We all think we know Harriet Tubman. She was an American Moses, staring out at us from the daguerreotype, stalwart and determined. Many were first introduced to her in elementary school, as we learned the mythology of American demigods. But to simply acknowledge her rank in the pantheon is to undermine the true heart of heroism to be found in her story.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Harriet Green and Ben Ross. All slave families feared the hovering ghost of separation. In the beginning, it seemed that the Ross-Green household might escape such a fate, as Anthony Thompson, Ross’s master, stipulated emancipation dates for all of his slaves in his will. However, the death of Thompson’s wife led to an inheritance claim to Harriet’s mother and her children by Thompson’s stepson, Edward Brodess. The movement to Brodess’ smaller property meant not only separation of the family from Ben, but also the threat of being hired out or sold further south for needed cash. After Brodess died indebted in 1849, the fear of being sold south became even more pressing. In late 1849, Harriet Tubman ran.
For the next eleven years, she kept running in and out of Maryland. First, bringing her family into freedom, and, when she could not bring her family, bringing other families via the network known as the Underground Railroad. These were not easy missions – even for a woman who knew the woods and eastern shore well. In order to keep babies sedated she carried paregoric, a mixture of opium, camphor and alcohol commonly used in the 19th century to calm children. The possibility that a “passenger” might become too weary or too fearful to go on was constantly on Harriet’s mind, so she always carried a gun to prevent such trouble. She gave them a choice “go on to freedom or die.”
This is usually where the story would end. And, in truth, the saving of 80 souls would be a life’s worth of work for some people; but not for Harriet Tubman. She was intimately involved in the war effort: nursing the wounded, helping newly freed women find jobs, and acting as spy in South Carolina with the permission of Colonel James Montgomery. Her activism continued after the war, as she set her sights on suffrage and social issues such as the care of the elderly and destitute. No, bringing 80 souls into freedom was not nearly a life’s work for Harriet Tubman. There were more freedoms to be had.
Want to know more about the life’s work of Harriet Tubman? Check out the Sterne Library Resources listed below. If you need further assistance, please contact your friendly neighborhood librarian.
- Harriet Tubman: myth, memory, and history/ Milton C. Sernett
- Before they could vote: American women’s autobiographical writing, 1819-1919/ edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson.
- Passages to freedom : the Underground Railroad in history and memory/ edited by David W. Blight.
- Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, portrait of an American hero/ Kate Clifford Larson.
- Humez, J. (1993). In Search of Harriet Tubman’s Spiritual Autobiography. NWSA Journal, 5(2), 162-182. Retrieved August 21, 2009, from America: History & Life database.
- Eusebius, M. (1950). A Modern Moses: Harriet Tubman. The Journal of Negro Education,19(1), 16-24.
- American History and Life
- American Periodicals Series
- Contemporary Women’s Issues
- Documenting the American South
- Ethnic News Watch
- Gender Watch
- Oxford African American Studies Center
- Project Muse