Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad: how one woman saved hundreds from hell

The Underground Railroad saved thousands from the hell of slavery, but one name will always stand out as the symbol of courage, selflessness and freedom, writes Jonny Wilkes for BBC History Revealed

Harriet Tubman (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

She had escaped from hell. The hell of bondage, racism, terror, degradation, back-breaking work, beatings and whippings that marked the life of a slave in the United States. Harriet Tubman ran away from her Maryland plantation and trekked, alone, nearly 90 miles to reach the free state of Pennsylvania. The treacherous journey meant travelling at night through woods and across streams, with little food, and fearing anyone who would happily send her back to her owners to collect a reward. If not for a clandestine network of routes and safe houses, organised to aid ‘fugitive slaves’ heading north, Tubman may have never made it to Philadelphia.

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“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” she recalled of her 1849 escape. “There was such a glory over everything. The Sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

The Underground Railroad delivered Tubman to a place where she could live relatively safe from bondage, yet while others faced brutality and despair, she would risk her life as the network’s most famous conductor. Tubman escaped hell, only to turn and walk back into it.

When and where was Harriet Tubman born?

Araminta Ross [born c1822], Tubman’s birth name, would have been put to work on her owners’ plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, almost as soon as she learned to walk. Her eight brothers and sisters faced the same brutal introduction to their lives as slaves.

The exhausting field work, and long hours of domestic service as a maid and later a cook, left her malnourished and occasionally ill.

Like the millions of slaves in America, the young Minty became all-too familiar with horrific physical and emotional abuse from her masters. While working as a nursemaid at the age of just five or six – thought to have been around 1825-30 – she was whipped and beaten as punishment whenever the baby cried.

Yet from Minty’s violent early years came a devout Christian faith, built on being read Bible stories by her mother, as well as a remarkable strength, courage and willingness to put herself in danger to help others. These qualities served her so well on the Underground Railroad, but almost led to her death as a child.

One day, when she had been sent to fetch supplies from a dry goods store, Minty found herself caught between a slave who had left his plantation without permission and his pursuing overseer.

What was the Underground Railroad?

The name doesn’t mean actual trains ran up and down America in tunnels (not in the early 19th century, at least) but refers to a system of hidden routes, there to help escaped slaves reach the free states of the North or Canada. Guides led them along the indirect routes, which often meant walking through the wilderness, crossing rivers and climbing mountains to avoid detection. Sometimes, though, a route included transportation, such as boats or wagons. Safe houses would be dotted along the routes, managed by sympathisers.

It was all kept a secret, hence ‘underground’, and used terms from the burgeoning railway. So the slaves became ‘passengers’, safe houses became ‘stations’, and the guides, like Harriet Tubman, were called ‘conductors’.

Although often represented as meticulously organised, with maps of set routes and elaborate systems of communication, the Underground Railroad was a loosely connected network. Those involved – who ranged from escaped slaves to wealthy white abolitionists and church leaders – tended to stay in small groups. This meant that they mastered certain routes and stations without ever knowing the Railroad’s full extent.

In the larger cities of the North, like New York, Boston and Philadelphia, ‘vigilance committees’ sprang up and supported the Railroad. They provided food, supplies, money and job recommendations to the arriving slaves, and even held fundraising bake sales under the banner, ‘Buy for the sake of the slave’. There is no way of knowing exactly how many were saved, with estimates ranging from 40,000 to 100,000, but the Railroad gave hope to millions of slaves who dreamed of one day reaching the ‘promised land’.

Not only did she refuse orders to help restrain the runaway, but she blocked the white man’s path, causing him to hurl a heavy weight in frustration. It struck Minty in the head, knocking her unconscious in a bloody heap.

With no medical care forthcoming for a damaged slave, Minty suffered from seizures, sudden sleeping episodes similar to narcolepsy, and began having vivid religious visions. These continued throughout her life (although she claimed them to be premonitions from God). Her head injury elicited no sympathy from her owners, who put her right back to work following a failed attempt to sell her.

Years rolled by with no relief from the terrible conditions, though all the hours of hard labour made Minty surprisingly strong for her diminutive five-foot frame. It was about 1844 when she became Harriet Tubman – having married a free black named John Tubman and choosing to adopt her mother’s first name – yet it was a further five years before she took her first steps to freedom.

How did Harriet Tubman escape from slavery?

What makes Tubman’s escape from slavery more extraordinary is that she had to do it twice. On 17 September 1849, she headed north with two of her brothers, only to return to the plantation when Harry and Ben had second thoughts. Instead of going on without them, Tubman made sure they got back before making her second attempt. On foot, the 90-mile journey could have taken her anywhere between one and three weeks.

But soon after reaching Philadelphia and proclaiming it to be “heaven”, Tubman came to the realisation that her work had only just begun – she now wanted to rescue her family and friends from the evils of slavery too.

So in 1850, she travelled back down to Maryland in order to bring back her niece Kessiah and her husband, and their two daughters.

That was the first of 13 trips Tubman made as a ‘conductor’ of the Underground Railroad over the next decade (some accounts say she went as many as 19 times). Her success with using and expanding the network to get escaped slaves to safety led leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to call her “Moses of her people”.

It is thought that she rescued around 300 slaves directly – including some of her brothers, their families and her own parents – and gave instructions to help dozens more. Tubman used to boast that she never lost a single passenger.

