Harriet Tubman and the ‘Underground Railroad’

After her daring escape from slavery in 1849, Harriet Tubman risked her own safety to help guide around 70 friends and family to freedom using a secret network of slaves and abolitionist sympathisers. Later, she became the first woman to lead an armed raid in the American Civil War. Here, writing for History Extra, Sophie Beal shares the story of Tubman's remarkable life…

Harriet Tubman. (Getty Images)

In the years since Martha Washington briefly graced the one silver dollar-bill in the 19th century, the space on US banknotes has been reserved for white men, usually presidents. However, in April 2016 the country’s treasury announced their intention to depict Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave, on the front of their $20 bill. While relatively unknown in Britain, in the United States Tubman has become a celebrated icon of the fight to abolish slavery.


Though Harriet was never sure of her exact age, she was born Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross in Maryland, in around 1822, the fifth of Ben and Harriet ‘Rit’ Ross’ nine children. Harriet’s father Ben was a slave of Anthony Thompson, while Minty, her mother and siblings were all ‘owned’ by the Brodess family. Enslaved people were considered property with no rights of their own, and their well-being was usually only considered important in terms of productivity.

Lemuel F Abbott's famous 1797 portrait of Horatio Nelson. In 1805, the British naval hero promised to speak publicly against the abolition of slavery, but was denied the opportunity by his death at Trafalgar later that year. (Picture by Alamy)

At around the same time as Harriet’s birth, Edward Brodess turned 21 and gained control of his inheritance, which included a 200-acre plantation, cash and investments – as well as slaves. Planters in Brodess’ area were moving from growing tobacco year-round to exporting cyclical crops of grain and timber. This brought in less money, and reduced the need for labour. By the terms of a will, Rit and her children were each supposed to have been freed when they reached the age of 45. However, by 1841, three of her daughters – Maria Rhitty, Linah and Soph – had been sold illegally to out-of-state traders. The family never heard from any of them again. Although Ben was freed in 1840, in the terms of Thompson’s will, he continued to work as a skilled woodsman for his son, Dr Anthony C Thompson.

From the age of five, Minty was put to work. She was often loaned away from home to neighbouring families who mistreated her. One of these was a couple with a new baby and, after a full day of domestic tasks, Minty was expected to rock the cradle throughout the night. The mother slept with a stick in her hand, which she would use to hit Minty whenever the baby cried.

By the age of 12, Minty had graduated to backbreaking work in the fields. She reportedly preferred being outdoors, alongside fellow slaves. Her health improved and she developed surprising strength. However, at some point during her adolescence, Minty became caught up in a struggle as another slave tried to run away and a weight, aimed at him, hit her on the head. She was left untreated for a couple of days and then set back to work. For the rest of her life she experienced headaches and absences associated with strange dreams. Nevertheless, she soon began to demonstrate the resourcefulness for which she would become famous.

Resourcefulness and escape

With Anthony C Thompson acting as her guarantor, Minty agreed to pay Brodess a yearly fee in order to hire herself out to masters of her own choosing. Doing this, she saved enough to buy a pair of oxen to take with her to plough land and haul timber, which increased her earnings.

In her early 20s, she married John Tubman, a free man who the historical record knows little about. At the time, slaves could only marry with the agreement of their ‘masters’. However, as those with families were less likely to attempt to escape, owners often either arranged marriages or encouraged natural matches. John, who had freedom of movement and could marry whoever he chose, had a lot to lose; the Tubmans needed Brodess’ permission to live together, and Brodess would automatically own any children they had together as slaves.

An engraving of Harriet Tubman. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An engraving of Harriet Tubman. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 

After an aborted attempt to escape with two brothers in September 1849, Minty finally fled alone sometime that autumn. Unable to persuade her husband to join her, she left him behind. Her destination was Pennsylvania, the neighbouring free state. No one knows her exact route, or the time she took to travel almost 90 miles, but she reportedly followed the North Star, aligned with the North Pole. During her escape, Minty likely used part of the ‘Underground Railroad’ – a secret network of slaves and abolitionist sympathisers – for the first time. ‘Conductors’ guided fugitive slaves between hiding places or ‘stations’ towards freedom in the north. By the time of her escape, Minty had changed her name to Harriet, probably after her mother. Fugitives often took on new identities to cover their flight; certainly she was still ‘Minty’ on runaway notices.

When she arrived in the bustling city of Philadelphia, Harriet soon found domestic work and made abolitionist friends. However, she was not completely safe. Slave catchers operated in the area, and just a year after she arrived, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 obliged local commissioners to return runaways to their owners. There were now harsh penalties for those who aided escapees.

c1935: Beatrice Shilling sits astride her Norton motorcycle. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In December 1850, Harriet received word through the Underground Railroad that her niece, Kessiah Bowley, was about to be sold along with her two children. On hearing the news, Harriet immediately sent instructions back to Kessiah’s free husband, John, and travelled to Baltimore on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. According to family lore, John travelled to the slave auction and made a winning bid for all three of his family members. The auctioneer then set them aside while he went to dinner. When John failed to come forward, the auctioneer suspected a ruse and restarted the bidding. However, by this time, John had smuggled his family to a house five minutes away. A skilled sailor, he then carried them on the perilous journey up the Chesapeake to Baltimore. Here they joined Harriet, who led them to safety in Pennsylvania.

The following year in 1851, Harriet returned to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for the first time, hoping to bring her own husband John away, however, he had taken another wife and refused to leave. Harriet later told Ednah Dow Cheney her instinct was to “go right in and make all the trouble she could”, too upset to worry about being recaptured. Instead, she found a group of slaves who were willing to escape and led them to freedom in Philadelphia.

