by John T. Marck
The Moses of her People
Harriet Tubman was born in 1820 in a cold, dark, windowless slave shanty on the Bucktown plantation owned by Edward Brodess in Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She was the daughter of black slaves, Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, and was originally named Araminta by her master. As she defied slavery and its customs, she later changed her name to Harriet, after her mother.
During her childhood Harriet sustained a serious head injury when an angry overseer tossed a two pound weight at her, striking her in her forehead. This injury nearly killed her and that caused her to have sudden, periodic sleeping seizures her entire life. The injury left an ugly scar, that throughout her life, reminded her of the horrors suffered as a slave. Being raised as a slave, she had to perform extremely hard work, and as such she acquired unusual strength. Because she was forced to work as a slave, Harriet did not have the opportunity to attend school. She did however, possess an innate intelligence with remarkable foresight and judgment. As time passed, and when fully recovered from her injury, her master, Brodess, hired her out to work on neighboring farms. This allowed her some independence, and the opportunity to earn small amounts of money. Some of the work Harriet would do was cut and split wood, drive oxen, and haul logs. By this work, Harriet grew quite strong in physical strength.
When a master hired out a slave, the slave would pay the master part of their earnings. For male slaves, the cost was one hundred dollars a year, and for female, sixty dollars. In time, Harriet earned enough money not only to repay her master the sixty dollars, but also enough to buy her own pair of oxen.
Normally, female slaves at a young age were forced to marry a mate chosen by their masters. Because of her injury, Harriet was spared this tradition. However, Harriet, now in her twenties was getting too old to remain unmarried. Having worked and earned her own money, she attracted a free black man named John Tubman, who also worked odd jobs at various plantations. Although marrying a free man was quite unusual for a slave, they permitted Harriet and John to marry. Although forced to do so by her mother, Harriet in 1844, at the age of twenty-four, married John Tubman.
Having married a free man, Harriet thought of nothing but to one day be free herself. Interestingly, they should never have enslaved Harriet. One day, determined to trace her roots, she hired a lawyer at the cost of five dollars to trace the will of her mother's first master. In doing so, a will was found that gave her mother, Harriet Green, to an heir named Mary Patterson. The will provided that Ms. Green was to serve Mary Patterson until Patterson was forty-five years old. However, Patterson died before reaching this age, and was unmarried. Because there was no provision in the will concerning Harriet Green upon Patterson's death, she was therefore free. Unfortunately, no one told Ms. Green of this right, consequently she and her children remained enslaved. Harriet Tubman, now armed with this information was now more than ever determined to be free.
Having spent her first twenty-nine years as a slave plantation hand, in 1849, upon the death of her master, she learned that she was to be sold to the Deep South. Determined not to be sold, Harriet, along with her two brothers, escaped. Guided by the North Star on her journey to freedom, she was also aided by the Underground Railroad, which was a secret network of safe-houses created to help escaping slaves. Two of the principle "conductors" of the Underground Railroad who aided Harriet were Ezekiel Hunn and Thomas Garrett, both of Delaware.
Along the journey, her two brothers returned to Maryland, but Harriet continued and arrived in Philadelphia, changed her name to Harriet, and worked for about a year to earn money. She then left Philadelphia and returned to Maryland. Once in Maryland she disguised herself as a man in an attempt to find her husband to bring him back north with her. Upon finding her husband, she found that he had married another. Devastated by this news, she set her mind and determination devoting her life to freeing slaves.
With her newfound freedom obtained in Philadelphia, where slavery was outlawed, Harriet found little solace in her freedom, while the masses of her race remained enslaved. Consequently, she spent the next ten years serving as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. She made more than twenty trips into the South and rescued about three hundred Negroes from slavery. In her rescue efforts, Harriet would move these persons from the South to a secret station near Wilmington, Delaware, to freedom in Philadelphia. On her journeys, she usually started Saturday night, because this would give her more than a day's start before the owners discovered that their slaves were missing the following Monday morning. At times along the way to freedom, some of those she rescued would become frightened and want to turn back. Harriet would not hear of this. Often she would admonish those wanting to turn back at gunpoint, saying, "Live North, or die here." She also carried opium with her on her journeys to quiet crying babies.
