Harriet Tubman was an African-American humanitarian and abolitionist who worked as a Union spy during the American Civil War. She is generally considered to be one of the most important people for children to learn about when they are studying the history of slavery in the United States. Harriet Tubman is remembered for her involvement with the “Underground Railroad,” a system of free African-Americans and white abolitionists that helped enslaved people escape to freedom. Her efforts took incredible courage and for her bravery she is regarded as one of the most influential and heroic women in American history.
Araminta Harriet Ross (later known as “Tubman” due to her first marriage in 1844) was born into slavery approximately between the years 1820 and 1825. Her exact date and place of birth are unknown due to poorly kept records of slave births, however it is strongly assumed that she was born and raised in Maryland, where she spent nearly the entirety of the enslaved portion of her life. Harriet’s parents were both slaves. Her mother, Harriet “Rit” Green, was a cook, and her father, Ben Ross, was a skilled woodsman who managed timber work on a plantation. Harriet Tubman’s parents had married around 1808 and had nine children together, although the three oldest children were later sold and permanently separated from the family.
Harriet experienced extreme hardships as a child. She was rented out to various “masters” from the time she was very young, some reports suggest that she was first put to work as a nursemaid for a white family at the age of five. Regarded as a mere slave, Harriet was badly beaten on several occasions. As a teenager, she was beaten upon her head with a metal weight and subsequently suffered a brain injury that caused her seizures, headaches, and even narcoleptic attacks. The trauma also caused her to experience powerful visionary dreams for the rest of her life. Despite her early sufferings, Harriet was a devote Christian and she regarded these visions as being revelations from God. Most historians agree that these visions probably had a lot to do with her later life-consuming efforts to gain freedom for herself and help others do the same.
In 1844 Harriet married a free black man named John Tubman and subsequently adopted his last name. In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped into Philadelphia after a nearly 90 mile journey. Upon gaining her freedom, she immediately helped her family escape from Maryland too. Traveling by night, Harriet managed to guide dozens of slaves to freedom over the next several years. She never lost a passenger, despite the large rewards that were being offered for the return of escaped slaves who were considered valuable property. In 1850, congress passed the “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850” that required lawmen in “free states” to make an effort to help recapture slaves who had escaped from the South. At the time, slavery was prohibited in Canada and so Harriet Tubman managed to guide fugitive slaves across the country’s broader where they did not have to fear being recaptured.
The American Civil War broke out in 1861 and lasted until 1865. During this time, Harriet Tubman aided the Union Army by working as a nurse, cook, and even as an armed scout and a spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition when she guided the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina and subsequently liberated more than 700 slaves. After the war, Harriet settled down in Auburn, New York where she cared for her elderly parents and became active in the woman’s suffrage movement. Harriet Tubman lived her last years in a home for aging African Americans that she had helped establish. She died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913 aged approximately 93 years.
Harriet Tubman lived an extraordinary life and she did much to ease the suffering of many people. Her remarkable contributions to help people escape from slavery make her one of the most notable humanitarians in history. Both Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad (that was not actually “underground” at all) are both fascinating subjects. A small and well done documentary about the Underground Railroad can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7uiLAzN6SY
Harriet Tubman did everything she could to ensure that others did not have to suffer through slavery like she and her family did. Her bravery and selflessness has made her a legend even a century after she passed away. Her story is one that should be taught in every American History class as should lessons about the widespread slave trade that once existed.