Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and humanitarian. Before the Civil War, she guided enslaved people to freedom in her role as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. February is Black History Month, an ideal time to honor Harriet’s legacy and share her story with your family.
The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and structures known as “stations” that helped transport fugitives to free states or to Canada, where slavery was outlawed.
The stations were operated by “agents,” brave men and women of diverse backgrounds united in the cause of freedom. “Conductors” ran the network and guided escaped slaves or “passengers” to freedom. If caught in the South, a conductor faced death.
Harriet Tubman was the most famous Underground Railroad conductor, guiding at least 70 people to freedom while carrying a bounty on her head of $40,000 (over $1 million in today’s dollars).
Her story shines like the sun during an otherwise unenlightened time in U.S. history.
“I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”– Harriet Tubman
The Life of Harriet Tubman
- 1820: Sometime between 1820 and 1822, Harriet Tubman is born to parents Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross on a Maryland plantation. Her birth name is Araminta Ross and her family nicknames her “Minty.” Later in life, in tribute to her mother, she will change her name to Harriet.
- Childhood: Harriet and her family endure hard manual labor and cruel beatings on the plantation. Harriet has a deep spiritual life and enjoys listening to Bible stories, especially the tales of Moses helping the children of Israel escape Pharaoh’s captivity in Egypt.
- Adolescence: Sometime between the ages of 12 and 15, Harriet does a very brave thing. She throws herself between a slave owner and an escaping fugitive. The enraged slave owner reacts, hurling a heavy iron weight at Harriet’s head and permanently denting her skull. For the rest of her life, she suffers from headaches, seizures and narcolepsy.
- 1844: Around this time, Harriet marries a free black man named John Tubman. Harriet meets a Quaker woman who offers to connect her with an underground network of safe people who will help her reach freedom. Unfortunately, John does not share her yearning for full freedom.
- 1849: Harriet learns that two of her brothers will be sold and she convinces them to accompany her on the Underground Railroad. However, her brothers quickly give up and turn around, considering the quest too dangerous. Harriet continues alone, using the North Star as her compass. She travels at night and avoids roads, hiding in barns and cellars.
- Freedom: Some 90 miles later, Harriet crosses the Pennsylvania state line. Having achieved freedom for herself, she determines to earn money to help her family. She repeats the treacherous trek, bringing three relatives to Philadelphia. She also tries bringing her husband John but he has remarried, building a new life without her.
- 1850: Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act, emboldening slave holders to capture runaways who ventured north. Harriet’s role as conductor of the Underground Railroad becomes more dangerous, requiring even greater ingenuity.
- Examples of Harriet’s creativity include hiding fugitives in beds of horse-drawn wagons and covering them with mounds of fruits, vegetables and even manure (using straws to breathe). She also mimicks the calls of Barred Owls for nighttime communication.
- Civil War: Union army recruits Harriet to South Carolina to be a nurse. By 1863, she is promoted from nurse to spy and leads a Union espionage-scout network.
- 1869: Harriet marries Nelson Davis, a civil war veteran and former enslaved man. (John Tubman is now dead.) They adopt a girl named Gertie. Harriet dedicates the remainder of her days to humanitarian efforts. She also supports the women’s suffrage movement with Susan B. Anthony.
- 1908: The “Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged” opens on a 25-acre parcel of land donated by Harriet Tubman.
- March 10, 1913: Harriet Tubman dies of pneumonia in her home for the elderly. Her last words to those who surround her deathbed are: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
Over 100 years after Harriet Tubman’s death, we have much to learn from her life. Let’s honor her legacy by spreading her values of freedom, generosity, and kindness.
Sources and Further Learning:
Take an immersive family field trip by visiting a Harriet Tubman National Historical Park (located in New York and Maryland) or the Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden in Maryland.
In addition Harriet Tubman’s history, children may enjoy historical fiction set during her time. For example, the American Girl series following the fictional African American character, “Addy Walker” and her family’s journey to freedom.
Below are my sources for this post. Some sources offer slightly different versions of Harriet’s history. I concentrated on facts that were uniform across sources.
- The Value of Helping: The Story of Harriet Tubman, by Ann Donegan Johnson
- The Story of the Underground Railroad by R. Conrad Stein
- Online sources: Audubon.org, History.com, Wikipedia.org and NPS.gov.
- Photo credit: Portrait of Harriet Tubman by Harvey B. Lindsley. No known copyright restrictions.