Harriet Ross Tubman Davis (b. circa 1822 - d. 1913)
MSA SC 3520-13562
Fled from Slavery, Dorchester County, Maryland, 1849
Accomplice to Slave Flight, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, 1850 - 1863
For the most comprehensive account of Tubman's life, refer to Kate Clifford Larson's, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in 1822, on the plantation of Anthony Thompson in Dorchester County.1 Her mother, Harriet "Rit" Green, was the property of Mary Pattison Brodess, who had inherited some slaves from her late grandfather, Atthow Pattison. Brodess was widowed in 1802, but by 1803 had already been remarried to Anthony Thompson. Benjamin "Ben" Ross was one of Thompson's nine slaves, who joined the Pattison clan. Rit and Ben were married around 1808, and had their first child later that year. When Mary died in 1810, her son Edward was only nine years old. Therefore, the family's property came under the care of his stepfather until the child turned twenty one. Various transfers of ownership would affect the stability of the Ross family throughout Harriet's time in slavery.2
Tubman's father was a highly valued timber inspector, who supervised and managed the vast timber operation of the Thompson's land in the Peter's Neck region of Dorchester County.3 Despite the frequent separations that characterized her early years, Harriet remained devoted to her large family. She was the fifth child of Rit and Ben's nine children, who were already raising Linah, Mariah, Soph, and Robert. Tubman's siblings and mother were most likely hired out to other area whites, a common practice by Eastern Shore slaveholders. Therefore, Harriet was often left to care for her younger siblings, Benjamin, Rachel, Henry, and Moses while Rit was away. Thompson died in 1836, leaving provisions in his will for trusted slave Ben Ross to be freed five years after his death. He was ultimately manumitted around 1840 and continued to work for his former master's son, Dr. Anthony C. Thompson, in Caroline County.4 Her father was several miles away laboring in Thompson's timber business, but Harriet and her family maintained a close relationship with him.
Harriet was also consistently hired out in her twenty-seven years of slavery in Maryland, with the constant threat of being sold away from her family looming over her. By the early 1820's, Edward Brodess had reached adulthood and was able to take possession of the property left by his mother. His lack of business acumen and an ongoing legal fued with his stepfather caused the Ross's to be constantly concerned about the possible sale of their children.5 Brodess hired out most of his slaves because there was a relatively small amount of land for them to work, and it was more profitable to lend their services to other Dorchester whites.
Life as a hired slave proved very difficult for Harriet. At age six, she was hired to James Cook, supposedly to learn how to weave. After being sent into the marshes to trap muskrats, the young girl became ill and Rit convinced Brodess to bring her back. However, after her health improved, she was sent back to Cook. Harriet refused to learn weaving, or be cooperative with the family. Eventually she was sent back to Brodess, only to be hired out again to a woman named Miss Susan. Harriet was sent there as a domestic, to care for Miss Susan's young child and complete household chores. Unaccustomed to household work, she was frequently whipped because Miss Susan did not approve of her cleaning capabilities. Harriet ran away from Miss Susan after attempting to steal a lump of sugar. Harriet ran to a neighboring farm and hid in a pigpen for four days. She was severely punished upon returning, and was eventually sent back to Brodess once again.6
At Harriet's next employer she received an injury that would plague her for life. She had been hired to labor on a neighboring farm sometime in the mid-1830's. Harriet and a cook at her employer's plantation had gone to the local store to purchase items for the master. That same night, a slave from another plantation was discovered to have left without permission and was pursued to the store. Finding him there, the overseer implored Tubman to help him apprehend the slave, but she refused and he again fled. The overseer picked up a two pound weight and hurled it at the fugitive. Instead, the projectile struck Harriet in the head so violently that it "broke my skull and cut a piece of that shawl clean off and drove it into my head."7 Despite the severity of the injury, she was essentially given no medical attention by her unsympathetic owner, before being returned to the field. The injury to Harriet head caused her to periodically lose consciousness. She was clearly incapable to complete her work as a field hand, and was sent back to Edward Brodess.
