Harriet Tubman was born a slave in 1820 or 1821 in Bucktown, Maryland, and was one of eleven children born to Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross. In the summer of 1849 she escaped the bonds of slavery, traveling by night through Maryland and Delaware to Philadelphia. From there she continued to New York and finally up into Canada. "I had reasoned this out in my mind," she said. There was one of two things I had a right to -- liberty or death. If I could not have one, I could have the other, for no man should take me alive. I shall fight for my liberty and when the time comes for me to go, the Lord will let them kill me."
But her freedom meant little to her when every wind from the South was charged with the plaintive cries of her oppressed brethren for deliverance. Her freedom was a mockery to her as long as she could hear the crack of the overseers whip, the clank of slave chains, and the heart-rending cries of mothers bereft of their children at the auction block.
Harriet Tubman made 19 trips South, rescuing more than 300 slaves from the "Jaws of Hell." (Note that most early accounts of the number of people saved by Harriet Tubman claim "over 300". However, this number is now recognized to likely be incorrect. According to modern historians, Harriet Tubman made 13 documented trips and probably saved about 70 people). Most of her traveling was done in cheerless solitude of night, with no protection but her cunning, no guide but the north star, and no hope of reward but the consciousness that she was "about her father's business."
She became such a terror to the slaveholders of Maryland that when fugitive slave laws were passed in 1851, a reward of $40,000 was offered for her head. Despite this and other hindrances, she kept on. Rightly called "The Moses of her people," she was bold, daring, elusive and looked to God for guidance and strength. All of her trips were carefully planned and brilliantly executed through the use of the Underground Railroad, an effective method of spiriting slaves out of the South by an ever-shifting series of hiding places. The secrets of the Underground Railroad were so well kept that even today not much is known about it.
Harriet Tubman was accustomed to saying to the slaves when she had led them toward freedom, "Children, if you are tired, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going." When she learned that her husband, John Tubman, had taken another wife in her absence she was devastated, but did not stop returning to get slaves. On one trip out of the South, she brought her own family. When she found her mother unwilling to leave her feather bedtick and her father his broadaxe and other tools, she bundled up bedtick, tools, mother, father and all and landed them in Canada.
During the Civil War, she rendered invaluable service to the Union Army as a spy, scout and hospital nurse. Her advice was respected by the officers of her army. She was at the memorable battle of Fort Wagner and it was she who prepared the last breakfast eaten by the gallant Colonel R.G. Shaw.
She numbered among her friends such great abolitionists as John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Parker Pillsbury, Frederick Douglass, Jermain Loguen and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
After the war, Harriet married Nelson Davis, a veteran of the Civil War, and settled in Auburn, New York. She lived in a home obtained with the help of her friend William H. Seward and lived on a $20 pension which she received for the rest of her life.
Miss Sarah Bradford became greatly interested in her and wrote a history of her lilfe, giving "Aunt Harriet" the proceeds of its sale enabling her to continue to care for some of the slaves she brought to Auburn. Harriet Tubman came into possession of another property consisting of 26 acres of land, on which two houses stood. At the time, the property was worth $6,000, but it was burdened with a mortgage of $1,700. It was her daily prayer that this might be removed so she could bequeath it free of debt to her race to be used forever as an old folks' home. In 1906 she deeded this property to the A.M.E. Zion Connection.
The hope of the A.M.E. Zion Connection is to continue the practice begun by Harriet Tubman by planning a National Non-sectarian Group to expand the property into a home for the aged, a meeting place for youth conferences, and a resting station for needy migrants. This would fulfill her dream of making his property an institution for the service of all her people.
On March 10, 1913, Harriet Tubman died. She was buried with military rites in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York. The following year, Auburn declared an unprecedented one-day memorial to this courageous champion of freedom. On this day a bronze tablet at the entrance to the Cayuga County Court House was unveiled by the Cayuga County Historical Society. Booker T. Washington, noted educator, was the principal speaker at the ceremonies.
The Harriet Tubman home at 180 South Street is a national historic site and is currently managed by the Rev. Paul G. Carter.
For information on the Harriet Tubman Home and other museums and historical sites within Cayuga County refer to the CayugaNet Museum page.
This information was provided with grateful appreciation to the author, Pauline Copes Johnson, as printed in the City of Auburn Souvenir Celebration Booklet Commemorating 200 Years of History 1793-1993. Copies of the booklet are available in the Cayuga County Historian's Office.
Other Harriet Tubman sites:
Bernie Corcoran, Cayuga County