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Who was Harriet Tubman? The Life and Legacy of an American Heroine.


“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

This was a famous quote by the American abolitionist and political activist, Harriet Tubman. 

As March is Women’s History Month in the United States, this article aims to present the life and legacy of one of America’s most famous heroines. 

Harriet Tubman (born Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross) was a black, female abolitionist and political activist. She was born into slavery in Maryland in 1822 from which she escapade in 1849 using the so-called “Underground Railroad.” 

Instead of running as far away as possible once she gained her freedom, she decided to go back and save others with a similar fate. She thus became a leading abolitionist and led hundreds of slaves to freedom using the “Underground Railroad.”

Early years as slave

Araminta Ross was born to parents Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. She later changed her name to Harriet in honor of her mother. 

Despite her mother’s efforts to keep her nine children together, the harsh reality of slavery did not allow for this. At the age of five, Harriet was rented out as a nursemaid where she was whipped and beaten whenever the baby cried. 

At age seven she was rented out to a planter to set muskrat traps and few years later she was once again rented out as a field hand.

At the young age of 12, it became apparent that Harriet was destined for greater things. One day she spotted how an overseer was about to throw a heavy weight at a fugitive slave. Harriet jumped between the slave and the overseer and the weight struck her head. 

She later explained that the weight had broken her skull and that they had carried her into the house all bleeding while she was unconscious. She had no bed, so they brought her to the seat of the loom, where she stayed all day and the next.

Escape from slavery

Harriet’s father was set free in 1840 and she discovered that her owner’s last will set her mother and children free as well. However, Harriet’s new owner refused to recognize the will and kept Harriet’s mother and siblings as slaves. 

Around 1844, she married a free black man named John Tubman and changed her last name. She wasn’t happy in her marriage though, as her husband threatened to sell her further south. 

Her husband’s maltreatment towards her and the knowledge that two of her brothers – Ben and Henry – were about to be sold, provoked Harriet to hatch a plan to escape. 

Following the death of her owner in 1849, Harriet decided to escape to Philadelphia. Her two brothers – Ben and Henry – accompanied her, but once word got out that there was a $300 reward for the return of Araminta, Henry, and Ben, the two boys had second thoughts and returned.

Harriet had no plans to remain in slavery. After seeing her brothers safely home, she set off alone for Pennsylvania. Tubman traveled nearly 90 miles using the “Underground Railroad”.

Harriet Tubman: The Conductor 

As a free woman in Philadelphia, she found work as a housekeeper, but she wasn’t satisfied living as a freed slave on her own. She wanted freedom for her loved ones as well. 

Word got around that her niece and her niece’s children were about to be sold. Harriet thus traveled back to the south to free her family via the “Underground Railroad”. 

This was the first of many trips that she made to free slaves. Her work as a “Conductor” for the “Underground Railroad” earned her the nickname “Moses”.  

In 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, the dynamics of freeing slaves changed. The new law stated that escaped slaves could be re-captured in the North and returned to slavery. This led to the widespread abduction of former slaves and free blacks in northern states.

Law enforcement officials were forced to partake in the capture of slaves, regardless of their personal beliefs. This evidently affected the “Underground Railroad” and Harriet’s work. They were thus forced to re-route the network to Canada, where slavery was prohibited.

Harriet Tubman: The political activist

As the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet Tubman remained active. She was recruited as a nurse, cook, and laundress to assist fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe. 

Harriet also had some knowledge of herbal medicines which she used to treat the sick soldiers and fugitive slaves. 

In 1863, she became head of an espionage network for the Union Army. She provided essential information and intelligence to the Union commanders about Confederate Army supply routes and troops. She also helped liberate slaves to form black Union regiments.

She became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, as she guided the Combahee River Raid, which freed more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. It took the government over three decades to recognize her military contributions during the war, but she was eventually received monetary compensation. 

Harriet’s Legacy

Potential design for new $20 bill

As Harriet aged, the injuries she suffered to her head as a young girl became more and more severe. She underwent brain surgery, because she was suffering from pains and “buzzing” in her head. Surrounded by friends and family, she died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913. 

After her death, she became widely known and respected as an American icon. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the new $20 bill. 

This decision came after the Treasury Department received a flood of public comments, following a campaign that called for a notable female American to appear on U.S. currency. More than half a million voters participated in an online poll for the “Women on 20s campaign”. 

Harriet Tubman devoted her life to racial equality, and she fought for women’s rights alongside the nation’s leading suffragists. She is undoubtedly a female and American national icon to look up to. 

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