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15 Facts about Harriet Tubman

Slavery was a part of American life since the nation’s foundation. While it took the Civil War to end the institution, enslaved people had been taking matters into their own hands for years. At great risk, they would escape from their enslavers and seek freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery as a young woman, became one of the most famous guides on this dangerous journey. In this article, we’ll explore 15 facts about Harriet Tubman, including who she was, what she did and how she is remembered today.

#1. Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a network that led enslaved people to freedom

In the early to mid-19th-century, a massive network of safe houses and people helped guide escaped enslaved people from the South to Canada. According to information on a PBS blog, the system probably began toward the end of the 18th century. As it grew, it became known as the Underground Railroad. Many who participated were unaware of the network’s full scale; it wasn’t until later that its size and power became clearer. Harriet Tubman was one of the most famous “conductors,” who were the people responsible for guiding groups to safety.

#2. Harriet Tubman was enslaved from birth but escaped

Harriet Tubman was born Arminta Ross around 1822. Life as an enslaved person was horrific, so Tubman began trying to escape. A “runaway slave” ad in 1849 names her and her two brothers. At this time, the three of them were working on a large plantation. After running away, they hid for about three weeks but eventually returned. In the ad, Tubman is referred to as “Minty,” her childhood nickname. She’s described as being around 27 years old and about 5 feet tall. The ad promised $100 each for Tubman and her brothers if they were found out of state, and $50 if they were caught in the state. Not long after this ad, Tubman successfully escaped on her own with the help of the local Underground Railroad.

#3. Harriet Tubman personally rescued around 70 people

According to legend, Harriet Tubman rescued around 300 people, but she probably

rescued around 70 of her friends and family over 13 trips. That was the number she repeated during meetings, while people who knew Tubman agreed. Sarah Bradford, a friend of Tubman’s who wrote a biography in 1868, was the one who provided the inaccurate, exaggerated number. Because Tubman also gave advice and helped others learn how to be conductors, she played an important role in the rescue of more than 70 people.

#4. Harriet Tubman deployed many strategies to elude authorities

Harriet Tubman returned to Maryland around 13 times, risking her own freedom to save her family and friends. She used several strategies, including disguises. She would pretend to be a man or an elderly woman. She also preferred to travel during the winter, which provided longer nights perfect for moving in the darkness. To protect herself, she carried a pistol, as well as drugs that could sedate a crying baby. According to Tubman, she never lost any of the people she was guiding north.

Slavery was a grave injustice. To learn more about racial injustice, check out our article.

#5. Like many conductors, Harriet Tubman used songs to signal when enslaved people should run

Songs played an important role in the Underground Railroad. They would signal when it was safe or unsafe. Sarah Bradford, who was Tubman’s friend and first biographer, listed two songs Tubman would sing: “Go Down Moses” and “Bound for the Promised Land.” She would change the tempo to let people know if it was safe or not. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is often mentioned as another song used by Tubman, but it’s unclear if that’s true. Many African-American spirituals were passed down orally, so it’s very difficult to identify specific songwriters or composition dates.

#6. Harriet Tubman experienced seizures, which she interpreted as visions from God

When Tubman was 13 years old, she was hit in the head with a weight. It took her months to recover, but for the rest of her life, she experienced what experts believe are epileptic seizures. With no treatment available at the time, Tubman would occasionally collapse and appear to be asleep. She reported having vivid visions and dreams, which she said came from God.

#7. Harriet Tubman was known as the “Moses of her people”

In her lifetime and to this day, Tubman is widely revered for her extraordinary courage. She was called “the Moses of her people.” It’s a Biblical reference to Moses, the prophet who led the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land of Canaan. Moses has since become a powerful symbol for people fighting for equality and freedom. Tubman literally led people out of slavery, but Martin Luther King Jr. is often compared to Moses, too. In his last sermon, a day before he was assassinated, King made a comparison to Moses, saying “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

#8. Harriet Tubman left her first husband when she escaped slavery

In 1844, Harriet married John Tubman, a free Black man. It wasn’t unusual for a free person to marry an enslaved person, but it did complicate the relationship. If the couple had had any children, the kids would have legally belonged to Harriet’s enslaver. When Harriet began making plans to escape five years after they married, John did not go with her. He would later remarry. According to Sarah Bradford’s biography of Tubman, John was not a good husband. Bradford describes John as someone who “did his best to betray her, and bring her back after she escaped.” It’s unclear if this is true, however, as Bradford’s biography is not considered the most accurate account of Tubman’s life.

