Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1820, Harriet Tubman is remembered for challenging stereotypes of race, gender and class. As a child, she learned Bible stories from her mother, finding inspiration in the Exodus narrative and rejecting the admonitions for slaves to obey their masters.
The path Harriet Tubman chose to follow left a legacy rich in historical content. Here is what we know about some of the inspiring events in her life.
1. Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross. She would later adopt the name “Harriet” after her mother: Harriet Ross. The surname Tubman comes from her first husband, John Tubman, who she married in 1844.
2. The lines between slavery and freedom were often blurred on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where Harriet was born a slave. It was not unusual for families in this area to include both free and enslaved members. Harriet’s own husband, John Tubman was a free Black man. Her status, however, remained unchanged until she fled to Pennsylvania, a free state, in 1849. Her husband would not make the journey and ultimately re-married after Harriet’s departure.
3. Harriet plotted her escape. By night, she followed the North Star and relied on the Underground Railroad, a network of free Black people and White abolitionists, including members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. She arrived in Philadelphia and later recalled: “When I found that I crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
4. Harriet would return to Maryland many times over the next decade to rescue both family and non-family members from the bondages of slavery.
5. Harriet earned the nickname “Moses” after the prophet Moses in the Bible who led his people to freedom. In all of her journeys, she “never lost a single passenger.”
6. Tubman’s work was a constant threat to her own freedom and safety. Slave holders placed a bounty for her capture and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was an ever-present danger, imposing severe punishments on any person who assisted the escape of a slave.
7. Harriet wore many hats: She was an active proponent of women’s suffrage and worked alongside women such as side Susan B. Anthony. 8. During the Civil War, Harriet worked for the Union as a cook, nurse, laundress, scout and spy. To make money, she sold homemade pies and root beer. In 1863, she led a group of Black soldiers and scouts on surveillance missions along the Southeastern seaboard and worked with Col. James Montgomery to lead a raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina in which 700 slaves were freed. Despite her service to the Union cause, she received no pay or compensation.
9. Harriet was acquainted with leading abolitionists of the day, including John Brown who conferred with “General Tubman” about his plans to raid Harpers Ferry.
10. Harriet had one daughter, Gertie, whom she and her second husband (Nelson Davis) adopted after the Civil War.
11. Harriet suffered life-long headaches, seizures and had vivid dreams as a result of a traumatic head injury she suffered as a teenager while trying to stand up for a fellow field hand. These same symptoms gave her powerful visions that she ascribed to God and helped guide her on many trips to the North while leading others to freedom.
12. Just before Harriet’s death in 1913 she told friends and family, “I go to prepare a place for you.” She was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in New York.
13. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that the countenance of Harriet Tubman would appear on a new $20 bill.