn, New York, that soon became home to her extended family and in 1873 she fell victim to a vicious fraud that saw her swindled and robbed of more than $2,000 and physically beaten by the conmen.

Tubman’s supporters desperately tried to alleviate her financial suffering, holding benefits and writing newspaper reports to raise funds. Tubman also agreed to work with a biographer, Sarah Bradford, on two books about her extraordinary life, with the proceeds used to support Tubman. Bradford, a fellow abolitionist and Tubman admirer, undoubtedly had good intentions, but it was her work that created many of the fallacies and inconsistencies with the historical record that has left much of the true nature of Tubman’s important work unclear.

Though Tubman never managed to truly escape her dire financial straits, she continued to donate her money to various causes, donating a parcel of land near her Auburn, New York, home for the creation of what became known as the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which was to be open only to impoverished Black people. When Tubman’s own health began to fail in 1911, she herself entered the home she had helped create, dying there of pneumonia on March 10, 1913.

READ MORE: 6 Strategies Harriet Tubman and Others Used to Escape Along the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman: 8 Facts About the Daring Abolitionist - HISTORY

Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad's "conductors." During a ten-year span she made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom. And, as she once proudly pointed out to Frederick Douglass, in all of her journeys she "never lost a single passenger."

Tubman was born a slave in Maryland's Dorchester County around 1820. At age five or six, she began to work as a house servant. Seven years later she was sent to work in the fields. While she was still in her early teens, she suffered an injury that would follow her for the rest of her life. Always ready to stand up for someone else, Tubman blocked a doorway to protect another field hand from an angry overseer. The overseer picked up and threw a two-pound weight at the field hand. It fell short, striking Tubman on the head. She never fully recovered from the blow, which subjected her to spells in which she would fall into a deep sleep.

Around 1844 she married a free black named John Tubman and took his last name. (She was born Araminta Ross she later changed her first name to Harriet, after her mother.) In 1849, in fear that she, along with the other slaves on the plantation, was to be sold, Tubman resolved to run away. She set out one night on foot. With some assistance from a friendly white woman, Tubman was on her way. She followed the North Star by night, making her way to Pennsylvania and soon after to Philadelphia, where she found work and saved her money. The following year she returned to Maryland and escorted her sister and her sister's two children to freedom. She made the dangerous trip back to the South soon after to rescue her brother and two other men. On her third return, she went after her husband, only to find he had taken another wife. Undeterred, she found other slaves seeking freedom and escorted them to the North.

Tubman returned to the South again and again. She devised clever techniques that helped make her "forays" successful, including using the master's horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey leaving on a Saturday night, since runaway notices couldn't be placed in newspapers until Monday morning turning about and heading south if she encountered possible slave hunters and carrying a drug to use on a baby if its crying might put the fugitives in danger. Tubman even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, "You'll be free or die."

By 1856, Tubman's capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. On one occasion, she overheard some men reading her wanted poster, which stated that she was illiterate. She promptly pulled out a book and feigned reading it. The ploy was enough to fool the men.

Tubman had made the perilous trip to slave country 19 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. Of the famed heroine, who became known as "Moses," Frederick Douglass said, "Excepting John Brown -- of sacred memory -- I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman]."
And John Brown, who conferred with "General Tubman" about his plans to raid Harpers Ferry, once said that she was "one of the bravest persons on this continent."

Becoming friends with the leading abolitionists of the day, Tubman took part in antislavery meetings. On the way to such a meeting in Boston in 1860, in an incident in Troy, New York, she helped a fugitive slave who had been captured.

During the Civil War Harriet Tubman worked for the Union as a cook, a nurse, and even a spy. After the war she settled in Auburn, New York, where she would spend the rest of her long life. She died in 1913.

Tubman freed slaves just not that many

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta "Minty" Ross in the early 1820s in Dorchester County, Maryland. She was a house slave from a young age before working the field harvesting flax at age 13. Early on, Tubman suffered a traumatic brain injury when an overseer threw a heavy weight, aiming for another slave but striking Tubman instead. She did not receive proper medical care and would suffer "sleeping fits," likely seizures, for years after.

In the fall of 1849, Tubman managed to escape north using the Underground Railroad and would later serve as a "conductor" for many other escaping slaves. Existing documentation and Tubman's own words show she would make the trip to Maryland approximately 13 times, not 19 as the meme claims.

