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 suffered injury when she stood up for herself.
Beyond that, the facts about Harriet Tubman constantly surprise. She had to fight for survival and was far from universally admired in her time. Despite a crippling head injury, being illiterate, and struggling with poverty her whole life, she made an outsized mark on history.
Even As A Child, She Fought Back Against Slavery
Harriet Tubman began resisting slavery from an early age. When she was only a child, Tubman was hired out by her owner to be night nurse to a local infant. She was forced to stay awake all night and whipped if the child woke up during the night. She understood the difficulties of life as an enslaved person and began her quest for justice.
At age 12, she put herself between a fugitive enslaved person and the person's overseer and was struck in the head by a weight, which led to a permanent injury.
'Harriet Tubman' Wasn't Her Birth Name
One of nine children, Tubman was born Araminta Ross around 1820.
She married freed enslaved person John Tubman in 1844 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
By 1849, Tubman's owner 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. Once a notice was published offering a reward to anyone who could capture and return the trio, Harriet's brothers decided to return in fear to the plantation.
She traveled on alone using the Underground Railroad. She went about 90 miles on foot, making it to Philadelphia and freedom. Her husband did not travel with her, and both remarried later.
She Wasn't Sure About Abraham Lincoln
When the Civil War started in 1861, Tubman continued helping fugitive enslaved people and worked as a nurse, cook, and laundress. In 1862, she moved to Port Royal, SC, to assist the growing displaced population of former enslaved people. By 1863, she also led a network of spies and passed intelligence onto Union forces.
It was during the early part of the war that she wasn't sure if President Lincoln was an ally to her cause. Tubman reportedly criticized Lincoln for being too slow to embrace Black emancipation and she disliked the Union army's unequal treatment of Black soldiers. Tubman later changed her tune on Lincoln and expressed regret she didn't meet him.