About Harriet Tubman: Rebel, slave activist, Union spy

Portrait Young Harriet Tubman

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross — nicknamed “Minty” — around 1820-1823. She died on March 10, 1913, in Auburn, New York.

In the words of the Library of Congress, “Harriet Tubman was a runaway slave from Maryland who became known as the ‘Moses of her people.’

“Over the course of 10 years, and at great personal risk, she led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses where runaway slaves could stay on their journey north to freedom.

“She later became a leader in the abolitionist movement, and during the Civil War, she was a spy for the federal forces in South Carolina as well as a nurse.”


Harriet Tubman: Rebel was slave activist, Union spy (1964)

Harriet Tubman, pioneer Negro activist, was one of the leaders of the antislavery crusade. She made 19 trips to South, led out some 300 slaves. She later played an active role in the Civil War, serving as Union nurse, scout, spy, commando leader.

By Lerone Bennett, Jr. – LIFE magazine (1964)

Black as the night, and as bold, she slipped across the Mason-Dixon line and headed for a rendezvous point in the old slave South. With revolver cocked, she moved unerringly across the fields and through the forests, flitting from tree to tree and ditch to ditch.

From time to time, she froze in her tracks, forewarned by a personal radar that never failed. A broken twig, the neigh of a horse, a cough, a sneeze: these said danger ahead. And so she halted, listening, waiting, her body tensed for attack.

She was a gentle woman, but she was black and she could ill afford sentimentality. There was a price on her head, some $40,000, and the slightest mistake would mean death. Skive patrols, guards, planters — eyes — were everywhere, and all were on the lookout for fugitive slaves in general and one woman in particular.

No matter. The short black woman was without nerves and she had no peer, male or female, in her chosen trade: organizing and managing slave escapes.

She had been this way many times before, and she had brought out hundreds of slaves. Now she was at it again, slipping through Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.

On and on she went, deeper and deeper into the slave South, traveling by night and hiding by day, moving closer and closer to a rendezvous point on the Eastern Shore of Maryland near the now-famous town of Cambridge.

There, a group of slaves forewarned by a code letter to a sympathetic free Negro, waited with terror and with hope.

And there, on a dark night in the 1850s, Harriet Tubman materialized from nowhere, rapping her code on a chosen door in the slave quarters or standing deep in the woods and singing, for a tantalizing moment, a few bars of a Spiritual code.

I’ll meet you in the morning,
Safe in the Promised Land,
On the other side of Jordan,
Bound for the Promised Land.

Waiting ears, hearing the code knock or the code song, perked up and word raced through the cabins of the initiated: “Moses is here.”

Portrait of Harriet Tubman (1)

After certain preparations, “the woman,” as she was called, led a group of slaves through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York into the Promised Land of Canada.

Nineteen times she made this dangerous roundtrip, nineteen times she single-handedly baited the collective might of the slave power — and nineteen times she won.

What she did, Thomas Wentworth Higginson said, was “beyond anything in fiction.” Samuel J. May said she “deserves to be placed first in the list of American heroines, Sarah Bradford, her first biographer, said “her name deserves to be handed down to posterity, side by side with the names of Jeanne D’Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale. . . .”

In truth, her name should stand higher for, as Mrs. Bradford added, “not one of these women, noble and brave as they were, (showed) more courage, and power of endurance, in facing danger and death” than the woman known to posterity as Harriet Tubman, “the Moses of her people.”

The great slave rebel, whose name struck terror in the hearts of Eastern Shore planters, was born a slave and lived the life of a slave.

She was one of eleven children born to Harriet Green and Benjamin Boss in 1820 or 1821 in Bucktown near Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. As a child, she was called both Harriet and Araminta.

But she was never really a child. For at the age of five, she was working full-time, cleaning white people’s houses during the day and tending their babies at night. When she fell asleep, she was whipped mercilessly.

“I grew up,” she said later, “like a neglected weed — ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. I was not happy or contented: every time I saw a white man, I was afraid of being carried away. I had two sisters carried away in a chain gang — one of them left two children. We were always uneasy…

“I think slavery is the next thing to hell. If a person would send another into bondage he would, it appears to me, be bad enough to send his to hell if he could.”

ALSO SEE: America’s history of slavery: See some of the terrible old ads actually offering people for sale

Portrait of Harriet Tubman (2)

Harriet came early to indignation. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that she was born a rebel. Fighting back with whatever she could lay hands on, she survived; and, having survived, she set her sights higher.

By the time Harriet reached her teens, her master, despairing of ever making her a house servant, put her out to field where she plowed, drove oxen and cut wood. She remembered later, with pride, that she “could lift huge barrels of produce and draw a loaded stone boat like an ox.”

All this time, young Harriet was gathering fury against the slave system. She was, by all accounts, the despair of white overseers who could not break her rebellious will.

On one occasion, a male slave abandoned his post and went to town. The slave was closely followed by the overseer who was closely followed by Harriet. The overseer cornered the slave in a store and called on Harriet for aid.