According to the National Park Service in an article on myths and facts about Tubman, "During public and private meetings during 1858 and 1859, Tubman repeatedly told people that she had rescued 50 to 60 people in eight or nine trips. This was before her very last mission, in December 1860, when she brought away seven people."

Harriet Tubman, 1868 or 1869, taken by Benjamin Powelson. (Photo: Collection of the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History & Culture.)

The exaggerated number in the meme is believed to have been propagated by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a writer and historian who was a contemporary of Tubman, best known for her biographies on the abolitionist.

"Bradford never said that Tubman gave her those numbers, but rather, Bradford estimated the exaggerated number. Other friends who were close to Tubman specifically contradicted those higher numbers," the National Park Service writes.

"My research has confirmed that estimate, establishing she brought away about 70 people in about 13 trips and gave instructions to about 70 more who found their way to freedom on their own," she wrote in a 2016 Washington Post opinion piece.

Harriet Tubman: 8 Facts About the Daring Abolitionist - HISTORY

Known as the “Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman was enslaved, escaped, and helped others gain their freedom as a “conductor" of the Underground Railroad. Tubman also served as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. She is considered the first African American woman to serve in the military.

Tubman’s exact birth date is unknown, but estimates place it between 1820 and 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Born Araminta Ross, the daughter of Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross, Tubman had eight siblings. By age five, Tubman’s owners rented her out to neighbors as a domestic servant. Early signs of her resistance to slavery and its abuses came at age twelve when she intervened to keep her master from beating an enslaved man who tried to escape. She was hit in the head with a two-pound weight, leaving her with a lifetime of severe headaches and narcolepsy.

Although slaves were not legally allowed to marry, Tubman entered a marital union with John Tubman, a free black man, in 1844. She took his name and dubbed herself Harriet.

Contrary to legend, Tubman did not create the Underground Railroad it was established in the late eighteenth century by black and white abolitionists. Tubman likely benefitted from this network of escape routes and safe houses in 1849, when she and two brothers escaped north. Her husband refused to join her, and by 1851 he had married a free black woman. Tubman returned to the South several times and helped dozens of people escape. Her success led slaveowners to post a $40,000 reward for her capture or death.

Tubman was never caught and never lost a “passenger.” She participated in other antislavery efforts, including supporting John Brown in his failed 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry, Virginia arsenal.

Through the Underground Railroad, Tubman learned the towns and transportation routes characterizing the South — information that made her important to Union military commanders during the Civil War. As a Union spy and scout, Tubman often transformed herself into an aging woman. She would wander the streets under Confederate control and learn from the enslaved population about Confederate troop placements and supply lines. Tubman helped many of these individuals find food, shelter, and even jobs in the North. She also became a respected guerrilla operative. As a nurse, Tubman dispensed herbal remedies to black and white soldiers dying from infection and disease.

After the war, Tubman raised funds to aid freedmen, joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in their quest for women’s suffrage, cared for her aging parents, and worked with white writer Sarah Bradford on her autobiography as a potential source of income. She married a Union soldier Nelson Davis, also born into slavery, who was more than twenty years her junior. Residing in Auburn, New York, she cared for the elderly in her home and in 1874, the Davises adopted a daughter. After an extensive campaign for a military pension, she was finally awarded $8 per month in 1895 as Davis’s widow (he died in 1888) and $20 in 1899 for her service. In 1896, she established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged on land near her home. Tubman died in 1913 and was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

Why Harriet Tubman’s Heroic Military Career Is Now Easier to Envision

On June 1 and 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman made history—again. After escaping slavery in 1849 and subsequently rescuing more than 70 other slaves during her service as an Underground Railroad conductor, she became the first woman in American history to lead a military assault. The successful Combahee Ferry Raid freed more than 700 slaves in a chaotic scene.

After working for the Union army as a nurse and a spy, Tubman worked alongside Col. James Montgomery to plan and execute the mission along South Carolina’s Combahee River in South Carolina. Her spy work helped to catch the Confederate military off-guard and made it possible for a group of African American soldiers to overrun plantations, seizing or destroying valuable property.

Over the years of her life, Tubman’s repeated efforts to free slaves had become known through press reports and a biography. However, until recently, it has been difficult to envision this petite-but-powerful heroine because the best-known Tubman photograph, taken in 1885, showed an elderly matron rather than the steadfast adventurer her history describes. “That’s been the tradition of viewing Harriet Tubman. She did all these daring things, but not having a visual image of her that would connect her experiences and what she did with that older woman was almost an oxymoron,” says Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

All of that changed in 2017 when the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired a photograph of Tubman taken in 1868 or 1869, about five years after the Combahee raid. This image created excitement among historians who had longed to see a younger vision of Tubman. A recent episode of the National Portrait Gallery’s series of podcasts, Portraits, takes a closer look at the photograph’s impact on how we think about Tubman and the work she did.

