Women’s History Month is a great opportunity to commemorate the contributions of God-fearing women in American history. Women have played an important role in our nation’s history and the women in this series represent those who have faithfully, courageously, and humbly served their families, communities, and our nation. Periodically throughout the month of March, we will be sharing some of these inspiring stories. Don’t miss our previous installment on Abigail Adams and Fanny Crosby.
Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, has been called “the Moses of her people.” Born into slavery, she started with nothing—no freedom, no education, and no riches. However, despite these deficiencies, she eventually acquired her freedom and led others to theirs. Abolitionist William Still said, “in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-men, by making personal visits to Maryland among the enslaved, she was without her equal.” Harriet’s life and legacy were marked by her trust in God to guide and protect her.
Araminta “Minty” Ross, the woman who would eventually become known as Harriet Tubman, was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, to Benjamin Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green. She was the fifth of nine children. The exact date of her birth is unknown, but it is estimated to be around 1822. Three of Minty’s sisters were sold away from the family unit, two of them having to leave young children behind.
She experienced one of her worst beatings after getting caught with her finger in a sugar bowl and hiding for several days. Life on the plantation was hard, but Minty was taught spirituals from childhood that kept her spirits up. She attended church and believed that God was good no matter her circumstances.
Minty suffered a traumatic head injury as an adolescent when an overseer aimed a metal weight at a runaway boy and hit Minty instead. She would suffer from seizures and headaches for the rest of her life. This event likely played a role in igniting Minty’s fierce desire to be free.
Around 1844, Minty married John Tubman, a free man about five years her senior. Their marriage, though genuine, had no legal standing on account of Minty’s enslaved status. Minty still had to live on her enslaver’s land, apart from her free husband, and any children they would have had together would have been considered the property of her master. It was around this time that Minty changed her name to Harriet Tubman.
In 1849, Harriet’s master died suddenly and left the estate in considerable debt. Knowing that she would likely be sold away from her husband and family, Harriet resolved to escape to freedom. She later recounted, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” Harriet wanted her husband to go north with her, but he did not share her dreams and refused to go threatening to report her, but Harriet was determined.
Harriet made her first contact with the Underground Railroad when a Quaker woman visited the plantation and told Harriet that if she ever needed help—wanted to escape—then she could come to her house. On the night of September 17, 1849, Harriet ran away with two of her siblings, Ben and Henry. However, her brothers had second thoughts and turned back while Harriet continued on alone. Several historians believe that Harriet first took refuge on the farm of Jacob and Hannah Leverton.
Harriet was given assistance and provisions by members of the Underground Railroad, who advised her to chart her course by the North Star. She traveled over 100 miles before reaching Philadelphia—and freedom. She later recounted, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” Harriet got a job as a maid, and while she loved her newfound freedom, she desired that her family could be free, too. “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.”
Harriet began to make plans for the dangerous journey back to Maryland. Although highly discouraged to take the trip, she believed that God would protect her. The following quote has been attributed to Harriet: “Twasn’t me, ‘twas the Lord! I always told Him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,’ an’ He always did.” After bringing her sister and her sister’s children safely north, Harriet knew she wanted to help others. Eventually, she helped most of her family to freedom. She had wanted to bring her husband John north as well but was heartbroken to discover that he had remarried in her absence.
In 1850, the second Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, which allowed anyone to capture runaway slaves anywhere, even in the north—and there were hefty rewards. Free men resorted to fleeing to Canada to maintain their freedom. Harriet was scared, so she turned to her faith: “I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight, and that’s what I’ve always prayed for ever since.” Harriet used her savings to buy a house in Canada for fugitive slaves, and in the winter months, she traveled back to Maryland in order to guide others to freedom. She never traveled the same route twice and depended on the Quaker farms along the way to assist her. Legend says slave owners despised her so much that they posted a $40,000 reward for her arrest, although this figure is disputed by some modern historians.
Harriet may have taken as many as 19 trips and rescued or otherwise helped upwards of 300 slaves. She recounted her stories and life events to her friend Sarah Bradford, who published her memoir, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. Of her rescue efforts, Harriet said, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
During the Civil War, Harriet worked for the Union army as a nurse, scout, cook, and spy and became the first woman to lead a military operation in the United States. She rejoiced when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863. After the war, she returned to New York, married her second husband, Union veteran Nelson Davis, and adopted a daughter named Gertie. She would go on to work as a humanitarian and suffragist alongside the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and Thomas Garret. The latter said of Harriet, “I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul … her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great.”
When Harriet’s husband died in 1888, she received a widow’s pension. She also received a nurse’s pension but was denied a scout’s pension. She struggled financially for the rest of her life but continued to be thankful and serve others. Together with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, she established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in 1908. Harriet died on March 10, 1913, at approximately 90 years of age. She was laid to rest with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in New York. Her gravestone is inscribed with the words, “Servant of God, Well Done.”
Harriet was a servant her whole life—first to her enslavers, then as a free woman to her fellow men and country. But ultimately, she was a servant of God.