How Harriet Tubman Worked

Elderly Harriet Tubman
Portrait of Harriet Tubman at her home in Auburn, New York; Tubman was a staunch abolitionist, spy for the Union Army and a champion for the elderly. Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images


She stood just 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall; never learned to read or write; and spent her childhood and young adulthood as another person's property. She suffered most of her life from brutal headaches and seizures as the result of a beating. She never made much money in her lifetime, and lived humbly, eating food that she grew in garden.

But despite all that, Harriet Tubman became one of the most famous and admired African-Americans in U.S. history. After escaping from slavery in 1849, she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, bravely venturing back into the slave state of Maryland 13 times during the 1850s to help numerous other runaway slaves find their way north to freedom. During the Civil War, she headed south again to work as a spy and scout for the Union Army. After the conflict, she established the first nursing home for elderly African-Americans [source: Larson].

Those achievements have earned Tubman lasting fame. Both her early home on Maryland's Eastern Shore and her later home in New York state are now national historical parks [sources: National Park Service, Blakemore]. In 1978, she became the first African-American woman to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp [source: Smithsonian].

In 2016, the Obama Administration announced that Tubman eventually would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, becoming the first woman or minority to appear on U.S. currency. (In 2017, Steven Mnuchin, treasury secretary for Obama's successor Donald Trump, indicated that he would review the decision, even as the currency redesign proceeded) [source: Mohsin].

And Tubman's life story remains so compelling that two movies about her — one starring Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, and the other featuring Tony and Grammy Award-winner Cynthia Erivo — reportedly are in the works [source: Martinelli]. In 2017, a rare photograph of Tubman taken in the 1860s garnered a price of $161,000 at an auction [source: Cox].

Tubman has grown into such an American icon that her legend sometimes obscures the person behind it. In this article, we'll look at the facts of her life and misconceptions about it, as well as how she became such an enduring symbol of freedom.

Early Life and Escape from Slavery

Slaves Escaping
In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery from a plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore, similar to these fugitives in this wood engraving.
Library of Congress

Harriet Tubman was born probably around 1822 in Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the fifth of nine children of two slaves, Benjamin Ross and Harriet "Rit" Green. Her parents gave her the name Araminta, and called her "Minty" for short [source: Allen].

As with most slaves, Tubman's existence was harsh and full of brutality. As her 1860s biographer Sarah Hopkins Bradford wrote, "Tubman was put to work at an early age as a field hand, following the oxen and loading and unloading wood — labor so grueling that she developed muscles that made her as powerful as some male laborers, despite her lack of stature. Her owners eventually converted her into a house maid, and she endured whippings from her mistress if her dusting and dish-washing was deemed inadequate."

As a teenager, she suffered a fractured skull when an overseer hit her with an iron weight intended for another slave, and the injury caused her to suffer headaches and seizures for the rest of her life [source: Larson].

In 1844, she married a free African-American named John Tubman. Though the marriage wouldn't last, she kept his surname and began using her mother's first name as her own, and became Harriet Tubman [source: Allen].

In March 1849, Tubman's legal owner Edward Brodess died, leaving behind an estate deeply in debt. Tubman, who'd already seen three of her sisters auctioned off, feared being sent off to an even crueler household. When her husband refused to go along, she and her brothers Ben and Henry ran away together. After a few weeks, the two young men lost their nerve and forced Tubman to return with them. But she wasn't willing to give up. Instead, she slipped off again, this time alone.

She traveled by night, using the north star to guide her, and sought refuge during the day with Quaker families who were so opposed to slavery that they were willing to break Maryland law and help fugitives [source: Allen]. She made her way through Delaware, and eventually crossed into free Pennsylvania. "There was such a glory over everything," she later recalled. "The sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven" [source: Bradford].

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad
Reproduction of a painting by Charles T. Webber shows African-Americans escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad.
Library of Congress

But Tubman's joy at escaping slavery was muted, because her family had remained behind in servitude. "I was free, and they should be free," she later recalled thinking. She was determined to help them escape, too [source: Bradford].

After settling in Philadelphia, she worked as a hotel cook and saved her earnings to subsidize her secret career as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a clandestine abolitionist network that had existed since the 1820s. It was a highly dangerous mission, since "slave stealers," as the Southern states called them, faced the risk of being publicly branded and jailed — and in Tubman's case, enslaved once more. And in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which made such efforts a federal crime [source: Allen].

That didn't stop Tubman. That same year, she slipped back into Maryland and helped her niece and her two children escape. Over the next decade, she repeated that mission a dozen more times, cautiously confining her efforts to farms that she knew on Maryland's Eastern Shore [source: Larson].

Tubman followed elaborate procedures to maintain stealth. She wore disguises, communicated with would-be escapees through third parties, and arranged for them to meet her miles away from their cabins, to reduce the chances that they would lead pursuers to her. And if all else failed, she carried a pistol. She warned her escapees that if they tried to turn back, she would shoot them to prevent them from betraying her and the rest [sources: Allen, Quinn].

As word got around of Tubman's successful missions, she became a sought-after speaker at abolitionist fundraising meetings. She also became a target of mercenary slave catchers. But their failure to apprehend her only added to her legend [source: Allen].

An 1849 newspaper advertisement offered $50 for Tubman's capture in Maryland and $100 for her capture outside the state. The ad described her as "of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about five feet high" [source: Larson].

In 1860, Tubman pulled off an even more daring feat, by thwarting federal marshals in Troy, New York, who were attempting to send a captured slave named Charles Nalle back to Virginia. Tubman disguised herself as an elderly woman and slipped into a government building. When Nalle and his captors stepped out into the street, Tubman shouted a signal from an upper-story window, and a mob of abolitionists converged on them and seized Nalle, who was spirited away to a waiting riverboat [source: Winkler].

Secret Agent for the Union

Combahee River raid Harriet Tubman
A former slave cabin sits on the edge of the Combahee River in South Carolina. Harriet Tubman helped lead a raid of Union soldiers traveling up the Combahee River, which freed 700 slaves, including many from this plantation.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

After the Civil War broke out in 1861, Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew, a fervent abolitionist, contacted his friend Tubman and told her that the Union forces needed her help. He arranged transportation for Tubman to travel to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where she went to work for Maj. Gen. David Hunter. Ostensibly, her mission was to help provide food and clothing to escaped slaves who were flocking to the Union Army's camps, but that seems to have been a cover story for her real work in gathering intelligence. With a budget of $100 in "secret service money," she recruited a small team of escaped slaves who were experienced riverboat pilots and knew every inch of the South Carolina coastline, and put them to work as scouts for the Union forces [sources: Winkler, Quinn].

After President Abraham Lincoln authorized the recruiting and deployment of African-American troops in the summer of 1862, Tubman and her spies provided intelligence for the new units. In January 1863, her team's spying helped Union forces evade Confederate guards and stage a nine-day covert operation to seize needed supplies. As historian H. Donald Winkler describes it, Tubman's scouts "evolved into a kind of special-forces operation for the black regiments," sneaking into enemy territory to gather information on their troop movements and fortifications.

In June 1863, according to Winkler, Tubman accompanied Union Col. James Montgomery and his forces up the Combahee River in the southern low country of South Carolina and helped lead a crucial raid. Tubman and her scouts sailed upriver and stealthily went ashore to talk to the slaves who'd placed mines in the water for Confederate forces, so they could map the locations, and locate the storehouses where the enemy kept their supplies. Then she helped guide the Union craft around the deadly mines. The resulting raid not only struck a devastating blow to the Confederate forces, but also resulted in freedom for 700 slaves — many of whom subsequently were recruited by Tubman to serve in the Union forces.