An 1844 advertisement for the ‘Liberty Line’ – a thinly veiled reference to the Underground Railroad
An 1844 advertisement for the ‘Liberty Line’ – a thinly veiled reference to the Underground Railroad, promising “seats free, irrespective of color” (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Being a conductor meant walking through slavery territory, where she could be snatched by armed slave hunters, meaning Tubman voluntarily risked her life each time. It only became more dangerous with the Fugitive Slave Act, which meant escaped slaves could be captured in the North and returned to their owners.

As this led to a rise in black people, slave and free, being abducted, even the free states increasingly became an unsafe final destination for the Underground Railroad. Tubman, therefore, had to find routes to British-owned Canada.

Yet her fortitude and belief that God watched over her never wavered. Fellow conductor William Still once wrote of Tubman: “Great fears were entertained for her safety, but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear.”

Tubman's success with using and expanding the network to get escaped slaves to safety led leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to call her 'Moses of her people'

Time and time again, the uneducated, illiterate Tubman proved her ingenuity to keep slaves in her care safe and fed on the long journey. She would often travel in winter, when the nights were longer, and set off with her ‘passengers’ on a Saturday evening – as runaway notices wouldn’t appear in newspapers until Monday morning.

While on route, Tubman carried a pistol, both for defence and to keep the slaves going. “You’ll be free or die,” became her resolute message.

Tubman became the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor, known to abolitionists and activists, such as John Brown. Before his doomed 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in the hopes of sparking a slave revolt, he consulted who he dubbed ‘General Tubman’, and allegedly wanted her to be part of the attack.

Such was Tubman’s reputation that she bought a small piece of land near Auburn, New York – where she lived with her elderly parents, who she rescued in one of her final trips – from anti-slavery senator (and future Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln) William H Seward.

Did coded songs help people escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad?

There is a popular story about the Underground Railroad stating that songs had secret messages in the lyrics, which helped slaves find their way to freedom or act as a warning. So ‘Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd’ actually refers to the North Star, ‘Wade in the Water’ is an instruction to hide, and the words ‘I am bound for the land of Canaan’ could be used by a slave to announce his or her intention to escape and head to Canada, their Canaan.

In her biography of Harriet Tubman, Sarah Hopkins Bradford names two songs that she used on the Railroad: ‘Go Down Moses’ and ‘Bound for the Promised Land’. Tubman would later change the tempo to alter the meaning of the message.

There are historians, however, who question the idea that songs contained codes, saying that there is no clear evidence from the time and that the story originates not in the 19th century, but the 20th. A similar theory, which claims that quilts were made with certain patterns to represent hidden instructions, has also been questioned.

The truth remains unclear, and isn’t helped by the fact that detailed records are sparse when it comes to the lives of slaves in America. Yet songs certainly formed a strong tradition for those in bondage, whether used as prayers (known as ‘spirituals’), to offer a beat to their work or as oral history in a society where many were illiterate. They offered hope where there seemed to be none and a sense of community when everyone sang together.

Harriet Tubman and the American Civil War

Although the Underground Railroad essentially ended when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, it did not signal the last of Tubman’s heroic deeds.

Never thinking of her own well-being, she served in the Union Army as a cook, laundress and nurse, tending to wounded soldiers and fugitive slaves, who were referred to as ‘contrabands’.

After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation – laying the foundations for the abolition of slavery – Tubman led a band of scouts into Confederate territory, utilising the skills she had mastered as a conductor.

The information that she gathered allowed Colonel James Montgomery to attack enemy positions with devastating effect, and saw her become the first woman to lead an armed assault.

On 2 June 1863, Tubman guided Union steamboats along the Combahee River to raid plantations in South Carolina. More than 750 slaves were freed.

What were Harriet Tubman’s actions during the American Civil War?

Journalist Sophie Beal explores… 

In April 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. By this time, Tubman 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 Tubman 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 Tubman was scout and adviser to Colonel Montgomery, commander of the second South Carolina volunteers, one of the new black infantry regiments.

On 1 June 1863, as midnight approached, she led three steamers carrying 300 black soldiers slowly up the Combahee River. Tubman 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.

But what did Tubman receive for three years of loyal service? Such little pay that she had to support herself by selling homemade pies, ginger bread and root beer, and no compensation at all for three decades.

Tubman spent years struggling in poverty, made only worse in 1873 when two men scammed her out of $2,000, but that did not mean that she faded into obscurity.

Still a popular symbol of the anti-slavery movement, she was the subject of two biographies (published in 1869 and 1886), with all of the proceeds going to help pay her bills.

Regardless of money troubles, Tubman continued to fight for others for the rest of her life. She gave speeches supporting women’s suffrage, and was invited to be the keynote speaker at the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896.

Her Auburn home became a haven for orphans, the elderly and freed slaves looking for help, which is how she met her second husband, a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis. (Back in her conductor days, she had gone back to rescue John Tubman, but he had re-married.) Together, Tubman and Davis adopted a baby girl, Gertie.

Harriet Tubman with her family and several elderly boarders from the Underground Railroad
Harriet Tubman (far left), Gertie (her adopted daughter) and Nelson Davis (her second husband), with elderly boarders and family friends (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Tubman’s generosity led to the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged on her land in 1908, just a few years before she became one of its patients.

On 10 March 1913, she died of pneumonia, surrounded by family and friends. A devout Christian until the end, her final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you”.

If her actions and achievements aren’t testament enough, these last words perfectly capture a woman who dedicated her life to others, seeking no glory or fame in return. A woman who became an American icon by hiding in shadows. A woman who escaped the hell of being a slave and set about helping others to do the same.

Her friend, the revered abolitionist Frederick Douglass, once wrote to Tubman about her time as a conductor on the Underground Railroad: “Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night.”

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Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history.

This article was originally published in History Revealed in January 2017