There is a proposal to put a picture of Harriet Tubman on the United States ten dollar bill. I had limited knowledge of her until we visited the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, N.Y. Now I would describe her as one of those rare people Alie and I call a force of nature, a woman who refused to recognize the impossible, a woman who accomplished feats others would not consider attempting.
Here is a photo of the building. They did not permit photos inside. In addition to the house and its contents, the property now has a museum. If you are anywhere near, you should visit both Auburn and the Tubman house.
Auburn was home to many Quaker abolitionists. While there you can visit the home of William H. Seward. Most Americans, if they know him at all, will recall he pushed through the purchase of Alaska, known at the time as “Seward’s Folly.” Seward was Governor of New York, a United States Senator and was considered the leading candidate for the Republican Party nomination in 1860 until upset by Abraham Lincoln. Seward became a life-long friend of Tubman and helped her buy a seven acre farm in Auburn.
Here is a brief chronology of her amazing life:
Circa 1820-1822 — born Araminta (Minty) Ross, a slave on a Maryland plantation
1828 — Minty was hired out at the age of 6 (8?) to other masters to create extra income for her owner. She carried babies, cleaned houses, and fed farm animals. Daily whippings left scars on her neck. Three of her older sisters were sold and never seen again.
1835 — she received a serious head injury when an overseer threw an iron weight at another slave and hit her. She suffered fainting spells and sensory illusions the rest of her life. She took advantage of the condition to thwart attempts by her owner to sell her to a plantation further south. The seizures also may have strengthened her religious convictions which continued to grow throughout her life.
1836-1843 — she was hired out to farmer John T. Stewart and moved closer to her father, a man known for his wisdom and integrity, who lived nearby and headed Stewart’s timber crew. Her father was freed by 1840 and worked as a hired hand.
1844 — she married a free black man John Tubman and changed her name to Harriet (it was a common practice among slave girls to change their names). Her owner allowed her to keep some of her wages, she bought a pair of oxen and increased her income. Eventually she and John separated, and John Tubman married a free woman.
1849 — her owner died and his heir attempted to sell Harriet and her brothers. Along with two brothers, she ran away. The boys gave up and returned with her in tow, but she ran away again to Philadelphia where she supported herself doing domestic work. With funds saved and money donated by abolitionists, she returned to Maryland to help others escape.
1850 — conducts her first rescue of many, helping her niece and the niece’s two children escape. Unable to read or write, navigating by the north star, she evaded slave-catchers and informants. Eventually Maryland slaveholders offered many rewards for her head although they were often uncertain just who was leading the slaves away.
1850-1860 — Tubman is thought to have made 13 trips leading about 70 slaves to freedom, usually to Canada where she had a home after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. Among those led to safety were her parents including her father who, although free, was under the threat of arrest for helping slaves flee. She also provided instructions to another 50 to 60 people on how to escape.
She became acquainted with John Brown at her home in Canada and helped him meet and recruit supporters. She helped free a slave in Troy, New York from U.S. Marshalls who were going to return him to Virginia under the Fugitive Slave Act.
1859 — said to be upset by the Dred Scott decision, she returned from Canada and purchased the farm from her friend Williams Seward. She also moved into a more public role giving many lectures throughout the Northeast about the Underground Railroad.
1862-1865 — she became a Union Army spy, working as a domestic in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The first woman to lead an armed raid, she led Colonel James Montgomery’s forces up the Combahee River to free over 700 slaves and destroy enemy supplies. She also was hired to provide nursing services to wounded soldiers at a Union fort in Virginia. On a trip to New York she was thrown to the floor by a racist train conductor and her arm was broken.
1869 – the first biography of Harriet Tubman is published. She marries Civil War veteran Nelson Davis who was 22 years her junior. They were married 20 years and adopted a daughter.
1890s — she became active in the women’s suffrage movement attending both black and white conventions.
1896 — The proceeds of her biographies helped her buy the 25 acres adjoining her farm to establish “an old folks home.” She deeded the property to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1903.
1897 — Queen Victoria of England awards her a medal and cash stipend.
1898 — The U.S. government gives her a small pension for her Civil War service.
1913 — Harriet Tubman died, approximately 91-93 years of age. She was buried with military rites in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, N.Y.
Click on photo to enlarge.