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David Nightingale: Harriet Tubman (~1821-1913)

Harriet Tubman
Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 - 18 Dec 1905
National Portrait Gallery - Public Domain

It may seem superfluous to write about Harriet Tubman, for she has not only been played by the Caribbean-born Cicely Tyson in the 1978 TV miniseries “A woman called Moses”, but also in the 2019 movie “Harriet.”

Her real name was Araminta Ross – a quite lovely-sounding name – born to the slaves Mr. and Mrs. Ross on a plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, around 1821. Her grandparents had been born in Africa [ref.2 p.12].

At roughly 7, Araminta was taken to a house where she had to clean and dust all day, and look after the white mistress’s baby at night. On that nightwork she more than once fell asleep and the baby woke up. Harriet was whipped on her back and neck for such transgressions, and soon dismissed by her white ‘owner’ as useless, and sent back to her mother to recover strength.

About this time her two older sisters were carried south in a chain gang, something she and her brothers lived in fear of.

At about 13 she was partially disabled when an overseer threw a heavy weight at another slave, but which hit Araminta on the head [ref.2 p.14]. The injury affected her the rest of her life, causing her to sometimes fall randomly into a deep sleep during daily activities.

At 24 she married a free man, John Tubman, but they remained childless. At about 29 she made the greatest decision of her life: she decided to escape.

Looking at maps of the ‘underground railway’ – not a literal railway – one sees red lines threading northward in many tangled routes, from Indiana to the Great Lakes, even by sea from near Norfolk, VA to Boston and Maine.

According to the well-researched book [ref2.] by Jean Humez, Harriet may have gone first to a white woman’s house who sent her on to some other abolitionist houses, ultimately reaching Philadelphia, where she found work and further contacts with abolitionists. After about a year she began her dangerous forays south again, (19 times in all) to fetch family members. Because of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) she risked severe beatings if she ever fell into the hands of the wrong people.

Venturing south was extremely unsafe, but she traveled many times, through the nights, through cold rivers, and brought many of her brothers, her elderly parents, and other slaves north.

She managed to make a base at St. Catherines, in Canada, just west of Buffalo. She and her escaped slaves survived by chopping wood in the forests, and working as domestics. Often frost-bitten, hungry and ill-clothed they just managed to endure their first winter.

Throughout her life, whenever she had any money, she gave it directly to assist her family and other slaves. Her long routes to Canada before the war had taken her through Rochester, as well as Auburn, where she met the anti-slavery sympathizer William Seward, former governor of NY and Lincoln’s Secretary of State. He sold to her, at well below its value, a small house and 7 acres, often helping her as she and her flock of escapees struggled with the mortgage. [Ref2, p.28.] During the Civil War the government employed her in several roles, from nurse to spy, to “commander” of an all-black group of armed scouts behind the Combahee River Raid. That raid yielded 840 slaves.

After the Civil War, while on a train with an official Govt. pass signed by the Secretary of War she was ejected by a white conductor and two other men and cruelly injured. After the war she tried to qualify for a small pension, but failed despite Seward writing:

“...I have known her long, and a nobler, higher, or truer spirit seldom dwells in the human form.”

There is a glorious photograph in Humez’s book of a frail woman in a chair in Auburn, NY before she died in 1913. [ref.2, p.116].  This forgiving woman once said to a friend: “They don’t know no better Missus; it’s the way they was brought up. [Ibid, p209.]”            


1. “Harriet Tubman, The Moses of her People,” by Sarah Bradford (1961, 1981); Peter Smith, Gloucester ,Mass., (1981).

2. “Harriet Tubman, The life and the Life Stories”, by Jean M. Humez; Univ. of Wisconsin Press, #1930 Monroe St., Madison, Wisconsin, 53711.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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