Who Was Harriet Tubman? Why Was She Important?

(Last Updated On: February 4, 2020)
Who Was Harriet Tubman? Why Was She Important?

One of the most memorable names that is discussed in American history is Harriet Tubman, a former slave who managed to escape and courageously devoted her efforts to fight against slavery. You may know her best for the role she played in the Underground Railroad, but there is a lot more to Harriet Tubman’s story. 

The Early Years

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Harriet Ross to enslaved parents Harriet Green and Ben Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, between 1820 and 1825. As was commonly the case for slaves in that era, there were not true records made when a child was born, so we can only approximate the year and date. Commonly known as “Minty” throughout her childhood, it’s believed Tubman changed her first name shortly after marriage as a tribute to her mother.

As was the case for slaves during this era, Tubman’s youth was full of violence and brutality. Her family was split when three of her sisters were sold to other plantations, and she obtained several scars and injuries from whippings and other abuse. A blow to the head as an adolescent left her suffering from seizures, headaches, and narcoleptic episodes for the rest of her life. This would also include visions that she interpreted as signs from God. Even though her father was freed at the age of 45, he had little ability to free his wife and children.

In 1844, Harriet married a free black man, John Tubman. Little is known about their time together, or even if they had any children. The two would split, and he would end up marrying another woman. Tubman would remarry in 1869.

The Underground Railroad

When slaveowner Edward Brodess died, his widow began the process of selling off his slaves. Not wanting her family to be split further, Tubman and two of her brothers escaped in 1849. The brothers would later return to slavery, forcing her to return with them, but Tubman would escape later again; this time, on her own. The system she used to escape was the now-well-known Underground Railroad. This secret network of free and enslaved blacks, abolitionists, and other groups, like the Quakers, used deceptions and coded messages to help slaves find their way to freedom.

Tubman’s escape would end up taking her to Philadelphia, where she would later recall that she “… was a stranger in a strange land, [M]y father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were [in Maryland]. But I was free, and they should be free.” At the same time, in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, heavily punishing anyone attempting to help free slaves. Even requiring law enforcement in states without slavery was forced to comply.  

While she did odd jobs, Tubman’s main focus was going back to the South to help her family members and other slaves escape. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, Tubman changed her routes to help escaped slaves get to Canada. Her work during this time would put her in contact with a variety of other well-known figures of the slavery era, like Frederick Douglass and John Brown.

Remembering Harriet Tubman

Tubman remained active during the Civil War, working as a cook and nurse before becoming a spy and armed scout. Notably, she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition to free slaves. In 1859, for her service, she was given a small piece of land near Auburn, New York by Senator William H. Seward, which became a regular meeting place for her family and friends. However, despite all her service, she still had trouble with financial security during her later years. This did not stop her from regularly donating to her church. She even gave her church a small portion of her land.

As Tubman got older, her head injuries began to have a greater effect on her health, and she underwent brain surgery to help with the pain. In rest home built in her honor, she passed away from pneumonia on March 10, 1913. She was buried with full military honors. 

By the end of her lifetime, Tubman was known as one of the most famous American civilians in the country and her status was elevated even higher after her death. Many celebrations, historical sites, and works of art have commemorated her bravery and humanitarianism. In 2016, it was announced she would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, but, unfortunately, efforts have stalled on that front. 

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