Over the next 11 years, Harriet made around 13 trips to rescue approximately 70 slaves, including almost all her remaining family, from the Eastern Shore. She also delivered detailed instructions on how to escape to another 50 or 60. Having raised enough money earlier in the year, Harriet would usually travel to Maryland in autumn or winter, when the longer nights kept most people inside. She would then infiltrate a plantation to find slaves ready to escape. As Sunday was their day off, she would lead them away on a Saturday night, so their owners usually wouldn’t notice them missing until Monday. This not only gave them a head start, but delayed the publication of runaway notices in the newspaper. Harriet sang Negro spirituals for secret communication and became remarkable at disguise. She was in her 30s at the time, but sometimes dressed as an elderly woman or man. On one occasion, when she recognised one of her old masters on the train, she grabbed a newspaper left on the seat and pretended to read, something he wouldn’t expect of an illiterate slave. Whether it was upside down or not, she didn’t know, but the man didn’t notice. On another, when she saw Brodess, she pulled both feet of the chicken she was holding. The commotion gave her excuse to look down, hiding her face behind her bonnet.

Harriet Tubman (pictured far left) with a group of people she helped to escape from slavery. (Getty Images)
Harriet Tubman (pictured far left) with a group of people she helped to escape from slavery. (Getty Images)


Harriet always considered her greatest resource to be her Christian faith. Thomas Garrett, an Underground Railroad activist, said, “I never met with any person of any colour who had more confidence in the voice of God as spoken direct to her soul”. Tubman became known as ‘Moses’, after the Old Testament figure who led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. Eastern Shore plantation owners put a large reward on the head of whoever was helping the fugitives. However, most assumed it was a white man, allowing Harriet, as a female runaway, to evade suspicion.

Harriet told biographer Emma Telford: “When danger is near, it appears like my heart goes flutter, flutter”. Later, in 1896, she told a New York State suffrage convention: “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger”.

A painting depicting George Washington with British soldiers at Yorktown. In the final battle of the war at the siege of Yorktown, writes Jem Duducu, there were nearlyas many French soldiers and sailors as American rebels fighting for colonial independence. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

In 1860, after several rescue attempts, Harriet discovered that Rachel, her last sibling still in captivity, had died. Unable to reach Rachel’s two children, Harriet took seven other slaves north, including a family of five with a baby. Meanwhile, several ‘conductors’ had disappeared from the railroad – caught and arrested, chased out of town or possibly killed. Harriet and the fugitives made it to safety, though she decided this journey was too hazardous to repeat.

The same year, Harriet visited Henry Highland Garnet, a prominent black abolitionist, in New York. Though Garnet told her he didn’t believe even his grandchildren would see emancipation, Tubman insisted she had a vision: “You’ll see it, and you’ll see it soon. My people are free! My people are free!”

Tubman became known as ‘Moses’ in the underground abolition movement. (Photo by Getty Images)
Tubman became known as ‘Moses’ in the underground abolition movement. (Photo by Getty Images)

Civil war and river raids

In April 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. By this time, Harriet had many abolitionist admirers and Massachusetts governor John Andrew sponsored her to travel to Port Royal, South Carolina, which had recently been taken from the Confederates. On the outbreak of war, she initially attached herself as a volunteer to Union troops encamped near Fort Munroe, Virginia. Harriet worked wherever she was needed: nursing those with disease, which was rife in the hot climate; organising the distribution of charitable aid to the thousands of ex-slaves behind union lines and supervising the building of a laundry house where she trained women to earn money washing clothes.

Tubman held a unique position of trust with former slaves and Union leadership, and was eventually able to help one General Hunter, who commanded troops in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina (the military Department of the South), to recruit the first black regiments. Hunter gave Harriet authority to line up scouts who could infiltrate and map out the interior. The information she gathered from these spies was passed on to General Rufus Saxton, who used it to capture Jacksonville, Florida, in March 1863. This convinced Union leadership of the benefit of guerrilla operations and led to the famed Combahee River Raid, where Harriet was scout and adviser to Colonel Montgomery, commander of the second South Carolina volunteers, one of the new black infantry regiments.

President Abraham Lincoln visiting soldiers encamped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland, 1 October 1862. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

On 1 June 1863, as midnight approached, Harriet led three steamers carrying 300 black soldiers slowly up the Combahee River. She guided them around rebel underwater mines to designated spots along the shore. Soldiers then ran onto the plantations to rout out any Confederate gunmen and alert the slaves. Others confiscated thousands of dollars’ worth of crops and animals, destroying anything left behind. When the whistles blew, the slaves rushed towards the tugboats sent to meet them. Once everyone was on board, the steamers made their way back up the river, carrying the 756 newly-liberated slaves to Port Royal.

Following the Combahee River Raid, critics could no longer argue that African-Americans were unfit to fight. This well-organised raid had dealt a deep blow to the Confederates, utilising the very people they wanted to keep suppressed and enslaved.

After the war, Tubman headed to her parents’ home in Auburn, New York, where she welcomed extended family and ex-slaves in need. In 1869 she married Nelson Davis, a young army veteran. Despite her achievements, Harriet struggled financially: she had never received a regular salary and gave much of what she had away. In 1873, she fell prey to a criminal swindle, losing $2,000 she had borrowed from a friend. Two men had promised her a trunk of $5,000 gold coins they’d smuggled from South Carolina in exchange.

Despite this hardship, Harriet lived happily with Nelson until his death in 1888. Finally, in 1899, 34 years after the war, her service was officially recognised with a nurse’s pension. Harriet died in 1913, in a home for elderly African-Americans which she had worked to establish.

Sophie Beal is a freelance journalist, fascinated by the game-changers of the 19th century. She blogs at www.sophiebeal.wordpress.com.


This article was first published on History Extra in March 2017