Upon arriving at her destination, she frequently worked as a cook, dressmaker, or a laundress to earn money to help sustain the fugitive slaves. Both black and white abolitionists praised her as the "Moses of her people." She became widely respected, and was honored by such noteworthy persons as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Similarly, slave holders and other proslavery advocates also hated her in the South, and as well in the North by anti-abolitionists.
Once in April 1860, in Troy, New York, the police had captured a runaway slave by the name of Charles Nalle. It was Harriet who led a group that freed Nalle, and in doing so, they attacked Harriet and severely beat her. Still, possessing courage and confidence, she avoided capture.
Despite the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that provided for harsh treatment, nor the forty-thousand dollar bounty on her for her arrest, dead or alive, could stop Harriet. In 1857, she performed an inconceivable mission of freeing both her aged parents. Now free, she took her parents to a home in Auburn, New York; land that Harriet purchased earlier from William H. Seward.
In 1858, Harriet traveled to Canada, where she had the opportunity to meet John Brown. A friendship developed, by which Brown referred to her as "General Tubman," and said, "Harriet is one of the bravest persons on this continent." Harriet approved of and provided support for Brown's plan to seize the government arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. However, due to circumstances beyond Harriet's control, she was unable to recruit others to join Brown, nor was she able herself to join. Upon Brown's defeat and hanging, Harriet was deeply saddened. She regarded Brown as the "Savior of her people."
When the Civil War began, she, without delay asserted her right to participate. Armed with a letter from John Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, she traveled to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where she reported to General David Hunter. Here she worked in the Union Army as a scout, spy, nurse, and cook. She continued this activity throughout the war, and in 1865 near the war's end, she briefly worked at a freedman's hospital in Fortress Monroe, Virginia.
Upon the end of the Civil War, she continued her mission and concern for the Negro masses. In North Carolina she worked hard and tirelessly to establish schools for the hundreds of freedmen.
In 1869 Harriet married Nelson Davis, a black Civil War veteran. Additionally, she had a book of her own, titled, Scenes in the life of Harriet Tubman (1869), that she dictated to Sarah Hopkins Bradford who wrote it for her. They printed and sold this book with help from Gerrit Smith, Wendell Phillips, and some of her Auburn friends and neighbors. With the royalties from her book, she was able to pay off the mortgage on her house in Auburn.
During this time she applied for a pension for her wartime service, however the government showed her much less gratitude than she deserved. Finally, after thirty years of trying to collect her pension, Congress, with the support of former Secretary of State William H. Seward, awarded her the trifle amount of twenty dollars a month. Private citizens helped and contributed money for the support of the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent and Aged Negroes in Auburn.
In her later years, Harriet continued to work for the women's right's movement, as well as her continued work with aged and indigent Negroes. On March 10, 1913, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia. A full military service was provided for her. They buried Harriet with full military honors in Fort Hill, Auburn.
In 1914, the Cayuga County Historical Society Association built a tablet in her memory and in recognition of her service, in a ceremony delivered by Booker T. Washington. Additionally, in further recognition of her tireless service the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in her memory. They issued this thirteen cent stamp depicting her image in Washington, D.C. on February 1, 1978, as the first stamp in a "Black Heritage Series."
Harriet Tubman was a woman of greatness who represented nearly a century of struggle and difficulties fighting slavery toward her goal of social justice.
In 1886, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, who had written Harriet's book for her in 1869, issued an expanded version titled, Harriet Tubman, The Moses of her People. They reprinted this book in 1961.
Today, the Brodess plantation no longer exists, but there is a historic marker noting the former site of Harriet's birthplace. The Harriet Tubman Coalition, Inc., hosts guided tours, by appointment only to major sites of interest in and around Bucktown and Cambridge. These include the historic marker, the Bazzel Methodist Episcopal Church, the Stanley Institute, Waugh United Methodist Church, the Harriet Tubman Park, and the Scenic Long Wharf. This wharf is the site where Harriet arrived when she rescued her sister whom they were auctioning outside the courthouse, a few blocks away on Historic High Street.
Copyright © 1990-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.