called "Moses" by the hundreds of slaves she helped to freedom and the
thousands of others she inspired, Harriet Tubman became the most famous leader
of the Underground Railroad to aid slaves escaping to free states or Canada.
Born into slavery in Bucktown, Maryland, Tubman escaped her own chains in 1849
to find safe haven in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She did so through the
underground railroad, an elaborate and secret series of houses, tunnels, and
roads set up by abolitionists and former slaves. "When I found I had
crossed the [Mason-Dixon] line, I looked at my hands to see if I were the same
person, " Tubman later wrote. ". . . the sun came like gold through
the tree and over the field and I felt like I was in heaven." She would
spend the rest of her life helping other slaves escape to freedom.
Her early life as a slave had been filled with abuse; at the age of 13, when she
attempted to save another slave from punishment, she was struck in the head with
a two-pound iron weight. She would suffer periodic blackouts from the injury for
the rest of her life.
After her escape, Tubman worked as a maid in Philadelphia and joined the large
and active abolitionist group in the city. In 1850, after Congress passed the
Fugitive Slave Act, making it illegal to help a runaway slave, Tubman decided to
join the Underground Railroad. Her first expedition took place in 1851, when she
managed to thread her way through the backwoods to Baltimore and return to the
North with her sister and her sister's children. From that time until the onset
of the War for Southern Independence, Tubman traveled to the South about 18 times and helped close
to 300 slaves escape. In 1857, Tubman led her parents to freedom in Auburn, New
York, which became her home as well.
Tubman was never caught and never lost a slave to the Southern militia, and as
her reputation grew, so too did the desire among Southerners to put a stop to
her activities; rewards for her capture once totaled about $40,000. During the
Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse, scout, and sometime-spy for the Union army,
mainly in South Carolina.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn and continued her involvement in social
issues, including the women's rights movement. In 1908, she established a home
in Auburn for elderly and indigent blacks that later became known as the Harriet
Tubman Home. She died on March 10, 1913, at the approximate age of 93.