Edited by Gerald Boerner
Harriet Tubman is the next extraordinary mother in our series of tributes for Mother’s Day. While she didn’t birth any children of her own, She served as the Moses for African American slaves who escaped the South via the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. She was an abolitionist, a suffragist and a supporter of the Union. She set an example of a good mother to her race.
She escaped her own enslavement through a series of safe houses leading North. But her own freedom was not enough; she returned south several times to lead other family members to freedom at risk to herself. This underground railroad enabled many other slaves to escape as well.
We start out this series with one of the women who was involved in the abolitionist movement during the pre-Civil War period. She worked with the Underground Railroad, which provided a series of “safe houses” in which runaway slaves could hide on their journey to Canada.
Harriet Tubman was a real pioneer advocate against slavery and for the Union. She was in contact with other Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and worked with the Union army during the Civil War. In later life, she worked with Susan B. Anthony and helped found the AME Zion Church. She was, indeed, a woman of her time who rose up to meet a need: the need of her people to be free
So, let’s get started on today’s exploration… GLB
These Introductory Comments are copyrighted:
Copyright©2011 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved
[ 4044 Words ]
Quotations Related to HARRIET TUBMAN:
“I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
— Harriet Tubman
“I grew up like a neglected weed — ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.”
— Harriet Tubman
“We will be ourselves and free, or die in the attempt. Harriet Tubman was not our great-grandmother for nothing.”
— Alice Walker, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
“I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
— Harriet Tubman
“I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”
— Harriet Tubman
“Her tales of adventure are beyond anything in fiction and her ingenuity and generalship are extraordinary. I have known her for some time — the slaves call her Moses.”
— Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1859 Letter
“We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
— Harriet Tubman
“… a more ordinary specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking farm hands of the South. Yet in point of courage, shrewdness, and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-man, she was without equal.”
— Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1859 Letter
Mother’s Day, Day 3: Harriet Tubman…
Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. March 1822 – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. After escaping from slavery, into which she was born, she made thirteen missions to rescue more than 70 slaves using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era struggled for women’s suffrage.
As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten by various masters to whom she was hired out. Early in her life, she suffered a head wound when hit by a heavy metal weight. The injury caused disabling seizures, narcoleptic attacks, headaches, and powerful visionary and dream activity, which occurred throughout her entire life. A devout Christian, Tubman ascribed the visions and vivid dreams to revelations from God.
In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Traveling by night, Tubman (or "Moses", as she was called) "never lost a passenger". Large rewards were offered for the return of many of the fugitive slaves, but no one then knew that Tubman was the one helping them. When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, requiring law officials in free states to aid efforts to recapture slaves, she helped guide fugitives farther north into Canada, where slavery was prohibited.
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. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. After the war, she retired to the family home in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She became active in the women’s suffrage movement in New York until illness overtook her. Near the end of her life, she lived in a home for elderly African-Americans which she had helped found years earlier.
Tubman’s Personal Family History
Harriet Tubman with family and friends, standing by the side of her barn in
Auburn, New York, circa 1887. Left to right: Harriet Tubman, adopted
daughter Gertie Davis, husband Nelson Davis, great-great-niece Lee
Cheney, "Pop" Alexander, Walter Green, "Blind Aunty" Sarah Parker,
great-niece Dora Stewart.
There has been much speculation and confusion over the identities of Harriet Tubman’s siblings and her extended family. Based on extensive research in census schedules, court documents, slaveholder testimony and records, tax records, real estate records, account records, newspaper accounts, city directories, chattel records, diaries, journals, letters, and family oral histories and memorabilia, we now know that Harriet Tubman was the fifth of nine children born to Rit Green Ross and Ben Ross. All of Harriet’s siblings were enslaved by Edward Brodess, although at least five or six of the Ross children, including Harriet, were born on Anthony Thompson’s plantation in the Peter’s Neck region of Dorchester County, near the Black Water River at the end of Harrisville Road south of present day Madison. Thompson was the owner of Ben Ross and step-father to Edward Brodess.
