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Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (1820 - March 10, 1913), also known as Black Moses, was an African-American abolitionist and resistance movement leader best known for her participation in the Underground Railroad, in particular her dangerous pre-American Civil War expeditions into slave holding states which brought hundreds of slaves to freedom without fail. She is regarded one of America's greatest heroes.

Early Life

She was born into slavery in Maryland. Born Araminta Ross, she later took the name Harriet after her mother. Around 1844 she married John Tubman, another slave. She endured years of inhumane treatment from her various owners, including an incident where an overseer hurled a two-pound weight in her direction, striking her in the head. As a result of the blow, she suffered intermittent bouts of narcolepsy the rest of her life.

Escape and Abolitionist Career

On hearing that the slaves of the plantation were to be sold, she took her emancipation into her own hands, and escaped northward, leaving behind her husband. On her way she was assisted by sympathetic Quakers, members of the Abolitionist movement who were instrumental in maintaining the Underground Railroad. She herself was later to become famous as "Moses", one of the most successful guides of the Underground Railroad; she made many trips South to help other slaves escape. She was never captured and, in her own words, "never lost a passenger" despite the combined bounty for her which totalled $40,000. During the American Civil War, in addition to working as a cook and a nurse, she served as a spy for the North, and again was never captured.


The reason for her success in her adventures was partly due to her cunning, daring and ruthlessness in following well developed plans for her expeditions. For instance, when Tubman scouted an area, she sometimes took the precaution of carrying two chickens with her. Whenever she felt that the people in the area were getting suspicious of her, she would release the chickens and chase them to recapture them. This would amuse the white who would assume the ineffectual chicken chaser could not be the cunning slave stealer. One time at a train station, she found that slave-catchers were watching the trains heading north in hopes of capturing her and her charges. Without hesitation, she had her group board a southbound train, successfully gambling that the retreat into enemy territory would never be anticipated by her pursuers and later resumed her planned route at a safer location. In addition, she had a strict policy that while she would respect a slave forgoing the risk of accompanying her to freedom when offered; anyone who joined her and then wanted to go back en route would be shot dead to prevent the dissenter from betraying the group.

Post American Civil War Life

Harriet Tubman continued as an activist for African-American and women's rights. With Sarah Bradford acting as her biographer and transcribing her stories, she was able to have the story of her life published in 1869 as "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman". This was of considerable help to her sad financial state - she was not awarded a government pension for her military service until some 30 years after the fact. That same year she married Nelson Davis, another Civil War veteran.

Eventually, she settled in the home for needy blacks that she herself had helped to found in Auburn, New York. She died there at the age of 93. She told stories of her adventures til the end of her days.

John Brown was to refer to her as "General Tubman" and called her "one of the bravest persons on this continent." Frederick Douglass said of her, "Excepting John Brown... I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people."

See also: List of African-American abolitionists, Slave narrative

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