Hayden recalls receiving the first news that the photograph existed. She got a phone call about the “first known photograph of Harriet Tubman,” and the person on the other end told her, “She’s YOUNG!” Tubman was about 45 when the photo was taken. When Hayden saw the image, she thought, “Oh my God, this is the woman that led troops and that was so forceful and that was a nurse and that did all these things and was so determined.” This image, long hidden in an album kept by a Quaker abolitionist and teacher, reveals the fierce woman heralded in historical accounts.

Listen to the National Portrait Gallery's "Portraits" podcast

"Growing Younger with Harriet Tubman," featuring Carla Hayden and Kasi Lemmons

Kasi Lemmons, who directed the 2019 film, Harriet, describes in the podcast her first reaction to this newly unearthed photo: “It’s not too much to say that I fell in love when I saw this picture of Harriet Tubman.” Lemmons was impressed by Tubman’s strength and by her grace. “She looks at home in her own skin. She’s looking at the camera—a very direct look. If you look carefully at her eyes, you see so much. You see sadness, and I see righteousness, and I see the power. You see incredible power in her eyes.”

Lemmons feels that the photo makes it possible to view Tubman’s life in a different light. “Her life lends itself inherently to an adventure story, but we couldn’t connect the image of her as an old, almost kindly looking, slightly stern old lady to the stories we knew of her heroics.” The photograph and a closer examination of Tubman’s history made it possible for her film to re-envision Tubman’s many rescues as something more than an example of great courage and determination. “It’s really a love story,” Lemmons says. “Harriet was motivated by love, love of her family, love for her husband. And then rescuing her people was connected to that, but almost incidental. It started with love of family.”

In many ways, Tubman’s story is a startling one. She triumphed as a black woman at a time when both African Americans and women had limited roles in a society dominated by white men. She also succeeded despite a disability: She suffered from seizures after being struck in the head as a teenager. In the wake of these blackouts, she sometimes reported having visions and speaking to God.

After the Civil War began, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, an abolitionist, asked Tubman to help the Union Army, and she did, serving in several roles. Her knowledge of roots and herbs helped her while serving as a nurse to both soldiers and escaped slaves. The army also recruited her to serve as a scout and to build a spy ring in South Carolina. She developed contacts with slaves in the area, and in January 1863, she received $100 from the Secret Service to pay informants for critical details that could guide the Union Army’s operations. Often, her sources were water pilots, who traveled the area’s rivers and knew about enemy positions and troop movements.

The Union had captured Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861, giving them a foothold in enemy territory. Many plantation owners had fled the area, leaving their plantations to be run by overseers. Confederate forces had planted mines in the Combahee River, but Tubman and her allies were able to locate each one.

Following plans laid out by Montgomery and Tubman, three gunboats carrying about 150 soldiers, mostly from the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, headed upstream on June 1, 1863 and safely avoided the mines. The next day, Montgomery ordered his men to destroy a pontoon bridge at Combahee Ferry. On neighboring plantations, soldiers confiscated supplies and burned much of what they couldn’t take with them.

The now famous 1868-69 photograph of Tubman had long been hidden in an album kept by a Quaker abolitionist and teacher. (NMAAHC, Library of Congress)

After blowing their whistles to signal escaping slaves, the gunboats dispatched rowboats to pick up runaways. “I never saw such a sight,” Tubman later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks it appears I never saw so many twins in my life bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.” It quickly became clear that there was not enough space on the rowboats to transport all of the slaves at once. Afraid of being left behind, some held onto the boats because they feared the gunboats wouldn’t wait for them. An officer asked Tubman to calm the slaves, so she stood on the bow of a boat and sang an abolitionist anthem:

Of all the whole creation in the east
or in the west
The glorious Yankee nation is the
greatest and the best
Come along! Come along!
don’t be alarmed.

The panicked fugitives began to shout “Glory!” in response to her song, and the rowboats were able to unload the first batch of escapees and return for the more. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board,” she later said. Of the 700 slaves who escaped, about 100 joined the Union Army.

