history 17 Things You Didn't Know About Harriet Tubman  

Mike Rothschild
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The biography of Harriet Tubman reads less like a stodgy figure from the past, and more like a modern action hero. Far from just being a "conductor" on the network of safe houses called the Underground Railroad, Tubman was a spy, a commando, a nurse, and an activist. She led a raid on a Confederate stronghold, threatened to shoot slaves who tried to return to their plantations, and even had bones broken when she stood up for herself.

Beyond that, the facts about Harriet Tubman constantly surprise. She could be a spurned wife, she had an antagonistic relationship with authority (in this case, Abraham Lincoln), she had to fight for survival, and she was far from universally admired in her time. Despite a crippling head injury, being illiterate, and struggling with poverty her whole life, she made such an outsized mark that she became known simply as "Moses."

Even as a Child, She Fought Back Against Her Slavery


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Harriet (nicknamed "Minty" as a child) began resisting slavery from an early age. Her mother threatened to "split the head open" of any man who tried to take her youngest son from her - which ended the prospect of his sale. As a child, Harriet was hired out by her master to be night nurse to a local child. Harriet was forced to stay awake all night, and whipped if the child woke up during the night. She ran away, wore extra layers of clothing, and physically fought back.

"Harriet Tubman" Wasn't Her Birth Name


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One of eleven children, Tubman was born Araminta Ross sometime in March 1820 (or possibly 1822). While still a slave, she married freed slave John Tubman and took his last name. She also began using her mother's first name of Harriet at some point, though the timeline is unclear.

The First Escape She Engineered Was Her Own


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By 1849, Tubman's master had died, and it was clear that her family would be broken up and sold off. On September 17, Harriet and two of her brothers escaped. Because they'd been hired out, their absence wasn't noticed at first, and it took two weeks for a wanted notice to be put up, still using her old nickname of "Minty." But her two brothers had second thoughts, and returned to the plantation - with Harriet.

She quickly escaped again, this time by herself. She moved at night and hid during the day, often assisted by white families, though her exact route is still unknown, as are the identities of those who helped her. She went about 90 miles on foot, making it into Pennsylvania, and freedom. She had left her husband John behind and wouldn't see him for two years.

She Butted Heads With Abraham Lincoln


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When the Civil War broke out, it became impossible for Tubman to conduct her missions anymore. She settled in Port Royal, South Carolina, assisting abolitionists and Union sympathizers while serving as a nurse to freed slaves. She also passed intelligence on to Union forces, as South Carolina was a key state in the Confederacy.

It was during the early part of the war that she came into indirect conflict with President Lincoln. Tubman had been working with General David Hunter, a strong abolitionist who was gathering a regiment of freed slaves. Lincoln felt Hunter was being too hasty, and wasn't in a position to grant emancipation to southern slaves. Hunter was reprimanded by Lincoln, which drew a scathing response from Tubman in the form of a letter. Tubman later changed her tune on Lincoln, and expressed regret she didn't meet him.