Harriet Tubman Biography: The Untold Chapters of Harriet Tubman’s Life

Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross, c. 1822 – March 10, 1913) was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the struggle for women’s suffrage.

Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross to enslaved parents, Harriet (“Rit”) Green and Ben Ross. Rit was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess (and later her son Edward). Ben was held by Anthony Thompson, who became Mary’s second husband, and who ran a large plantation near Blackwater River in Madison, Maryland.

As with many enslaved people in the United States, neither the exact year nor place of Tubman’s birth is known, and historians differ as to the best estimate. Kate Larson records the year as 1822, based on a midwife payment and several other historical documents, including Tubman’s runaway advertisement, while Jean Humez says “[Tubman] was born between 1820 and 1825, probably closer to 1820”.

Catherine Clinton notes that Tubman reported the year of her birth as 1825, while her death certificate lists 1815 and her gravestone lists 1820. Modesty, Tubman’s maternal grandmother, arrived in the United States on a slave ship from Africa; no information is available about her other ancestors.


Key Facts About Harriet Tubman

Born Died Occupation Known for
c. 1822 March 10, 1913 Abolitionist, activist Escaping from slavery and rescuing others via the Underground Railroad

As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her various masters as punishment. Early in life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another enslaved person but hit her instead.

The injury caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia, which occurred throughout her life. She told of visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions provided by God. This religious perspective was a powerful force throughout Tubman’s life.

After her owner died 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 enslaved people to freedom. Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or “Moses”, as she was called) “never lost a passenger”.

Her actions made slave owners anxious and angry, and the federal government took notice and put a bounty on her head. When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring law officials in free states to aid efforts to recapture enslaved people, 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. Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war; she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people.

After the war, she retired to the family home on property she had purchased in 1859 in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement until illness overtook her. Near the end of her life, she lived in a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped found years earlier.

What was Harriet Tubman’s early life like?

Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross to enslaved parents, Harriet (“Rit”) Green and Ben Ross. Rit was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess (and later her son Edward). Ben was held by Anthony Thompson, who became Mary’s second husband, and who ran a large plantation near Blackwater River in Madison, Maryland. As with many enslaved people in the United States, neither the exact year nor place of Tubman’s birth is known.

Tubman’s mother was assigned to “the big house” and had scarce time for her family; consequently, as a child Tubman took care of a younger brother and a baby, as was typical in large families. When she was five or six years old, Brodess hired her out as a nursemaid to a woman named “Miss Susan”.

She was ordered to keep watch on the baby as it slept; when it woke up and cried, she was whipped. She later recounted a particular day when she was lashed five times before breakfast. She carried the scars for the rest of her life. She found ways to resist, running away for five days, wearing layers of clothing as protection against beatings, and fighting back.

As a child, Tubman also worked at the home of a planter named James Cook. She had to check the muskrat traps in nearby marshes, even after contracting measles. She became so ill that Cook sent her back to Brodess, where her mother nursed her back to health.

Brodess then hired her out again. She spoke later of her acute childhood homesickness, comparing herself to “the boy on the Swanee River”, an allusion to Stephen Foster’s song “Old Folks at Home”. As she grew older and stronger, she was assigned to grueling field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing, and hauling logs.


Key Events in Harriet Tubman’s Early Life

Year Event
c. 1822 Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland
Childhood Beaten and whipped by various masters
Childhood Suffered a traumatic head wound from an overseer
1849 Escaped to Philadelphia after owner died

One day, the adolescent Tubman was sent to a dry-goods store for supplies. There, she encountered a slave owned by a different family, who had left the fields without permission. His overseer, furious, demanded that she help restrain him. She refused, and as he ran away, the overseer threw a two-pound weight from the store’s counter.

It missed and struck Tubman instead, which she said “broke my skull”. Bleeding and unconscious, she was returned to her owner’s house and laid on the seat of a loom, where she remained without medical care for two days. After Brodess tried to sell her, she began having epileptic seizures and would fall unconscious, seemingly dead. These episodes frightened her family, who began calling her “fitty”, an abbreviation of epileptic fits.

What were the key events in Tubman’s life as an abolitionist?

After escaping from slavery in 1849, Tubman became a noted abolitionist, activist and humanitarian. Some key events include:

  • 1850s – Made around 13 trips back to Maryland to rescue family members and other slaves via the Underground Railroad. Escorted around 70 slaves to freedom in the North, earning the nickname “Moses”.
  • 1850 – The Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Tubman redirected her rescue efforts to Canada. Helped fugitive slaves settle and find work in Ontario.
  • 1857 – Helped abolitionist John Brown plan and recruit for the raid at Harpers Ferry. Did not participate due to illness.
  • 1860 – Made her last rescue mission to Maryland. Escorted a group of slaves to Canada shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War.
  • 1861 – Worked as a nurse, cook and laundress for the Union Army at Fort Monroe. Treated soldiers suffering from smallpox.
  • 1863 – Became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war.
  • 1865 – Helped establish the Freedmen’s Hospital in South Carolina to care for liberated slaves. Traveled to Florida to provide food, shelter and medical care to newly freed slaves.
  • 1869 – Moved to Auburn, New York and purchased land from Senator William H. Seward, which became a haven for her family and other black Americans.
  • 1886 – Became active in the women’s suffrage movement, working alongside prominent activists such as Susan B. Anthony.
  • 1895 – Gave an impassioned speech at the opening of the National Association of Colored Women in Boston.
  • 1911 – Opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged on her Auburn property, a place of care for elderly African Americans.
  • 1913 – Died at her home in Auburn at the estimated age of 91. Buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery.

