“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going…” were the immortal words of abolitionist hero, Harriet Tubman. She said this when explaining the importance of perseverance and courage. Harriet Tubman is one of the best examples of a person with profound courage and perseverance, characteristics shaped by the childhood she endured. This courage and perseverance drove her to the roles she played both in the Underground Railroad, as well as her heroic service during the Civil War; roles that shape her profound legacy.
Although Harriet Tubman’s birthday is unknown, her birthday is believed to be between the years of 1819-1823 (“Facts”). It is not surprising that her birthday is unknown, because most slaves did not know their birthdays as these details were thought to be insignificant. Harriet was born into slavery because her grandmother had been brought over to America from Africa on a slave ship years before her birth (Rossi 16). Tubman was the daughter of Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross and had eight siblings (Michals). Harriet spent her time working in the fields because she was very strong (Williams 16). She was a hard and dedicated worker but was often beat by her slave-masters (Williams 16). In a quote by Harriet Tubman, she expressed, “I grew up like a neglected weed, -ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. Then I was not happy or contended” (“Quotes”, Harriet Tubman to Benjamin Drew, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, 1855).
Not much is known about her early life as a slave because no records were kept of slaves. However, slave Harriet took a blow to the head with a two-pound piece of metal (Williams 16) from a slave-master who was trying to hit another slave next to her (Rossi 16). This injury was extremely severe to her health even though it was a typical punishment of the slaveowners. Due to this head injury, Harriet suffered from sleeping spells, visions, and odd dreams for the rest of her life. As a slave, religion was everything to Harriet. Religion gave her an unexplainable hope and joy even in times of hardship and pain (“Early Life”). Harriet Tubman declared, “I said to the Lord, I’m going to hold steady on to you, and I know you will see me through.” (“Quotes”, Harriet Tubman, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman By Sarah Hopkins Bradford).
During her later years in slavery, she married John Tubman where she received her famous surname. Her given name was actually Araminta, but she changed her name to Harriet after marrying John in 1844 (“Facts”). After many years in slavery, Harriet decided she had had enough. She was going to escape. In addition to being weary of slavery, she learned that she was to be sold to another slave-master (Williams 16). After making the courageous decision to escape, her brothers and husband joined in the decision with her.
In 1849, Harriet successfully escaped to Pennsylvania, but without her brothers and husband because they were scared and regretted their decision to escape (“Early Life”). When describing her freedom, Harriet declared, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven” (“Quotes”, Harriet Tubman, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman By Sarah Hopkins Bradford.). The small and big events that occurred during the span of childhood into adulthood helped Harriet grow a strong foundation of bravery and hope.
“I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them!” explained Harriet when referring to the slaves still being kept as captives in the South (“Quotes”, Harriet Tubman, Harriet, the Moses of her People by Sarah Hopkins Bradford). Although Tubman did not create the Underground Railroad, it was established in the late eighteenth century by black and white abolitionists (Michals). Harriet was known as the conductor of the Underground Railroad because her role in its usage was so vital to many slaves’ release from captivity. Harriet was known for her stealth and secrecy (Taylor 75) because without it, she would not have been as successful in helping slaves escape.
Harriet’s main role in the operation of the Underground Railroad was to cross back over the border, into slavery, and guide slaves through the safe houses of abolitionists and harmlessly deliver them into the free states. Harriet was also known as the Moses of her people because of how bravely she could deliver her people into freedom. Exodus 3:12 declares, “Then the Lord said, ‘I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings, and so I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of Egypt…’(New International Version). Just as Moses obeyed God and delivered the Israelites from Egypt, Harriet trusted God and delivered other slaves from a future of suffering.
Harriet was extremely smart and dedicated to her mission to deliver slaves from slavery. In one instance, slave catchers had read a description of Harriet in a paper that said Harriet was unable to read. These slave-catchers were determined to get the large reward offered for her capture. Harriet strategically picked up a newspaper or local paper and began to pretend that she was reading it so that the men would not suspect her (Rossi 18). Some people even believed that Harriet was a man because they doubted that a woman, specifically a woman of color, could have such characteristics of leadership and bravery (Taylor 77). Because of her success in the operation, by 1856, a $40,000 reward was offered for her capture (Rossi 18).
On her trips back South to bring slaves to free states, Harriet always carried a gun. Although many believed that she carried the gun for protection, that was not the case… Harriet indeed carried the gun to encourage slaves whom she was helping escape who were having second thoughts so that they would ultimately decide to escape with her. She also did this because if anyone were to return back to their slaveowners and tell bounty hunters about their possible escape, other slaves who were trying to escape would become endangered and Harriet would not be able to continue her mission (Williams 18). Even though there were numerous theories as to why she carried the gun, Harriet never fired her gun and never shot anyone (Williams 18).
