Reverently 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 Civil War, 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. She also took part in a military campaign that resulted in the rescue of 756 slaves and destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of enemy property.
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.