How Harriet Tubman Worked

Early Life and Escape from Slavery

Harriet Tubman Harriet Tubman
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].