History Lesson: Harriet Tubman

Rooster gives us an overview of the life of Harriet Tubman on this edition of History Lesson.

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“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.” –Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland around the year 1822. She was one of nine children, and her parents struggled to keep the family together since they were treated more as livestock than humans. Unfortunately, their owner sold three of the family’s daughters. When he tried to sell the youngest son, Harriet’s mother and the other plantation slaves hid the baby. When both the owner and buyer approached the slave shack, Harriet’s mother vowed, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.” The owner backed out of the sale, and young Tubman witnessed her first lesson in resistance.

At only five years old, Tubman acted as nursemaid to an infant, and if the baby started to cry, Tubman was whipped. Ever the rebel, she often ran away, fought back, or padded her clothing, so they finally had no choice but to assign her to manual labor in the fields and forests. She was devoutly religious as many slaves were; Bible stories of deliverance and salvation resonated with them and gave them hope. After sustaining a serious head injury, Tubman began having epileptic seizures and vivid hallucinations that she believed were messages from God. These revelations guided her throughout the rest of her life.

In 1849, when Tubman’s owner passed away, she escaped using the already established network of the Underground Railroad, which was operated by free slaves, white abolitionists, and Quakers. During the day, she would either hide in the forests and marshes or stay at a safe house, sometimes doing simple work to appear as a slave before moving to the next friendly house under cover of night.

Over the course of 13 expeditions, she encouraged and guided around 70 other slaves to freedom and earned her nickname “Moses”. They trekked during the harsh northern winter months, when the nights were long and people spent more time in their homes rather than searching for runaway slaves. These were extremely difficult journeys, but her continued visions of God fueled her unwavering faith. The passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 increased the danger for escaped slaves in all states, so Tubman led her groups to the United Province of Canada (now Ontario) which had completely abolished slavery under the British Empire.

Ten years after her escape from slavery, Tubman finally became a landowner. US Senator William H. Seward sold her a chunk of land in Auburn, New York, an area that was a hotbed of abolitionist activity. Her home became a safe haven for her friends and family. However, owning land did not slow down Tubman’s activism in the slightest.

When the Civil War broke out, she immediately saw the benefit of a Union victory even though Abraham Lincoln did not initially support the end of slavery. Using her experience in subterfuge and sneaking about in marshlands, Tubman led a group of Union scouts around Port Royal in South Carolina and successfully aided in the capture of Jacksonville, Florida.

At the raid at Combahee Ferry, she navigated three steamboats around Confederate mines, which made her the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. Once landed, the Union army set fire to the plantations and more than 750 slaves made their escape onto the steamboats. She continued to work for the Union as a scout, nurse, and liberator until the very end of the war, but she never received compensation until 1899 (34 years later) due to the government’s poor documentation of black soldiers.

In her later years, Harriet Tubman promoted the Women’s Suffrage movement. She made many speeches relating her vast life experiences and the sacrifices of other contemporary women as examples of women’s equality to men. And when the National Federation of Afro-American Women was founded in 1896, she was the keynote speaker for its first meeting.

Her seizures and headaches grew worse in her advanced age. At some point in the late 1890s, she was no longer able to sleep due to “buzzing” in her head, and she elected to undergo brain surgery with absolutely no anesthetic. Admitted to a rest home in 1911, she passed two years later of pneumonia.

Harriet Tubman was buried with semi-military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster

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