Altogether, she returned to the South 19 times and helped more than 300 slaves escape. Th slaves would flee to Canada because it was a different country and the Fugitive Slave Act did not exist there (Williams 17). Not one of the slaves Harriet freed was ever enslaved again. As Harriet stated, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say- I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger…” (“Quotes”, Harriet Tubman at a suffrage convention, NY, 1896). Harriet’s role in the Underground Railroad exemplified her courageous bravery which was the result of freedom for many slaves.
Harriet Tubman retired from her role in the Underground Railroad right before the Civil War broke out. However, Harriet’s role in history did not end there. Instead of fading into the background and being satisfied with her accomplishments in life, she decided to do more. Not only did Harriet serve as a nurse for the Union, she became a speaker for women’s rights, and spoke about slavery and her role in the Underground Railroad.
Her first position after serving in the Underground Railroad was that of a nurse. “Tubman used herbal remedies as a nurse because that is what she was taught how to use to treat both black and white soldiers to prevent them dying from infection and disease” (Michals). Although Harriet was not a doctor and had no true medical training, soldiers appreciated any help and assistance they could receive. She even provided money for herself during the war by selling homemade pies and root beer that she made at night because she worked wholeheartedly at the hospitals in the day (Taylor 85).
Harriet had quite the reputation in the army because she was known as the “slave-freer”. This influence helped her gain trust and seniority with other military officers because her God-given traits of leadership and strategy were so apparent (Taylor 77). This fame also helped her gain trust with newly free slaves who struggled to trust white people even if they were abolitionists (Michals). In addition to being a confidant to newfound free slaves, Harriet served as a translator. When free slaves were released and would flee to safety in contrabands, many people did not understand the African-dialect so Harriet served as a translator. She helped nurses and white abolitionists understand the slaves accent so that they could communicate better.
Likewise, Harriet also served as a spy and secret agent over enemy lines. As a Union spy and scout, Tubman often transformed herself into an aging woman. She would wander the streets under Confederate control and learn from the enslaved population about Confederate troop placements and supply lines (Michals). Not many soldiers suspected an old woman as a spy for the Union army, so Harriet’s secret identity served her well. Although not much else is known about her role as a secret agent, Historian Wells Brown believes that, “She remained on the outskirts of the Union Army…” and “did good service for those of her people who sought protection in the Union lines…” (Taylor 83). So, in addition to being a spy, she protected slaves and them security without destroying her cover.
After taking a step back from her role in the Civil War, Harriet still felt led to make her mark on the world again. In Boston, Harriet gave speeches to Bostonians who genuinely cared about slavery, women’s rights, human rights, and civic reformity (Taylor 80). This trend continued and Harriet developed into a motivational speaker about the topics of slavery, her role in the Underground Railroad, and women’s rights (Taylor 80). People came from miles away to hear her speak. She evolved into a speaker who was in high-demand (Taylor 80). “She was an advocate for women’s rights with: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony” (Michals). Harriet continued to make a life for herself and other freed slaves by caring for those who were sick and inviting them into her home, in addition to finding jobs for those who were healthy (Taylor 85).
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world…” quoted Harriet Tubman. Harriet’s entire life exemplified a courageous life lived for the benefit of others. No matter what the risk was, Harriet was willing to take it. Her mission to live a life of bravery and save others was more important to her than life itself.
Beginning in her childhood where she was born into slavery, Harriet proved that she had the strength to make an extraordinary example to the world. She persevered through one of the most straining trials known to man: slavery. James 1:12 states, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trail because, having stood that test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” Harriet was a strong faithful servant of the Lord and did not stray from her God-given courage.
After escaping slavery, she decided that she needed to help others do the same and because of that she, became the Conductor of the Underground Railroad. By having this position in the operation, she put herself in harm’s way daily. However, it was more important to Harriet to save others than herself. Her mark on the world didn’t end there; she served in the Civil War and continued to save not only African-American soldiers but white soldiers as well. In addition, she had many other roles after the civil war. Her bravery sets an example for posterity that any one person can leave a lasting impact on the rest of the world.
- Allen, Thomas B., and Carla Bauer. Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How daring slaves and free blacks spied for the Union during the Civil War. National Geographic, 2009.
- “Early Life.” Harriet Tubman Historical Society, Premium Word Themes, 2019.
- “Facts.” Harriet Tubman Historical Society, Premium Word Press Themes, 2019.
- Michals, Debra. “Harriet Tubman.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2015.
- “Quotes”. Harriet Tubman Historical Society, Premium Word Themes, 2019
- Rossi, Ann. Freedom Struggle: The Anti-Slavery Movement in America, 1830-1865. National Geographic, 2005
- Taylor, Marian, and Heather Lehr Wagner. Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist. Chelsea House, 2005.
- The Holy Bible: New International Version. Zondervan 1993.
- Williams, Carla. The Underground Railroad. Child’s World, 2009.