It is possible that this traumatic experience led Tubman to suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, which is characterized by "bright lights, colorful auras, disembodied voices, ... and dreamlike trances while appearing to be conscious." These incidences would occur throughout the rest of her life, frequently shocking those in her company. While the condition was certainly debilitating, Tubman held a complex spiritual interpretation of her "visions." She felt it was an ability passed down from her father, that, when combined with her intense religious faith, pushed Harriet's efforts to combat slavery. Associates, including Thomas Garrett, marveled at her "confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul."8 However, the spells did not induce confidence in fleeing slaves who counted on her adept leadership. This issue arose when Harriet collapsed while leading a party of four, including Joe Bailey, who had to convince the other fugitives not to abandon her. Still, Tubman would consistently draw strength and motivation from her evangelical beliefs. However, her spells and ill health did little to improve her image as a productive slave. Brodess attempted to sell Harriet on many occasions, but her injury turned away many potential buyers.9
Undoubtedly, Harriet was aware of this threat. She had witnessed her own sisters, Linah and Soph, be sold out of the state to slave traders. Harriet knew that Brodess would sell her if the occasion arose, though she hoped that he could be convinced otherwise. In 1835 or 1836, he managed to hire her to John Stewart, a large plantation owner and businessman who lived in the Tobacco Stick area of Dorchester County. The maritime and timber industries in the region contained a mix of free blacks and enslaved laborers. The community supported a vital communication network among Chesapeake African-Americans, which Harriet would utilize extensively in her future rescues. The move also allowed the young woman to be closer to her father, and eventually led her to John Tubman, a free black man working in the same neighborhood. Harriet and John were married around 1844, likely hoping that one day they could buy her freedom from Brodess.10 In early adulthood, Harriet would take on a more independent role in hiring her time to other local landowners. Tubman performed a variety of tasks, which included chopping and hauling wood. Despite her injuries, Harriet became a formidable worker in these more traditionally male-dominated occupations, for which she claimed to have received comparable wages.11
Still, Tubman constantly prayed for the day that she could be relieved from the back breaking labor that she endured as Brodess's slave. These prayers were answered when the relatively young master died in March of 1849. However, Eastern Shore slaves knew that an owner's death often led to his most valuable property being sold. Young, enslaved blacks might be worth more than $1,000 a piece to traders connected to the plantations of the Deep South. While other Brodess' slaves were lamenting this possible outcome, Harriet instead planned her escape. She was able to convince her younger brothers, Benjamin and Henry, to run away in the fall of 1849. However, Harriet's brothers were afraid of being caught and turned back, but she made off again without them. Utilizing only the North Star and help from a local white woman, Harriet successfully made it to Pennsylvania later that year.12 It has been speculated that the female accomplice may have been Hannah Leverton or Hester Kelley, whose families lived near to Ben Ross and admittedly participated in abolitionist activity during that time. These members of the Quaker community in Caroline County harbored strong anti-slavery feelings, and were often suspected of aiding fugitives.13
Once established on free soil, but without her family and friends, Harriet confessed that she felt like "a stranger in a strange land." She almost immediately made plans to return and rescue those poor enslaved souls left behind in Maryland. Taking work as a domestic in Philadelphia, Tubman worked diligently and saved nearly all of her money for that purpose. Harriet would make her first rescue in 1850, when her niece Kessiah and two children were threatened to be sold by Eliza Ann Brodess. Kessiah's free husband, John Bowley, had been able to prevent the sale the first time, but Brodess, possibly desperate for money, had to sell her. Harriet returned the day that Kessiah was to be sold and devised a plan with Bowley to rescue her from the auction block. When Kessiah and her children were bought to the auction block, Bowley secretly bid for her. After the bidding was over, Kessiah was removed to the side of the stage where Harriet and Bowley ran away with her to a house near the courthouse. From there, Kessiah and her family were escorted to a boat that took them to Baltimore, and they were then forwarded to Philadelphia.14
