The woman who helped hundreds of enslaved people find freedom
With the Cynthia Erivo led biographical film Harriet recently released in November, the inspiring legacy of Harriet Tubman is fresh in our minds. The fearless Underground Railroad "conductor" was responsible for (either personally or indirectly) the hard-won freedom of thousands of enslaved African Americans.
This clever, unflinching woman is to be honored by the redesign of the $20 bill—now said to be coming in 2028. She has had statues commissioned in her likeness across several American cities, had the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park commemorated in her honor, and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
But what don't we know about the woman behind the immeasurable legacy? Here are ten enlightening Harriet Tubman facts you'll want to know.
Harriet Tubman was not the Underground Railroad conductor's birth name.
When she was born in the early 19th century, Harriet was given the name Araminta Ross—her mother usually used an affectionate nickname, Minty. When Minty changed her name before her brave escape from slavery, it was her mother's given name, Harriet, that she assumed. The 'Tubman' portion of her name came from the man she married in 1844, John Tubman, a free African American man who lived near Harriet's owner's plantation.
Even as Harriet carved an iconic path making her name a staple of history, she would earn several other nicknames along the way—abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called Tubman 'Moses', while John Brown would refer to her as 'General Tubman'.
A youthful head injury had an outsized impact on her life.
When she was a teenager, Tubman was struck on the head by a two-pound weight. The attack was meant for a nearby enslaved person attempting to make an escape—but the overseer missed their shot, instead hitting Tubman. The crack in Tubman's skull caused her to have long-term sleeping complications. Throughout her life, Tubman would abruptly lose consciousness. It would be a struggle to rouse her from the spells.
Additionally, the injury caused Tubman to have vivid visions and dreams. She soon believed that her visions were coming directly from God. It was this deep religious faith that inspired her to put her own life on the line to aid slaves in their flight to freedom.
Her injury may have also compelled her own escape. Terrified that she would be seen as inadequate, Tubman attempted to work harder and harder to keep herself from being sold away from her family and loved ones. Eventually, she decided the risk of being caught on her way to freedom was a better one than remaining in place and being sold.
Later in life, her injury further complicated her life, making it difficult for her to fall asleep at night. She opted to have brain surgery and admitted herself to Boston's Massachusetts General hospital. Though anesthesia was offered to her, Tubman refused. She was determined to bite a bullet as the soldiers did during amputations.
She utilized disguises and codes to allay suspicion along the Underground Railroad.
Once Tubman was known to slavers as a key participant in the Underground Railroad, additional precautions had to be taken. Tubman cleverly dressed herself as men, old women, and even free middle class African Americans to travel across the slave states undeterred. By walking around with chickens, Tubman would assume the identity of a field hand. In a stroke of true genius, she would pretend to read the newspaper, as it was widely known that Harriet Tubman was illiterate.
To send messages to her followers, Tubman implemented the use of spirituals and songs as a system of codes. Further utilizing her cunning mind, Tubman prioritized travel on Saturdays, as she knew that newspapers published their runaway notices on Monday mornings.
She was even tougher than you can imagine.
Harriet Tubman knew that traveling back and forth along the Underground Railroad meant that she and her followers were at risk of being attacked by the police, hunting dogs, mobs, bounty hunters, and notoriously cruel slave catchers. At one point, Tubman's efforts freeing slaves led to a call for a $40,000 bounty on her head. It's unclear if this bounty was one single bounty, or the combination of a number of bounties offered around the slave-holding states and territories.
The fight for freedom was dangerous business, and Tubman was going to treat it as such—she threatened to kill anyone who was having second thoughts along the way, as anyone turning back during their escape was a liability to all of the others. Tubman also toted a handgun along with her on her travels for protection.
On her final trip on the Railroad, Tubman assisted the Ennals family. The Ennals had an infant child with them—a life-threatening risk with the unpredictable nature of a baby's moods. However, Tubman was sharp and determined, and she carried on ahead after drugging the baby with paregoric, a tincture of opium.
She never lost a single follower on her journeys of escape.
The number of people Tubman personally guided along the Underground Railroad is widely disputed. Early accounts put that number around 300, while later biographies lowered the number to 70. At any rate, Tubman was proud to proclaim, "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."
She was a vital part of the Union war efforts.
During the Civil War, Tubman did her part by acting as both a cook and a nurse for the Union Army. Thanks to her knowledge of plants and their properties, she was a great resource in aiding soldiers with dysentery. She was also used as a Union scout and spy—a role that was well-suited to her, judging by her Railroad tactics. In fact, she was the first woman to lead an assault during the war, arranging the Combahee River Raid. With the assistance of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Tubman brought roughly 750 slaves to freedom with this raid.
Unfortunately, Tubman long went uncompensated for her war efforts, and continued to be under-compensated once she secured a pension. She received only $200 for her three-year commitment—payment only for her nursing contributions. She argued with the government that they owed her an additional $966 for her espionage services, but it took 34 years for her to receive a veteran's pension.
Her second husband was 22 years younger than Tubman when they wed in 1869.
Her second husband was Nelson Davis, a veteran of the Civil War. At the time of their marriage, Tubman was 59 years old, while Davis was just 37. In 1874, the pair adopted a baby girl named Gertie. For two decades before Davis's early death, they had a happy life together growing vegetables and raising pigs in their back garden.
After her work on the Underground Railroad, Tubman championed for women's right to vote.
Later in her life, Tubman stood among other prominent women in the suffrage movement. She attended the meetings of suffragist organizations, and it wasn't long before she was working alongside the notable Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland to bring women the right to vote. Tubman traveled throughout the east coast to New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. to deliver speeches in favor of women's suffrage, even at her own financial detriment.
Despite life-long financial struggles, she epitomized the generous spirit.
Tubman spent the last years of her life on the land that abolitionist Senator William H. Seward sold her in Auburn, New York. Though Tubman was well-known across the United States, her reputation did little to help her finances. However, her own poverty was not going to keep her from helping others, and so she gave what she had.
She used her plot of land as a place for family and friends to take refuge with her, embracing an open-door policy. In 1903, she donated a section of her property to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Five years later, the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indigent Colored People opened up on that very location.
She passed away on March 10th, 1913.
Harriet Tubman was an estimated 93 years old when she succumbed to pneumonia. The brave woman was surrounded by loved ones upon her death. She was buried with full military honors in the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York. Though this incredible woman has been gone for more than a century, her legacy lives on in the pages of history books, across the schools and museums which proudly bear her name, reflected by towering movie screens, and most importantly, through the lives of all of those her selfless risks helped to improve for generations to come.
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