#9. Harriet Tubman tried to rescue her sister, niece and nephew for ten years but was not successful

Tubman rescued her parents and brothers, but her sister Rachel and Rachel’s two children remained enslaved. Rachel had been separated from her kids, a son and daughter, and refused to leave without them. In 1860, Tubman made yet another attempt to save her sister, but Rachel had died. As described in Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson, Tubman was unable to save her niece and nephew. She guided another family – a couple and their three children – but this mission was Tubman’s last.

#10. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed military operation in the United States

Because of Tubman’s experience in the Underground Railroad, she was the perfect choice for a spy. In 1863, she was put in charge of a secret military mission in South California. With Colonel James Montgomery, the commander of a Black regiment, Tubman planned a raid around the Combahee River. Tubman led 150 men toward the fugitives they wanted to rescue. By the end, more than 700 people reached safety on the gunboats. While Tubman was recognized by the press, she was not paid for her work as a soldier because she was a woman.

Despite her work for the Union, Tubman faced gender discrimination. Check out our article on gender discrimination to learn more about this issue.

#11. Harriet Tubman never stopped advocating for freedom and equality

After the Civil War ended, Harriet Tubman kept working as an activist. She raised funds to help newly freed people, advocated for women’s suffrage and cared for older people in her home. She also adopted a daughter with her husband, a Union soldier. In 1898, she used land near her house for the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. After she died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York.

#12. Harriet Tubman couldn’t read or write

As an enslaved person, Tubman was not given a proper education. She could not read or write. That did not limit her intelligence, however, as she was a brilliant strategist as a conductor with the Underground Railroad and a soldier. Because she didn’t leave behind any of her own writings, historians have to depend on what other people said about her. Some people no doubt transcribed exactly what she told them, but others exaggerated aspects of her life or failed to clarify information. The result, in the words of Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson, is “a variety of contrived and incomplete portraits.”

#13. Harriet Tubman’s story has become sensationalized

Harriet Tubman is one of the most mythologized figures in American history. That means her already impressive story is often exaggerated or reported inaccurately for the sake of drama and style. Sarah Bradford, Tubman’s first biographer, mused that Tubman might have saved as many as 300 people, but that number didn’t come from Tubman herself. Later, people would claim that Tubman had a $40,000 bounty on her head. That number seems to have come from Sallie Holley, who wrote a letter to a newspaper in 1867 in support of Tubman getting a pension from the Union Army. The only recorded bounty for Tubman, however, is from the runaway slave ad which offered $100. People who shared inaccurate stories weren’t malicious, but in trying to capture just how important Tubman was, they made things much harder for future historians.

#14. Historians are still unearthing information about Harriet Tubman

According to National Geographic, the farmland where Tubman grew up is still farmland. Those interested in learning more can explore the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which features a visitor center and more information about Tubman’s early life. In 2021, historians identified the site of Harriet Tubman’s childhood home with the help of broken pottery, glass, and a coin. Archaeologists are still working on the site, hoping to learn more. The park’s goal is, according to the park website, to “recall the landscape that shaped Harriet Tubman’s life as an enslaved child, young woman, and freedom seeker.”

#15. Harriet Tubman will be on the $20 bill…eventually

In 2016, the Treasury Secretary announced new plans for the $5, $10, and $20 notes. Among the changes? Harriet Tubman’s portrait would now be on the $20 bill, replacing President Andrew Jackson. This change was a long time coming as many people criticized the famously racist Andrew Jackson’s inclusion on money. However, the new $20 kept getting delayed. The newest update came in 2022. Janet Yellen, the current Treasury Secretary, said the new bill should be released in 2030.

Harriet Tubman fought against racism her whole life. Here are 10 of racism’s root causes

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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