What were Harriet Tubman’s major accomplishments?

Here are some of Harriet Tubman’s most significant accomplishments:

  • Escaped from slavery – In 1849, she escaped from her slaveholder in Maryland and made her way to Philadelphia. This was the beginning of her work as an abolitionist.
  • Led hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad – Tubman returned to Maryland approximately 13 times over the next decade, risking her life and freedom to lead slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad’s network of secret routes and safe houses. She rescued about 70 people, including much of her family, from slavery.
  • Served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army – During the Civil War, Tubman worked alongside Union troops in South Carolina as a nurse, scout and spy. She became the first woman to lead an armed expedition when she guided the Combahee River Raid. This raid liberated over 700 slaves in South Carolina.
  • Established a home for the elderly – In the late 1890s, Tubman purchased land in Auburn, New York. In 1908, she opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which provided a peaceful place for elderly African Americans.
  • Fought for women’s suffrage – Although best known for abolitionism, Tubman was also active in the women’s suffrage movement. She worked with suffrage leaders and gave speeches supporting the right of women to vote.
  • Received military honors – When she died in 1913, Tubman was buried with full military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in New York for her service during the Civil War. She was praised by newspapers as a “heroine of the Underground Railroad.”

Key Accomplishments of Harriet Tubman

Year Accomplishment
1849 Escaped from slavery in Maryland
1850s Rescued about 70 slaves from the South via the Underground Railroad
1863 Led the Combahee River Raid, liberating over 700 slaves in South Carolina
1895 Gave speech at the opening of the National Association of Colored Women
1913 Died and buried with military honors for Civil War service

What were some interesting facts about Harriet Tubman?

Here are some intriguing lesser-known facts about Harriet Tubman:

  • She suffered from narcolepsy her entire life after sustaining a severe head injury as a teenager. She would unexpectedly fall asleep at times.
  • She was said to possess psychic abilities and powerful visions that she claimed came from God. Her faith in Christian mysticism was strong.
  • She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War when she guided the Combahee River Raid.
  • She used disguises on her rescue missions, often adopting the clothes and mannerisms of elderly men or women.
  • She carried a revolver on her rescue missions and would threaten to shoot any slave who wanted to turn back. She never lost a single slave on these dangerous journeys.
  • She worked as a spy, scout and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War and was considered a valuable asset by military leaders.
  • Tubman used songs to communicate with runaway slaves as code to indicate whether the path was safe or not. Specific songs meant to take different routes.
  • After the war, she struggled to collect the pension owed to her for her military service and support her family. She was never fully compensated.
  • She was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage later in life and worked alongside prominent leaders such as Susan B. Anthony to earn women the right to vote.

What was Harriet Tubman’s role in the women’s suffrage movement?

Although best known for her work on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was also deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement during her later years. Her key contributions include:

  • Gave public speeches – Tubman toured New England and New York giving speeches at suffrage conventions. She spoke passionately about the right of women to vote and shape the laws of the land.
  • Participated at NAWSA conventions – She attended and spoke at conventions of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which was led by prominent activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
  • Recruited African-American women – Tubman worked to bring African-American women into the suffrage movement and ensure their voices were heard. She urged unity between white and black women in the struggle.
  • Marched in suffrage parades – She marched alongside other prominent suffragists at rallies, protests and parades calling for voting rights. Tubman marched with Susan B. Anthony in one of the earliest suffrage parades in New York in 1896.
  • Promoted suffrage petition – In 1897, Tubman brought a women’s suffrage petition with thousands of signatures to the state capitol in Albany, NY to submit to state lawmakers demanding the vote.
  • Spoke at NACW convention – In her later years, she gave the keynote address at the first convention of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1895, where she again made a plea for voting rights.
  • Set an example as a leader – As an admired icon who demonstrated leadership and independence, Tubman’s actions and words inspired many women to become active in the suffrage fight. Her life was living proof of women’s abilities.

What was the impact of Harriet Tubman’s life and legacy?

Harriet Tubman left an enormous mark on American history through her long life of activism and service:

  • Inspired abolitionists – Her daring escapes via the Underground Railroad made her a celebrity in anti-slavery circles and gave energy to the movement. Her rescues encouraged others to defy the Fugitive Slave Act.
  • Struck a blow against slavery – By guiding hundreds of slaves to freedom at great personal risk, she helped weaken the institution of slavery. Her contributions to the Union cause also helped lead to its abolishment.
  • Advanced racial and gender equality – Tubman was an early pioneer for civil rights and women’s rights. She set an example by speaking out passionately for equality and voting rights.
  • Served as an inspiration – Tubman’s bravery and principled stand against slavery served as an inspiration for generations to come. She became a symbol of resistance who demonstrated how one person can make a difference.
  • Shaped views on disability – Despite suffering from ongoing health conditions such as epilepsy and hypersomnia, Tubman never let her disabilities stop her and worked to reshape views on ability.
  • Improved conditions for the elderly – The opening of the Tubman Home for the Aged advanced care for older African Americans at a time when they had few options. It created a model for ethically run elder care homes nationwide.
  • Left a humanitarian legacy – Through her relief efforts for newly liberated slaves, work as a nurse and scout, and establishment of a rest home, Tubman dedicated herself to humanitarian causes that improved life for the oppressed.

In recognition of her lasting impact, Tubman has been immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp and has had schools, streets, parks and buildings named in her honor across America. She remains one of the most respected and admired figures of the anti-slavery movement.