The Life of Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman’s life was a monument to courage and determination
that continues to stand out in American history. Born into slavery in Maryland,
Harriet Tubman freed herself, and played a major role in freeing the remaining
millions. After the Civil War, she joined her family in Auburn, NY, where she
founded the Harriet Tubman Home.
Harriet Tubman’s Life in
Harriet Ross was born into slavery in 1819 or 1820, in Dorchester
County, Maryland. Given the names of her two parents, both held in slavery, she
was of purely African ancestry. She was raised under harsh conditions, and
subjected to whippings even as a small child. At the age of 12 she was
seriously injured by a blow to the head, inflicted by a white overseer for
refusing to assist in tying up a man who had attempted escape.
Tubman was given a piece of paper by a white neighbor with two names, and
told how to find the first house on her path to freedom. At the first house she
was put into a wagon, covered with a sack, and driven to her next destination.
Following the route to Pennsylvania, she initially settled in Philadelphia,
she met William Still, the Philadelphia Stationmaster on the Underground
Railroad. With the assistance of Still, and other members of the Philadelphia
Anti-Slavery Society, she learned about the workings of the UGRR.
In 1851 she began relocating members of her family to St. Catharines,
(Ontario) Canada West. North Street in St. Catharines remained her base of
operations until 1857. While there she worked at various activities to save to
finance her activities as a Conductor on the UGRR, and attended the Salem Chapel
BME Church on Geneva Street.
After freeing herself from slavery, Harriet Tubman returned to Maryland to
rescue other members of her family. In all she is believed to have conducted
approximately 300 persons to freedom in the North. The tales of her exploits
reveal her highly spiritual nature, as well as a grim determination to protect
her charges and those who aided them. She always expressed confidence that God
would aid her efforts, and threatened to shoot any of her charges who thought to
When William Still published The Underground Railroad in 1871, he
included a description of Harriet Tubman and her work. The section of Still’s
book captioned below begins with a letter from Thomas Garret, the Stationmaster
of Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington and Philadelphia were on the major route
followed by Tubman, and by hundreds of others who escaped from slavery in
Maryland. For this reason, Still was in a position to speak from his own
firsthand knowledge of Tubman’s work:
WILMINGTON, 12 mo. 29th, 1854Esteemed Friend, J. Miller McKim: – We made arrangements last
night, and sent away Harriet Tubman, with six men and one woman to Allen
Agnew’s, to be forwarded across the country to the city. Harriet, and one of
the men had worn the shoes off their feet, and I gave them two dollars to help
fit them out, and directed a carriage to be hired at my expense, to take them
out, but do not yet know the expense….THOMAS GARRETHarriet Tubman had been their “Moses,” but
not in the sense that Andrew Johnson was the “Moses of the colored people.”
She had faithfully gone down into Egypt, and had delivered these six bondmen by
her own heroism. Harriet was a woman of no pretensions, indeed, a more ordinary
specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking
farm hands of the South. Yet, in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested
exertions to rescue her fellow-men, by making personal visits to Maryland among
the slaves, she was without her equal.Her success was wonderful. Time and again she made successful
visits to Maryland on the Underground Rail Road, and would be absent for weeks
at a time, running daily risks while making preparations for herself and her
passengers. Great fears were entertained for her safety, but she seemed wholly
devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or
slave-holders, seemed never to enter her mind. She was apparently proof against
all adversaries. While she thus maintained utter personal indifference, she was
much more watchful with regard to those she was piloting. Half of her time, she
had the appearance of one asleep, and would actually sit down by the road-side
and go fast asleep* when on her errands of mercy through
the South, yet, she would not suffer one of her party to whimper once, about “giving
out and going back,” however wearied they might be by the hard travel day
and night. She had a very short and pointed rule or law of her own, which
implied death to any who talked of giving out and going back. Thus, in an
emergency she would give all to understand that “times were very critical
and therefore no foolishness would be indulged in on the road.” That
several who were rather weak-kneed and faint-hearted were greatly invigorated by
Harriet’s blunt and positive manner and threat of extreme measures, there could
be no doubt.After having once enlisted, “They had to go through ordie.”