Harriet Tubman was probably born in late February, early March 1822 on Thompson’s plantation. Tubman was named Araminta Ross, or Minty for short, and she joined three sisters and one brother: Linah, born 1808; Mariah Ritty, born 1811; Soph, born 1813, and Robert, born 1816. Another brother Ben was born in 1823 or 1824, followed by a sister Rachel in 1825, another brother Henry in 1830, and finally, Moses in 1832. Brodess moved Harriet, her siblings, and her mother Rit, to his own farm in Bucktown, 10 miles to the east of Thompson’s farm, sometime after 1823. He forced them to leave behind Ben and the extended familial and community relationships they had forged in the small black community near Thompson’s plantation.
Sometime during Minty’s young adult life, she changed her name to Harriet. In 1844 she married a free black named John Tubman, who lived and worked near her father in the Peter’s Neck region of the county.
When Harriet Tubman fled to freedom in the late fall of 1849, after Edward Brodess died at the age of 48, she was determined to return to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to bring away her family. It would take her over 10 years, and she would not be entirely successful. Linah, Soph and Mariah Ritty had been sold to the Deep South some years before, making their rescue impossible and their fates unknown. Tubman’s niece Kessiah Jolley Bowley, the daughter of Linah, would be the first relative Tubman would help escape from slavery. Then, she assisted her brother Moses, followed by her three remaining brothers, Ben, Henry and Robert.
On Christmas Eve, 1854, Harriet Tubman waited impatiently for her three enslaved brothers to meet her at a pre-determined rendezvous point at Poplar Neck in Caroline County, Maryland, where her parents were then living a free life. She planned to bring them to safety in Pennsylvania, then on to Canada where she had settled other family and friends from prior rescue missions. This move to Canada, however, served to confuse the identies of Tubman’s brothers, and their accurate names remained unknown until recently. With few clues gleaned from the early biography by Sarah Bradford, who was also confused as to their actual identities, the possibility of correctly identifying and tracing the life experiences of these three men seemed impossible. Based on extensive research in scores of primary documents, including William Still’s unpublished “Journal C,” the letters of Thomas Garrett and other abolitionists, census records, newspaper accounts, chattel, slave and tax records, and family oral histories, these men’s pre- and post-enslavement identities and life stories have finally come to light.
Following Tubman’s trail on the Underground Railroad proved crucial to finding the missing links that connected the brothers’ lives in slavery and their new lives in freedom. When Robert, Ben, and Henry sat down with William Still, the famous black Underground Railroad agent in Philadelphia, four days after they fled their enslaver in Maryland, they chose new identities. Shedding their “Ross” surname, they selected, together, the last name “Stewart.” This name change complicated many efforts to trace each brother’s life. Perhaps more importantly, however, it also left the current Tubman family relatives confused and unaware of the accurate identities of their famous ancestors. Though this documentation does not answer why they chose this particular name (though there are several plausible possibilities), it has helped clear up many misunderstandings.
Therefore, it is now known that at least three of Tubman’s four brothers took the surname "Stewart". Robert Ross became John Stewart, Ben Ross became James Stewart, and Henry Ross became William Henry Stewart. Moses Ross’s fate remains unclear. No mention is made of him after his escape in 1851. Further research may reveal what may have happened to him. Rachel, Tubman’s last surviving sister in Dorchester County, Maryland, died in 1859 before she could be rescued by Harriet. Rachel’s two children, Ben and Angerine, remained enslaved and their fates are still unknown.
Harriet’s brothers married local Dorchester County women. Robert Ross (John Stewart) married Mary Manokey, who was ensalved by Dr. Anthony Thompson. Ben Ross (James Stewart) married Jane Kane, who was enslaved by Horatio Jones, a neighbor of the Thompson’s at Button’s Neck in Dorchester County. Jane changed her name to Catherine Kane. Henry Ross (William Henry Stewart) married a free woman named Harriet Ann Parker, the daughter of Isaac and Julia Parker of the Slaughter Creek area. While Harriet Tubman was able to bring Harriet Ann Parker and her two children, William Henry Jr., and John Isaac to Canada, she was never able to rescue Mary Manokey and her children, John Jr., Moses, and Harriet. They remained enslaved on the Eastern Shore until Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. John Jr. and Moses eventually moved to Auburn, NY to be with their father, John Stewart. Mary married again and stayed on the Eastern Shore. John married Millie Hollis in Auburn, NY in 1863. Millie was also born in Dorchester County. It is not know if she was free or enslaved and fled on the UGRR.
