In 19 trips she made to the South after escaping slavery, Harriet Tubman never lost a single passenger as conductor of the Underground Railroad, ensuring that more than 300 enslaved people made it safely to live in freedom. Her skills evading capture would serve her later as scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.
But such a life would have been unthinkable when she was born into slavery in 1822 as Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross. Work and abuse filled her early life. By age 5 she was rented out as a nursemaid and whipped when the baby cried. She also worked setting muskrat traps and as a field hand.
Yet, resistance was part of her character from early on. At age 12, she intervened as a master beat an enslaved worker who tried to escape and Tubman was hit in the head with a heavy weight that broke her skull, leaving her with a lifetime of “visions,” severe headaches, and narcolepsy.
In 1844, Minty Ross married John Tubman, a free Black man. She took his last name and started calling herself Harriet, after her mother.
Tubman should have also been free by then. Her father was freed in 1840, and the last will and testament of the person who had enslaved her mother called for setting her and her children free. But the person who took over refused to honor those wishes and Tubman’s mother remained in bondage until 1849. In September of that year, fearing that she and two of her eight brothers and sisters were about to be sold, she planned their heroic escape.
They left their Maryland plantation, but her brothers changed their minds and went back. Not Tubman, who traveled 90 miles north to freedom in Pennsylvania, walking at night guided by the North Star, and with the help of the Underground Railroad, a network of escape routes and safe houses established earlier by Black and white abolitionists.
Over the next ten years, she returned again and again to the South as “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, helping hundreds of enslaved people to escape. To evade capture, Tubman mostly traveled at night during spring and fall and left on Saturday nights since runaway notices couldn’t be placed in newspapers until Monday.
Her successful trips to freedom angered and frustrated slave owners, who offered a $40,000 reward for her capture or death.
Her skills were useful to the Union during the war, when she served as scout, spy, and nurse. She is also considered the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. military and lead a military operation when in 1863 she and a contingent of 150 Black Union soldiers rescued more than 700 slaves in the Combahee Ferry Raid in South Carolina.
After the war, she joined Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocating for women’s suffrage and raised money for the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was established to help the newly liberated people.
Single after her ex-husband remarried following her escape, Tubman married a Union soldier and later opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged near her house in Auburn, New York, where she was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery after her death in 1913.