The first woman to lead a military operation was Harriet Tubman

The first woman to lead a military op might not meet your stereotype. Instead, envision the Civil War, and a woman who has been working as a spy for the Union Army. She has been gathering valuable information to help the Union turn the tide in the war. She has come to be relied on by generals for the information that she supplies. And with that, she is given the opportunity to lead a military operation called the Combahee Ferry Raid.

Do you have the woman pictured in your mind?

Her name is Harriet Tubman and you might have learned her story as one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad. Even referred to as the “Moses of her people,” but being a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad is just part of her story.

Harriet was born into slavery between 1820 and 1825. In 1844, even though it wasn’t allowed, she married a free, Black man named John Tubman. She was ready to escape slavery in 1849, but her husband did not want to leave Maryland. She left anyway and eventually he remarried in 1851. It was after she was freed from slavery that she began to go back countless times to help other slaves find their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She is remembered in history for never being caught or losing a passenger on the road to freedom.

But this is only the beginning of her story.

Because of her extensive knowledge of the South due to the Underground Railroad, Tubman became a key informant for the North (Union Army). She knew the towns and transportation routes of the South and long before GPS or reliable maps, this made her insight an invaluable tool. Not only would she dress up as an aging woman and wander Confederate streets and talk to enslaved people and gather information such as troop movement/placement and supply lines, but her work made her a respected guerrilla operative. So much so that in 1963 she began to plan a military operation under the command of Colonel James Montgomery.

The Union officers knew that the people of the South didn’t trust them, but did trust Harriet. Her demeanor and way with people were just part of the asset she provided to the military. Although she was illiterate, she was able to capture intelligence with her memory. To make the Combahee Ferry Raid a success, they traveled upriver in three boats: the John Adams, Sentinel and Harriet A Weed. They relied on Harriet’s memory where the slaves were at strategic points to collect the fleeing slaves while also using those points as places they could destroy Confederate property. She also helped them navigate around known torpedoes.

At around 2:30 AM on June 2, they were down to two ships as the Sentinel had run aground early on in the mission. The two remaining ships split up to conduct different raids. Harriet Tubman led 150 men on the John Adams toward the fugitives. Once the signal was given, there was chaos. Slaves running everywhere. Angry slave owners and rebels tried to chase down the slaves, even firing their guns on them. As the escaped slaves ran to the shore, black troops waited in rowboats to transfer them to the ships. In the chaos, Tubman broke out into popular songs from the abolitionist movement to help calm everyone down. That night, more than 700 slaves escaped. The troops also disembarked near Field’s Point, torching plantations, fields, mills, warehouses, and mansions. Overall, it was a huge success and caused a humiliating defeat for the Confederacy.

The first story written by a Wisconsin State Journal noted Harriet as the “She Moses,” but didn’t actually include her name. A month later Franklin Sanborn, the editor of Boston’s Commonwealth newspaper picked up the story and named Harriet Tubman, a friend of his, as the heroine.

Even with the mission’s success, Harriet was not paid for her contribution. She petitioned the government many times and was denied because she was a woman.

After the war, she dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly. She also continued to petition for recognition from the military with a military pension. She also remarried a Black Union soldier, Nelson Davis. And eventually, Tubman received military compensation after his death. Although she often found herself in financial constraints, she was always giving her time and money.

If you would like to learn more about Harriet Tubman you can check out these resources and books:

4. The Poles — Livonian War

Not to be outdone by the Swedes, Poland also got involved with conflict in the Russians around the turn of the 17th century. Swedish and Polish armies invaded Russia from different fronts and would eventually fight each other. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth get most of the credit for invading Russia because they seized and held territory in the name of Roman Catholicism.

The Polish king, Stefan Bathory, lead a widely-successful, five-year campaign against Ivan IV (or, as history knows him, Ivan the Terrible). It would take years for Russian forces to reunify under the Romanov dynasty and defend the Kremlin.

Harriet Tubman's age is unknown.

Tubman was born Araminta "Minty" Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, but since she was born into slavery, her exact date of birth is unknown. It's widely believed she was born around 1820, and the National Parks Conversation Association lists 1822 as her birth year.

Tubman died in 1913. Before her death, she uttered her last words: "I go to prepare a place for you." She was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

10 Facts: Harriet Tubman

Fact #1: Tubman was born into slavery in Eastern Maryland sometime between 1820 and 1821.

Because of the cruelty of her various masters, she desired to somehow escape from bondage from a very early age, and free others as well. She would later recall, "I had seen their tears and sighs, and I had heard their groans, and would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them."

Fact #2: As a child, she received a severe head injury.

