17 Things You Didn't Know About Harriet Tubman

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.

Photo:

  • Even As A Child, She Fought Back Against Slavery

    Even As A Child, She Fought Back Against Slavery
    Photo: Benjamin F. Powelson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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

    The First Escape She Engineered Was Her Own
    Photo: Horatio Seymour Squyer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.

  • Her First Underground Railroad Escapes Were For Family Members

    Her First Underground Railroad Escapes Were For Family Members
    Photo: W.J. Moses / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 brought enormous risk to both escaping enslaved people and those abetting them - even in free states - because it allowed enslaved people in the North to be captured and returned to slavery.

    But Harriet went back to Maryland (and all of her escapes took place there) despite the danger. She first went to help her niece and her family, and then made many other trips back and forth. Later, she tried to recover her husband, but he had remarried. 

  • Everything From Chickens to a Gun Helped Her in Her Work

    Everything From Chickens to a Gun Helped Her in Her Work
    Photo: Unknown / PX Here / Public Domain

    Because of the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as her growing notoriety, Tubman's work helping enslaved people escape the North was incredibly dangerous. She used disguises, subterfuge, props, and a gun to aid her. On one mission helping enslaved people escape, she carried live chickens to make her look like she was running errands as a domestic enslaved person in order to go unnoticed in a town. 

    If props didn't work, there was always the pistol she carried to protect herself and others from slave catchers and to threaten enslaved people who got cold feet about escaping. During the Civil War, she also used a sharpshooter's rifle.