The young slave girl, who was only thirteen, ignored the order and went to the aid of the slave. When the slave dashed through the door, Harriet stepped between him and the overseer. The overseer, enraged, picked up a two-pound weight and flung it at the escaping slave.

The weight struck Harriet, tearing a hole in her skull. For several weeks, Harriet hovered between life and death. Then, slowly, she began to recover. It was discovered later that the blow had pushed a portion of her skull against her brain.

Ever afterwards, she suffered from what was called a “stupor” or “sleeping sickness.” Four or five times a day, she would suddenly fall asleep.

After a short spell, she would regain consciousness and continue the conversation or her work at the precise point where she left off. Because of this ailment, white people in the neighborhood, and some slaves, assumed that Harriet was “half-witted” — an assumption the wily Harriet encouraged.

During her lengthy convalescence, Harriet developed a deep and intensely personal religious faith. She had always been a dreamy, indrawn child. But now she gave herself over wholly to God, “praying,” she said, “without ceasing.”

She prayed first for her master, asking God to soften his heart and to make him mindful of the sacred ties between human beings.

But the master did not change. Word reached Harriet one day that he was planning to sell her and other members of the family to the deep South. “Then,” said Harriet, “I changed my prayer. “I began to pray, ‘Oh, Lord, if you aren’t ever going to change that man’s heart, kill him Lord, and take him out of the way, an he won’t do no more mischief.'”

Later, on the death of her master, Harriet was smitten with a sense of contrition. “He died, just as he had lived,” she said, “a wicked, bad man. Oh, then, it ‘peered like I would give the world full of silver and gold, if I had it, to bring that poor soul back, I would give myself; I would give everything! But he was gone, I couldn’t pray for him no more.”

Putting her master behind her, Harriet began now to consider seriously the possibilities of escape. The constantly recurring idea of escape struck such deep roots in her mind that she dreamed repeatedly of a “line” across which there was freedom and human dignity.

After her marriage to John Tubman, a free Negro, the dreams increased in frequency and intensity. When Harriet learned that her new master planned to sell her and two of her brothers, she sprang into action.

She tried to convince her brothers to accompany her, but they refused. So she went out alone in the summer of 1849, traveling at night through Maryland and Delaware and finally reaching Philadelphia.

She went with a threat in her heart. “For,” said she, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive. . .”

When she crossed the “line” between slavery and freedom, she was overwhelmed with an oceanic feeling.

“I looked at my hands,” she said, “to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields….”

But there was a shadow in Harriet’s Eden. She perceived suddenly with startling clarity that she could never be free until her people were free.

“I knew of a man,” she said, “who was sent to State Prison for twenty-five years. All these years he was always thinking of his home, and counting by years, months, and days, the time till he should be free, and are his family and friends once more.

“The years roll on, the time of imprisonment is over, the man is free. He leaves the prison gates, he makes his may to his old home, but his old home is not there. The house in which he had dwelt in his childhood had been tom down, and a new one had been put up in its place; his family were gone, their very name was forgotten. There was no one to take him by the hand to welcome him back to life.”

“So it was with me,” Harriet added. “I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and may home after all was down in the old cabin quarter, with the old folks, and my brothers and sisters.

“But to this solemn resolution I came; I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all here…

Harriet Tubman and family
Left to right: Harriet Tubman; Gertie Davis [Tubman’s adopted daughter]; Nelson Davis [Tubman’s husband]; Lee Cheney; “Pop” Alexander; Walter Green; Sarah Parker [“Blind Auntie” Parker] and Dora Stewart [granddaughter of Tubman’s brother, John Stewart]

Harriet Tubman: The notable career of a slave (1913)

Harriet T Davis – Scout, Spy, War Nurse and Underground Railway Manager

Scout, spy, war nurse, “underground railroad” manager, a memorable figure of the civil war period has passed away in the death of Harriet Tubman Davis at Auburn, NY.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland. Of Ashantee blood, descendant of tribal chiefs, she possessed an unconquerable spirit and immense physical strength, surpassing that of most men. To avoid being “sold south” in her youth, she followed the north star of freedom, but soon was back teaching other negroes the road she had trod.

Rewards amounting to $40,000 were offered in Virginia and Maryland for her arrest. Harriet Tubman was invaluable as an “underground railroad” agent in the north.

harriet tubman wanted notice 1849

While in this work she led the mob that rescued Charles Nalle, a fugitive slave, in Troy. Though beaten upon the head by policemen’s billies, she thrashed two of them and aided the rescue with her mighty muscles.

In her station of the Underground at Auburn, with the financial support of William H Seward, she sent many a refugee to Canada.

Appointed as a nurse to Colonel Shaw’s famous Negro regiment in 1863, she soon appeared in a new capacity as a scout for the Union troops.

In 1894, she founded the Harriet Tubman Davis Home for indigent aged negroes, where she herself died at the supposed age of 98. – New York World

harriet tubman - auburn ny -1911
Harriet Tubman in Auburn, New York – 1911

ALSO SEE THIS: How the Civil War ended, and find out the details of Lee’s surrender to Grant (1865)

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.