As she was doing errands, an overseer tried to stop a runaway slave by throwing a two-pound weight at him. He hit Tubman instead, who was standing nearby the runaway, and caused her skull to crack, which affected her health for the rest of her life, often in the form of seizures.

Fact #3: After escaping from slavery, she returned to Maryland in 1850 as an Underground Railroad “conductor.”

She chose to do so after hearing her niece was soon to be auctioned off. She would go on to rescue over 70 other slaves until the outbreak of the Civil War, and did not fail a single rescue. It was during this time she acquired her nickname "Moses."

Harriet Tubman

Fact #4: She employed numerous disguises on her first successful attempt to escape from slavery.

She often would pretend to be a field hand by walking around with chickens, or as a house-servant when she stayed at the home of an abolitionist couple. One notable disguise she used was pretending to read a newspaper to allay suspicion, as she was known to be illiterate. She employed spirituals and songs as coded messages to her followers.

Fact #5: Tubman joined the Union army as a nurse, but also acted as a scout and spy behind enemy lines.

Despite her efforts and general fame, she was only able to acquire a nurse’s pension after the war ended.

Fact #6: One of the most famous missions she took part in was the raid on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina.

During this raid, she worked with Union Colonel James Montgomery to free over 700 slaves at once.

“Raid of Second South Carolina Volunteers (Col. Montgomery) Among the Rice Plantation of the Combahee, S.C.” from Harper's Weekly. During this raid, Harriet Tubman worked with Union Colonel James Montgomery to free over 700 slaves at once. Library of Congress

Fact #7: At one point after the war, her financial situation became so dire, she fell prey to a gold smuggling con.

The incident and cause surrounding it provoked outrage and many of her friends and acquaintances rallied to support her in response.

Portrait of Harriet Tubman at midlife. Library of Congress

Fact #8: Like many other high-profile women of her time, she became heavily involved with promoting women’s suffrage with figures like Susan B. Anthony.

Though it may have sunk her further into poverty, she frequently traveled to give speeches on the topic in Washington D.C. and New York City.

Fact #9: She underwent brain surgery in the 1890’s to alleviate the headaches she had suffered for most of her life.

Inspired by soldiers she had seen going through surgery during the war, she refused anesthesia for the operation.

Fact #10: Tubman died in the Home for the Aged she herself had founded.

Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913 at the rest home named in her honor in Auburn, New York. She was buried with military honors in the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, which also included such figures as Secretary of State William Seward.

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When the slave power extended its tentacles into the North with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Tubman relocated to Canada along with thousands of other black refugees. Tubman risked her freedom again and again, not just by returning to the North, but also with missions into the Slave South. Her activities became even more notorious when Tubman became a staunch supporter of John Brown, who called her “General Tubman” long before Lincoln began handing out commissions.

Early in the war, Tubman informally attached herself to the military. Benjamin Butler, a Democrat, had been a member of the Massachusetts delegation to Congress and made a name for himself in the Union Army. A tough opportunist, Butler was often underestimated until his bully tactics began to pay off. Commissioned a brigadier general, Butler led his men into Maryland, where he threatened to arrest any legislator who attempted to vote for secession.

Trailing along with Butler’s all-white troops in May 1861, Tubman arrived at the camps near Fort Monroe, Va. The large fort and the nearby tent city of troops soon became a major magnet for escaped slaves. Tubman found herself in familiar territory.

How Harriet Tubman's military service added up to $20 — a month

Her experience during the Civil War is a bona fide part of her legacy.

By March 1862, the Union had conquered enough territory that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton designated Georgia, Florida and South Carolina as the Department of the South. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, a staunch abolitionist, asked Tubman to join the contingent of his state’s volunteers heading for South Carolina, and promised his sponsorship. Andrew also obtained military passage for Tubman on USS Atlantic.

The Union troops along the coast of South Carolina were in a precarious position. They were essentially encircled, with Confederates on three sides and the ocean on the fourth. Nevertheless, Maj. Gen. David Hunter, the newly appointed Union commander of the region, had ambitious ideas about how to expand Northern control.

In November 1862, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson arrived with the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, and Colonel James Montgomery and the 2nd South Carolina were in the area by early 1863. Escaped slaves filled both regiments, and Higginson and Montgomery both knew Tubman from before the war. In those men, both abolitionists, Tubman had gained influential friends and advocates, and they suggested that a spy network be established in the region.