Harriet Tubman: Mother to Enslaved African Americans
NOTE: Harriet Tubman is included in our tribute not so much for the children she personally gave birth to during her lifetime but for the selfless work she exhibited for other African American slaves in the South. Her efforts to lead Southern slaves to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad. She was also an activist in the abolitionist movement and her advocacy for women’s suffrage also were focused on her people.
Escape from Slavery
In 1849, Tubman became ill again, and her value as a slave was diminished as a result. Edward Brodess tried to sell her, but could not find a buyer. Angry at his action (and the unjust hold he kept on her relatives), Tubman began to pray for her owner, asking God to make him change his ways. "I prayed all night long for my master," she said later, "till the first of March; and all the time he was bringing people to look at me, and trying to sell me." When it appeared as though a sale was being concluded, she switched tactics. "I changed my prayer," she said. "First of March I began to pray, ‘Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way." A week later, Brodess died, and Tubman expressed regret for her earlier sentiments.
Brodess’s death increased the likelihood that Tubman would be sold and the family would be broken apart, as that frequently happened in the settlement of an estate. His widow Eliza began working to sell the family’s slaves. Tubman refused to wait for the Brodess family to decide her fate, despite her husband’s efforts to dissuade her. "[T]here was one of two things I had a right to," she explained later, "liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other."
Tubman and her brothers Ben and Henry escaped from slavery on September 17, 1849. Tubman had been hired out to Dr. Anthony Thompson, who owned a large plantation in an area called Poplar Neck in neighboring Caroline County; it is likely her brothers labored for Thompson as well. Because the slaves were hired out to another household, Eliza Brodess probably did not recognize their absence as an escape attempt for some time. Two weeks later, she posted a runaway notice in the Cambridge Democrat, offering a reward of up to one hundred dollars for each slave returned. Once they had left, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts. Ben may have just become a father. The two men went back, forcing Tubman to return with them.
Soon afterward, Tubman escaped again, this time without her brothers. Beforehand, she tried to send word to her mother of her plans. She sang a coded song to Mary, a trusted fellow slave, that was a farewell: "I’ll meet you in the morning," she intoned, "I’m bound for the promised land". While her exact route is unknown, Tubman made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad. This informal but well-organized system was composed of free and enslaved blacks, white abolitionists, and other activists. Most prominent among the latter in Maryland at the time were members of the Religious Society of Friends, often called Quakers. The Preston area near Poplar Neck in Caroline County contained a significant Quaker community, and was probably an important first stop during Tubman’s escape. From there, she probably took a common route for fleeing slaves: northeast along the Choptank River, through Delaware and then north into Pennsylvania. A journey of nearly ninety miles (145 kilometers), her traveling by foot would take between five days and three weeks.
Tubman had to travel by night, guiding by the North Star, and trying to avoid "slavecatchers", eager to collect rewards for fugitive slaves. The "conductors" in the Underground Railroad used a variety of deceptions for protection. At one of the earliest stops, the lady of the house ordered Tubman to sweep the yard to make it appear as though she worked for the family. When night fell, the family hid her in a cart and took her to the next friendly house. Given her familiarity with the woods and marshes of the region, it is likely that Tubman hid in these locales during the day. Because the routes she followed were used by other fugitive slaves, Tubman did not speak about them until later in her life.
Particulars of her first journey remain shrouded in secrecy. She crossed into Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled the experience years later:
"When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."
"Moses" — Let My People Go
After reaching Philadelphia, Tubman began thinking of her family. "I was a stranger in a strange land," she said later. "[M]y father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were [in Maryland]. But I was free, and they should be free." She began to work odd jobs and save money. At the same time, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which forced law enforcement officials (even in states which had outlawed slavery) to aid in the capture of fugitive slaves, and imposed heavy punishments on those who abetted escape. The law increased risks for escaped slaves, and more began to try to get to Canada, which had abolished slavery. Racial tensions increased in Philadelphia, as waves of poor Irish immigrants competed with free blacks for work.
In December 1850, Tubman received a warning that her niece Kessiah was going to be sold (along with her two children, six-year-old James Alfred, and baby Araminta) in Cambridge. Tubman returned to the land of her enslavement. She went to Baltimore, where her brother-in-law Tom Tubman hid her until the time of the sale. Kessiah’s husband, a free black man named John Bowley, made the winning bid for his wife. Then, while he pretended to make arrangements to pay, Kessiah and their children escaped to a nearby safe house. When night fell, Bowley sailed the family on a log canoe sixty miles (one hundred kilometers) to Baltimore. They met up with Tubman, who brought the family safely to Philadelphia.