In 1851, two years after making her personal journey of freedom, Tubman again returned to Dorchester County to reestablish the family that she left behind. However, when she returned, she found out that John Tubman had taken another wife during that time. The news came as a shock to Harriet and left her deeply hurt. It was probably one of the few defeats she experienced in her lifetime. But the loss of her husband would be the gain of countless freedom-seekers in Maryland, who were later aided by the heroine. From that point on, Harriet turned her full attention to saving the friends, family, and even perfect strangers that desired to become free.15
Many of the details of Tubman's life have been distorted by various sources. There are the reports in "traditional" stories that say she saved over three hundred slaves, from all across the south, primarily working alone. Recent histories note that while parts of these stories are unsubstantiated, it does not taint the legacy of Tubman, nor her important role in the history of slavery in Maryland. Harriet never explicitly stated how many times she returned to Maryland to assist slaves to freedom, thus the actual amount of trips and runaway slaves is unknown. Her earliest biographers estimated that she made nineteen trips and rescued over three hundred slaves.16 Harriet recalls making eleven trips from Canada, which is significant because after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, she knew that any slave that remained in the United States was in danger of being legally recaptured. The most accurate estimation is probably thirteen trips, in which Tubman rescued seventy to eighty people, most of whom were enslaved in Dorchester or Caroline County. She also provided the directions and contacts necessary for about fifty or sixty more individuals to make their escapes independently.17
Her network stretched from the Eastern Shore and Baltimore to locations throughout the north, such as Wilmington, Philadelphia, upstate New York, New England, and Canada. She established a highly influential corps of accomplices, including William Still, Lucretia Mott, and Thomas Garrett. Tubman would petition, give speeches, and implore people she came in contact with to give money and aid so she could continue returning to Dorchester County to rescue her family and friends. She even became a confidante of John Brown in his ambitious plan to violently strike at slavery in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. When Brown visited the substantial fugitive community of St. Catharine's, Ontario in 1858, Tubman was able to muster a contingent of former slaves to support the cause. However, either due to her ill-health or suspicion of Brown's limited chance of success, she and the other Canadian blacks did not ultimately join him in Virginia.18
Even at the outbreak of the Civil War, she signed up to aid the Union troops in hopes that the conflict would end slavery in America for good. As a cook, a nurse, a spy, and even military planner, Tubman advanced the cause of freedom on the front lines in the Army. Despite this participation, she was denied a military pension, only getting a nurse's pension after a protracted struggle with the U.S. government.19 Tubman would struggle financially throughout much of the later stages of her life, as she continued to support numerous friends, families, and social causes. She became active in the women's sufferage movement, and operated her home in Auburn, NY as a safe house for freemen who needed a place to stay.20 Harriet Tubman's continual strikes against slavery in Maryland forced the issue to the forefront of the public's conscience, and shattered the myth that African-Americans were content in their degraded state. Many later legal and political advances were made possible by the strenuous efforts of Tubman and her dedicated accomplices. Though she passed away in 1913, Harriet Tubman left behind a complex story that is just as inspiring today as when she made her initial journey to freedom in 1849.
1. Kate Clifford Larson. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004, p. 16.
2. Ibid, pp. 16-17.
3. Ibid, p. 10.
4. Ibid, pp. 67-71.
5. Ibid, pp. 17-18.
6. Ibid, pp. 36-41.
7. Emma P. Telford. Harriet: The Modern Moses of Heroism and Visions, Auburn, NY: Cayuga County Museum, 1905, p. 6.
8. Larson, pp. 41-44, 169.
9. Ibid, p. 55.
10. Ibid, pp. 62-63.
11. Ibid, pp. 56-58.
12. Sarah H. Bradford. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Auburn, New York: W.J. Moses, 1869. p. 7613. Patricia C. Guida, Arthur W. Leverton, Underground Railroad Agent, and His Family: The Levertons, Whiteleys and Wrights. Caroline County Historical Society Inc. 2007.
14. Larson, pp. 89-90.
15. Ibid, pp. 90-91.
16. Bradford, pp. 21, 53.
17. Larson, p.100.
18. Ibid, pp. 155-162.
19. Ibid, pp. 225-227.
20. Ibid, pp. 233-234.
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