Tubman had spent 10 months as a nurse ministering to the sick of those regiments, and by early 1863 she was ready for a more active role. She was given the authority to line up a roster of scouts, to infiltrate and map out the interior. Several were trusted boat pilots, like Solomon Gregory, who knew the local waterways very well and could travel on them undetected. Her closely knit band included men named Mott Blake, Peter Burns, Gabriel Cahern, George Chisholm, Isaac Hayward, Walter Plowden, Charles Simmons and Sandy Suffum, and they became an official scouting service for the Department of the South.

/>Harriet Tubman launched an illustrious career as a member of the Underground Railroad. Tubman was the “Great Emancipator,” leading scores of escaping African Americans to freedom, often all the way to Canada. She built up a network of supporters and admirers, including William Lloyd Garrison and William Seward, to name but two who lauded her efforts. (Library of Congress)

Tubman’s espionage operation was under the direction of Stanton, who considered her the commander of her men. Tubman passed along information directly to either Hunter or Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton. In March 1863, Saxton wrote confidently to Stanton concerning a planned assault on Jacksonville, Fla.: “I have reliable information that there are large numbers of able bodied Negroes in that vicinity who are watching for an opportunity to join us.”

Based on the information procured by Tubman’s agents, Colonel Montgomery led a successful expedition to capture the town. Tubman’s crucial intelligence and Montgomery’s bravado convinced commanders that other extensive guerrilla operations were feasible.

Their confidence led to the Combahee River Raid in June 1863 — a military operation that marked a turning point in Tubman’s career. Until then, all of her attacks upon the Confederacy had been purposefully clandestine. But she did not remain anonymous with her prominent role in that military operation.

South Carolina’s lowcountry rice plantations sat alongside tidal rivers that fanned inland from the Atlantic and that had some of the South’s richest land and largest slave populations. Federal commanders wanted to move up the rivers to destroy plantations and liberate slaves in order to recruit more black regiments.

The raid up the Combahee River, a twisting waterway approximately 10 miles north of Beaufort where Tubman and her comrades were stationed, commenced when the Federal gunboats Harriet A. Weed and John Adams steamed into the river shortly before midnight on the evening of June 2, 1863. Tubman accompanied 150 African-American troops from the 2nd South Carolina Infantry and their white officers aboard John Adams. The black soldiers were particularly relieved that their lives had been entrusted not only to Colonel Montgomery but also to the famed “Moses.”

Tubman had been informed of the location of Rebel torpedoes — floating mines planted below the surface of the water — in the river and served as a lookout for the Union pilots, allowing them to guide their boats around the explosives unharmed. By 3 a.m., the expedition had reached Fields Point, and Montgomery sent a squad ashore to drive off Confederate pickets, who withdrew but sent comrades to warn fellow troops at Chisholmville, 10 miles upriver.

Meanwhile, a company of the 2nd South Carolina under Captain Carver landed and deployed at Tar Bluff, two miles north of Fields Point. The two ships steamed upriver to the Nichols Plantation, where Harriet A. Weed anchored. She also guided the boats and men to designated shoreline spots where scores of fugitive slaves were hiding out. Once the “all clear” was given, the slaves scrambled onto the vessels.

“I never saw such a sight,” Tubman described of the scene. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks it appears I never saw so many twins in my life bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

According to one Confederate onlooker, “[Tubman] passed safely the point where the torpedoes were placed and finally reached the … ferry, which they immediately commenced cutting way, landed to all appearances a group at Mr. Middleton’s and in a few minutes his buildings were in flames.”

Robbing warehouses and torching planter homes was an added bonus for the black troops, striking hard and deep at the proud master class. The horror of this attack on the prestigious Middleton estate drove the point home. Dixie might fall at the hands of their former slaves. The Confederates reportedly stopped only one lone slave from escaping — shooting her in flight.

Hard charging to the water’s edge, the Confederate commander could catch only a glimpse of escaping gunboats, pale in the morning light. In a fury, Confederate Major William P. Emmanuel pushed his men into pursuit — and got trapped between the riverbank and Union snipers.

In the heat of skirmish, Emmanuel’s gunners were able to fire off only four rounds, booming shots that plunked harmlessly into the water. Frustrated, the Confederate commander cut his losses after one of his men was wounded and ordered his troops to pull back. More than 750 slaves would be freed in the overnight operation on the Combahee.