Of course Harriet was supreme, and her followers generally had full faith in
her, and would back up any word she might utter. So when she said to them that “a
live runaway could do great harm by going back, but that a dead one could tell
no secrets,” she was sure to have obedience. Therefore, none had to die as
traitors on the “middle passage.” It is obvious enough, however, that
her success in going into Maryland as she did, was attributable to her
adventurous spirit and utter disregard of consequences. Her like it is probable
was never known before or since.
On the road between Syracuse and Rochester, would be found a number of
sympathetic Quakers and other abolitionists settled at Auburn. Here also was
the home of US Senator and former New York State Governor William H. Seward.
Sometime in the mid-1850s, Tubman met Seward and his wife Frances. Mrs. Seward
provided a home for Tubman’s favorite niece, Margaret, after Tubman helped her
to escape from Maryland. In 1857, the Sewards provided a home for Tubman, to
which she relocated her parents from St. Catharines. This home was later sold
to her for a small sum, and became her base of operations when she was not on
the road aiding fugitives from slavery, and speaking in support of the cause.
Tubman was closely associated with Abolitionist John Brown, and was well
acquainted with the other Upstate abolitionists, including
Jermain Loguen, and
Gerrit Smith.She worked
closely with Brown, and reportedly missed the raid on Harper’s Ferry only
because of illness.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Tubman served as a soldier, spy, and a
nurse, for a time serving at Fortress Monroe, where Jefferson Davis would later
be imprisoned. While guiding a group of black soldiers in South Carolina, she
met Nelson Davis, who was ten years her junior. Denied payment for her wartime
service, Tubman was forced, after a bruising fight, to ride in a baggage car on
her return to Auburn.
the close of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman returned to Auburn, NY. There she
married Nelson Davis, and lived in a home they built on South Street, near the
original house. This house still stands on the property, and serves as a home
for the Resident Manager of the Harriet Tubman Home.
Only twelve miles from Seneca Falls, Tubman helped Auburn to remain a center
of activity in support of women’s rights. With her home literally down
the road, Tubman remained in contact with her friends, William and Frances
Seward. In 1908, she built the wooden structure that served as her home for the
aged and indigent. Here she worked, and herself was cared for in the period
before her death in 1913.
death, Harriet Tubman was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn [grave], with
military honors. She has since received man honors, including the naming of the
Liberty Ship Harriet Tubman, christened in 1944[photo] by Eleanor Roosevelt. On June 14, 1914 a large
bronze plaque was placed at the Cayuga County Courthouse, and a civic holiday
declared in her honor. Freedom Park, a tribute to the memory of Harriet Tubman,
opened in the summer of 1994 at 17 North Street in Auburn. In 1995, Harriet
Tubman was honored by the federal government with a commemorative postage stamp
bearing her name and likeness.
History of the Harriet
In 1857, Harriet Tubman relocated her parents from St. Catharines, Ontario,
Canada to Auburn, NY. She was provided a two story brick home on the outskirts of Auburn, by her friend,
William H. Seward. A short time later he sold the property to Tubman for a
modest sum, an illegal transaction at the time. Seward was at that time the US
Senator from New York
In 1863, Tubman led a group of African American Union soldiers on raids
along the Comcahee River in South Carolina. There she met a soldier named
Nelson Davis. They were married in Auburn in 1869, with the Sewards among the
many friends in attendance. Davis and Tubman lived in a brick house on the
property until his death in 1888. That house is now used as home for the
Resident Manager of the Harriet Tubman Home.
In 1896, Tubman purchased at auction the 25 acre parcel on which the Home
stands, for $1450. At this time she was receiving a $20 monthly pension that
had been awarded to her by the Congress. Unable to raise sufficient funds on
her own, she deeded the property to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
in 1903. In 1908, the Harriet Tubman Home was opened, in the frame structure
that still stands, and the original brick
home, which has since been demolished. Throughout her remaining life, from 12
to 15 persons were housed there.
After Tubman’s death the home continued to operate for a few years, and was
then closed. The existing frame building was vacant from 1928 until it was
ordered demolished by the city in 1944.
Bishop William J. Walls of the AME Zion church organized a fund drive, which
raised $30,000 for restoration of the Home. The restored Home was dedicated on
April 13, 1953 as a memorial to Tubman’s life and work, under the auspices of
the AME Zion church
1953 the Church has constructed two new buildings on the site, the Library,
pictured at right in the photo, and a large assembly hall, visible at left.
Some articles of furniture, and a portrait that belonged to Harriet Tubman are
now on display in the Home.
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