The following spring, she headed back into Maryland to help guide away other family members. On her second trip, she brought back her brother Moses, and two other unidentified men. It is likely that Tubman was by this time working with abolitionist Thomas Garrett, a Quaker working in Wilmington, Delaware. Word of her exploits had encouraged her family, and biographers agree that she became more confident with each trip to Maryland. As she led more individuals out of slavery, she was named "Moses" by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, an allusion to the prophet in the Book of Exodus who led the Hebrews to freedom from Egypt.
During an interview with author Wilbur Siebert in 1897, Tubman revealed some of the names of helpers and places she used along the Underground Railroad. She stayed with Sam Green, a free black minister living in East New Market, Maryland; she also hid near her parents’ home at Poplar Neck in Caroline County, MD. From there, she would travel northeast to Sandtown and Willow Grove, Delaware, and onto the Camden area where free black agents William and Nat Brinkley, and Abraham Gibbs guided her north past Dover, Smyrna, and Blackbird, where other agents would take her across the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to New Castle and Wilmington. In Wilmington, Quaker Thomas Garrett would secure transportation to William Still’s office or the homes of other Underground Railroad operators in the greater Philadelphia area. Still, a famous black agent, is credited with aiding hundreds of freedom seekers escape to safer places farther north in New York, New England, and Canada.
In the fall of 1851, Tubman returned to Dorchester County for the first time since her escape, this time to find her husband John. She once again saved money from various jobs, purchased a suit for him, and made her way south. John, meanwhile, had married another woman named Caroline. Tubman sent word that he should join her, but he insisted that he was happy where he was. Tubman at first prepared to storm their house and make a scene, but then decided he was not worth the trouble. Suppressing her anger, she found some slaves who wanted to escape and led them to Philadelphia. John and Caroline raised a family together, until he was killed sixteen years later in a roadside argument with a white man named Robert Vincent.
Because the Fugitive Slave Law had made the northern United States more dangerous for escaped slaves, many began migrating further north to Canada. In December 1851, Tubman guided an unidentified group of eleven fugitives – possibly including the Bowleys and several others she had helped rescue earlier – northward. There is evidence to suggest that Tubman and her group stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. In his third autobiography, Douglass wrote: "On one occasion I had eleven fugitives at the same time under my roof, and it was necessary for them to remain with me until I could collect sufficient money to get them on to Canada. It was the largest number I ever had at any one time, and I had some difficulty in providing so many with food and shelter…." The number of travelers and the time of the visit make it likely that this was Tubman’s group.
Douglass and Tubman showed a great admiration for one another as they struggled together against slavery. When an early biography of Tubman was being prepared in 1868, Douglass wrote a letter to honor her. It read in part:
You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. 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 you have.
Journeys and Methods
For eleven years Tubman returned again and again to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, rescuing some seventy slaves in thirteen expeditions, including her three other brothers, Henry, Ben, and Robert, their wives and some of their children. She also provided specific instructions for about fifty to sixty other fugitives who escaped to the north. Her dangerous work required tremendous ingenuity; she usually worked during winter months, to minimize the likelihood that the group would be seen. One admirer of Tubman said: "She always came in the winter, when the nights are long and dark, and people who have homes stay in them." Once she had made contact with escaping slaves, they left town on Saturday evenings, since newspapers would not print runaway notices until Monday morning.
Please take time to further explore more about Harriet Tubman, Fugitive Slave Act
of 1850, Tubman’s Family, Abolitionist, Moses, and the Underground Railroad by
accessing the Wikipedia articles referenced below. In most cases, the text in the
body of this post has been selectively excerpted from the articles; footnotes and
hyperlinks have been removed for readability…
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Harriet Tubman…
Wikipedia: Underground Railroad…
Wikipedia: Fugitive Slave Act of 1850…
Web Site: Tubman’s Family…
Web Site: Harriet Tubman Biography…
About.com: HARRIET TUBMAN Quotes…
Other Posts on related Topics:
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: Black Women in History: Harriet Tubman, Part 1…
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: Black Women in History: Harriet Tubman, Part 2…