The Union invaders had despoiled the estates of the Heywards, the Middletons, the Lowndes, and other South Carolina dynasties. Tubman’s plan was successful. The official Confederate report concluded: “The enemy seems to have been well posted as to the character and capacity of our troops and their small chance of encountering opposition, and to have been well guided by persons thoroughly acquainted with the river and country.”

Federal commanders came to depend on her, but kept her name out of official military documents. As a black and a woman she became doubly invisible. This invisibility aided her when Union commanders sent her as far south as Fernandina, Fla., to assist Union soldiers dropping like flies from fevers and fatigue.

Robbing the “Cradle of Secession” was a grand theatrical gesture, a headline-grabbing strategy that won plaudits from government, military and civilian leaders throughout the North. After the Combahee River Raid, critics North and South could no longer pretend that blacks were unfit for military service, as this was a well-executed, spectacularly successful operation.

Flushed with triumph, Hunter wrote jubilantly to Secretary of War Stanton on June 3, boasting that Combahee was only the beginning. He also wrote to Governor Andrew, promising that Union operations would “desolate” Confederate slaveholders “by carrying away their slaves, thus rapidly filling up the South Carolina regiments of which there are now four.” Andrew had been a champion of black soldiers, a steadfast supporter of Hunter’s campaign to put ex-slaves in uniform.

The Confederacy discovered overnight what it took the Union’s Department of the South over a year to find out — Harriet Tubman was a formidable secret weapon whose gifts should never be underestimated. Federal commanders came to depend on her, but kept her name out of official military documents. As a black and a woman she became doubly invisible. This invisibility aided her when Union commanders sent her as far south as Fernandina, Fla., to assist Union soldiers dropping like flies from fevers and fatigue.

Tubman’s own health faltered during the summer of 1864, and she returned north for a furlough. She was making her way back South in early 1865 when peace intervened, so she returned to Auburn, where she had settled her parents, and made a home. Postwar, Tubman often lived hand to mouth, doing odd jobs and domestic service to earn her living, but she also collected money for charity. She sought patrons to realize her dream of establishing a home for blacks in her hometown—for the indigent, the disabled, the veteran and the homeless.

“It seems strange that one who has done so much for her country and been in the thick of the battles with shots falling all about her, should never have had recognition from the Government in a substantial way,” chided the writers of a July 1896 article in The Chautauquan. Tubman echoed that lament: “You wouldn’t think that after I served the flag so faithfully I should come to want under its folds.”

In 1897 a petition requesting that Congressman Sereno E. Payne of New York “bring up the matter [of Tubman’s military pension] again and press it to a final and successful termination” was circulated and endorsed by Auburn’s most influential citizens. Payne’s new bill proposed that Congress grant Tubman a “military pension” of $25 per month — the exact amount received by surviving soldiers.

A National Archives staffer who later conducted research on this claim suggested there was no extant evidence in government records to support Tubman’s claim that she had been working under the direction of the secretary of war. Some on the committee believed that Tubman’s service as a spy and scout, supported by valid documentation, justified such a pension. Others suggested that the matter of a soldier’s pension should be dropped, as she could more legitimately be pensioned as a nurse.

One member of the committee, W. Jasper Talbert of South Carolina, possibly blocked Tubman’s pension vindictively — it was a point of honor to this white Southern statesman that a black woman not be given her due.

Regardless, a compromise was finally achieved, decades after she had first applied for a pension based on her service. In 1888, Tubman had been granted a widow’s pension of $8 a month, based on the death of her second husband, USCT veteran Nelson Davis. The compromise granted an increase “on account of special circumstances.” The House authorized raising the amount to $25 (the exact amount for surviving soldiers), while the Senate amended with an increase to only $20 — which was finally passed by both houses.

President William McKinley signed the pension into law in February 1899. After 30 years of struggle, Tubman’s sense of victory was tremendous. Not only would the money secure her an income and allow her to continue her philanthropic activities, her military role was finally validated. Details of Tubman’s wartime service became part of the Congressional Record, with the recognition that “in view of her personal services to the Government, Congress is amply justified in increasing that pension.”

Tubman’s heroic role in the Civil War is finally being highlighted and appreciated for what it was, part of a long life of struggling for freedom, risking personal liberty for patriotic sacrifice.

10 Interesting facts about Harriet Tubman

1. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery

Harriet Tubman was born with the name Araminta Ross. She was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was not uncommon for families there to feature both enslaved and free members. Harriet’s husband, John Tubman from whom she took her last name later in life, was, in fact, a free man.

An interesting fact about Harriet Tubman is that she would earn her own freedom when she escaped from Maryland to the free state of Pennsylvania. Her husband would stay in Maryland and remarry some years later.

