Her admirers called her “Moses” or “General Tubman,” but she was born Araminta Ross.
It’s unclear exactly when the woman who would be known as Harriet Tubman was born, with dates ranging from 1815 to 1822. Historians do know that she was one of nine children born to Harriet “Rit” and Ben Ross, slaves owned by two different families on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. With her parents separated, Tubman’s mother struggled to keep her family together, and three of Tubman’s sisters were sold to other plantation owners. Tubman’s owners, the Brodess family, “loaned” her out to work for others while she was still a child, under what were often miserable, dangerous conditions. Sometime around 1844, she married John Tubman, a free black. Though Tubman remained enslaved, mixed marriages were not uncommon in the region, which had a large percentage of former slaves who had received (or bought) their manumission. Shortly after her marriage, Araminta, known as “Minty” to her family, changed her name to Harriet to honor her mother.
Tubman suffered lifelong pain and illness due to her mistreatment while a slave.
From an early age Tubman was subjected to the beatings and abuse that were commonplace in many slave-owning homes. Already frail and small (she was likely no more than 5 feet tall), Tubman’s health began to deteriorate, decreasing her value to her owners and limiting her prospects for work. When she was in her early teens, Tubman was badly injured when an owner, trying to stop the escape attempt of another slave, threw a large weight across a room, striking Tubman in the head. Tubman was given little medical care or time to recuperate before she was sent back out to work. She never recovered from the damage done to her brain and skull, suffering periodic seizures that researchers believed may have been a form of epilepsy.
Tubman herself used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.
In September 1849, fearful that her owner was trying to sell her, Tubman and two of her brothers briefly escaped, though they didn’t make it far. For reasons still unknown, her brothers decided to turn back, forcing Tubman to return with them. A few months later, Tubman set off again, this time on her own, leaving her husband and family behind as she made her way north through Delaware and Pennsylvania, stopping periodically at a series of hideouts along the Underground Railroad, before settling in Philadelphia. In late 1850, after hearing of the upcoming sale of one of her nieces, Tubman headed back down south, embarking on the first of nearly two dozen missions to help other slaves escape as she had.
It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in Tubman’s life.
One of the most complicated myths about Tubman is the claim (first mentioned in a 19th century biography) that she escorted more than 300 slaves to freedom over the course of 19 missions. Tubman herself never used this number, instead estimating that she had rescued around 50 people by 1860—mostly family members. Historians now believe that it’s likely that she was personally responsible for ushering around 70 people to freedom along the Underground Railroad in the decade before the Civil War. It’s also unlikely that there was ever a substantial bounty offered for Tubman’s capture during her years as an undercover operator, let alone one worth tens of thousands of dollars, as some publications claimed. It’s unlikely that Tubman’s former owners or the owners of the slaves she rescued ever realized that it was the woman formerly known as Minty Ross spiriting their slaves away. The only known “reward” offered for Tubman’s capture was a newspaper ad that her owner, Eliza Brodess, published in a Maryland paper after Tubman’s first escape attempt in September 1849. Brodess offered $300 for the capture and return of Tubman and two of her brothers.
Tubman’s “niece” may have actually been her biological child.
Tubman’s first husband, John, had stayed behind in Maryland rather than follow his wife north, eventually remarrying. After the Civil War ended, Tubman was also remarried, to a war veteran named Nelson Davis who was 22 years her junior. The couple later adopted a daughter, Gertie, but it is Tubman’s relationship to her another girl that has puzzled historians for more than a century. Shortly after Tubman settled in Auburn, New York, in 1859, she travelled once again to Maryland on a rescue mission, this time returning with a young girl named Margaret, who Tubman referred to as her niece. Tubman claimed that Margaret was the daughter of a moderately comfortable family of freed black, leaving many to wonder why she would have uprooted the child from a stable home. Margaret’s resemblance to Tubman, and the pair’s unusually strong bond has led to the belief among historians that Margaret was Tubman’s own daughter, though her paternity remains unknown.
The Combahee Ferry Raid was one of her greatest achievements.
Shortly after war broke out in 1861, Tubman joined a group of other abolitionists who headed south to assist refuge slaves who has escaped to safety behind Union lines. Working in a series of camps in Union-held portions of South Carolina, Tubman quickly learned the lay of the land and offered her services to the army as a spy, leading a group of scouts who mapped out much of the region. Tubman’s reconnaissance work laid the foundation for one of the more daring raids of the Civil War, when she personally accompanied Union soldiers in their nighttime raid at Combahee Ferry in June 1863. After guiding Union boats along the mine-filled waters and coming ashore, Tubman and her group successful rescued more than 700 slaves working on nearby plantations, while dodging bullets and artillery shells from slave owners and Confederate soldiers rushing to the scene. The success of the raid, which had also included the brave service of African-American soldiers, increased Tubman’s fame, and she went on to work on similar missions with the famed Massachusetts 54th Infantry before spending the final years of the war tending to injured soldiers. One hundred years after Tubman’s successes in South Carolina, a recently formed black feminist group took the name Combahee River Collective in her honor, also paying honor to Tubman’s work later in her life as a powerful advocate for women’s suffrage.
It took years for the U.S. government to pay Tubman for her Civil War work.
Despite her contributions to the war effort, Tubman received little compensation, likely earning less than $200 during the war itself. Compounding the issue was Tubman’s clandestine work as a spy, making it difficult for the federal government to formally recognize her work. For years, Tubman repeatedly requested an official military pension, but was denied. Two decades after the wars end, a U.S. congressman went so far as to introduce legislation calling for Tubman to receive a $2,000 pension, but the bill was defeated. In the end, Tubman was the beneficiary of military benefits, but only as the wife of an “official” veteran, her second husband, Nelson Davis.
Despite her fame and achievements, Tubman died in near poverty.
Tubman’s lifelong charity and generosity towards her family and fellow ex-slaves, coupled with a series of financial reversals late in her life left her in desperate straits. She struggled to pay off the purchase of a plot of land in Auburn, New York, that soon became home to her extended family and in 1873 she fell victim to a vicious fraud that saw her swindled and robbed of more than $2,000 and physically beaten by the conmen. Tubman’s supporters desperately tried to alleviate her financial suffering, holding benefits and writing newspaper reports to raise funds. Tubman also agreed to work with a biographer, Sarah Bradford, on two books about her extraordinary life, with the proceeds used to support Tubman. Bradford, a fellow abolitionist and Tubman admirer, undoubtedly had good intentions, but it was her work that created many of the fallacies and inconsistencies with the historical record that has left much of the true nature of Tubman’s important work unclear. Though Tubman never managed to truly escape her dire financial straits, she continued to donate her money to various causes, donating a parcel of land near her Auburn, New York, home for the creation of what became known as the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which was to be open only to impoverished blacks. When Tubman’s own health began to fail in 1911, she herself entered the home she had helped create, dying there of pneumonia on March 10, 1913.