2. Harriet Tubman made 13 missions and released around 70 slaves

After getting her own freedom following her escape to Pennsylvania, Harriet made it her mission to help those who had been left behind.

She made 13 missions in total to save friends and family from slavery, saving approximately 70 slaves in the process. She put herself at great risk by doing so. She would use a network of fellow anti-slavery activists and the famous ‘underground railroad’ in order to do this.

During this period, she earned herself the nickname ‘Moses’ because it was said that she never left anybody behind.

3. Harriet Tubman worked with the famous abolitionist, John Brown

In April 1858, Tubman met with the famous abolitionist John Brown. Brown advocated violence against white slave owners in order to turn the tide on slavery. He had become famous for his involvement in leading volunteers during the Bleeding Kansas crisis in 1856.

John Brown was recruiting volunteers to help launch an attack on slaveholders in several states and saw Harriet Tubman and her connections as a valuable asset in these preparations. She became known as General Tubman and was an integral part of his operation.

4. Harriet Tubman worked as a nurse, a cook and a spy during the American Civil War

Harriet Tubman was incredibly active during the American Civil War and viewed as a unionist victory as a key step towards the abolition of slavery.

A great fact about Harriet Tubman is that her knowledge of the underground railroad made her a valuable asset as it provided a unique perspective on the lay of the land.

Her most notable work in the war was as a nurse. Her knowledge of home remedies from her days in Maryland were especially useful and it is said that she did an excellent job of helping people who were suffering from dysentery, which was one of the biggest killers in the camps during this period.

5. Harriet Tubman was the first female to lead a combat assault

Another notable moment for Harriet Tubman in the American Civil War came when, under the command of Colonel James Montgomery, she led 150 black Union troops across the Combahee River in South Carolina in June 1863.

She and the troops freed over 700 slaves during the raid and Tubman did not lose a single troop either.

6. Harriet Tubman was a supporter of the women’s rights movement

Following the abolition of slavery, Tubman turned her attention to another pressing matter at the end of the 19th century- women’s rights and the suffrage movement.

Despite being a lot older at the time, Tubman still travelled the country in support of the movement and spoke at meetings in key cities like New York, Washington and Boston. She was also the keynote speaker at the inaugural meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1896.

Harriet Tubman was well respected in the women’s rights community and was regularly profiled and featured in important publications during this time period.

7. Harriet Tubman refused anesthesia during brain surgery

Having suffered from seizures and narcolepsy for the majority of her life, Tubman underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1890’s.

A widely unknown fact about Harriet Tubman is that inspired by the soldiers she had fought within the Civil War, Tubman refused to be given anesthesia during the operation and instead opting to bite down a bullet during the entire procedure.

8. Harriet Tubman died in 1913 at the age of 90

Tubman had spent a lot of her life suffering seizures and headaches and these began to get worse as the years rolled by and she became older.

In the early 20th century her health began to decline rapidly as these ailments became more prominent. She became increasingly frail and in 1911 she was put into a rest home which had been named after her.

After two more years, Harriet Tubman passed away from pneumonia in 1913 surrounded by her friends and family.

9. Harriet Tubman and the twenty-dollar bill

In 2016, the treasury secretary Jack Lew announced his intention to add the picture of Harriet Tubman to the front of the US twenty-dollar bill. Andrew Jackson, the former US President who is currently on the US twenty-dollar bill would be moved to the back. With Jackson himself being a slave owner this would be seen as quite a symbolic move in America.

In 2017 though these plans appeared to have been put on hold. Jack Lew’s replacement Steve Mnuchin said that he could not commit to making the changes to the bill because of how long people had been on them.

10. A film about Harriet Tubman’s life premiered in 2019

A biopic about Tubman’s life made its premiere at the Toronto film festival in 2019. The film, simply titled Harriet, stars British actress Cynthia Erivo in the titular role and was directed by Kassi Lemmons.

The film was met with a lukewarm response from critics but Cynthia Evro was praised for her powerful portrayal of Tubman.

Over 100 years after her death, Tubman’s influence is still widely felt across America today and that is reflected in her role in popular culture.

Her thoughts and ideas are still kept alive in the social justice movements of the 21st century and she is arguably one of the most important women in American political history.

I hope that this article on Harriet Tubman facts was helpful! If you are interested, visit the historical people page!


  1. Nar

    to read it by what it

  2. Nira

    As well as possible!

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