Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (2004) sheds light on the fascinating life of Harriet Tubman, a pioneering woman who not only escaped the bonds of slavery, but also helped hundreds of others do the same. The book also offers insights on her vital role in the American Civil War, and in the fight for equal rights for women and African-Americans.
Biography, Memoir, American History, Military History, Civil War, Race, Cultural, African American, Feminism, Historical, U.S. Abolition of Slavery History, Black & African American Biographies, Women’s Biographies
Are you familiar with the name Araminta Ross? How about the name Harriet Tubman?
These two names belonged to the same remarkable woman. This book summary tells the tale of how Araminta Ross – a girl born into slavery – became Harriet Tubman, a free woman who stood up for what she believed in, and fought, for freedom with bravery and fearlessness.
If you’d like to learn more about one of nineteenth-century America’s most heroic women, then make yourself comfortable and relax. Maybe close your eyes as you imagine the calendar pages flipping back, back, back – all the way back to 1825.
Harriet Tubman always claimed she was born in 1825. Her true birth year, like those of most people born into slavery, went undocumented. However, we do know where she was born.
In the early nineteenth century, Maryland’s Eastern Shore was a place of staggering natural beauty. Fields full of grain surrounded Chesapeake Bay, forming a green carpet patterned with rivers and creeks and inlets. Waterbirds abounded, as did wildlife of other kinds. Beneath the water of the bay spread vast oyster beds. It was into this idyllic landscape, near a town called Bucktown, that Araminta Ross was born.
Araminta’s parents were named Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green – or Ben and Rit, as their family called them. It’s probable that Araminta had at least ten other siblings, but the exact number is lost in the fog of history. For this family’s white owners, Maryland must have seemed a kind of paradise, a land as bounteous as it was beautiful. For Araminta and her enslaved parents and siblings, it was a kind of hell.
Araminta’s family was at constant risk of being torn apart. This fate befell two of Araminta’s sisters, who were sold while she was still a young girl.
Luckily, Araminta wasn’t sold. But, at the age of five, she was sent off to care for the infant son of “Miss Susan,” a woman from the neighborhood who requested help from Araminta’s master.
Araminta was terribly homesick and terribly mistreated. Whenever the baby cried, Miss Susan would whip Araminta, giving her scars that would stay with her for the rest of her life.
Eventually, Miss Susan sent the malnourished and fragile young girl back to her family. This cycle repeated itself for years: Araminta worked in one household after another.
At the age of 12, Araminta began working in the fields. Hoeing and harvesting was exhausting work, but she preferred the straightforward outdoor labor to the domestic abuses of masters like Miss Susan. The fieldwork also increased Araminta’s physical strength, and she was soon capable of heaving large and cumbersome barrels of flour up onto carts.
But this work came with its own risks. Indeed, one incident nearly ended Araminta’s life.
One day, one of the people enslaved by Araminta’s master attempted escape. The overseer spotted him and gave chase. Araminta blocked the overseer’s path, but, at that moment, he threw a lead weight at the escaping man – and missed. Instead of finding its mark, the weight hit Araminta in the head, knocking her out cold. For days, she drifted in and out of consciousness.
Her skull eventually healed, but the injury had lasting effects. For the rest of her life, she would experience intermittent blackouts and other disabling symptoms. It’s probable that she had a neurological disorder similar to narcolepsy.
Nonetheless, she continued to work in the fields. And she slowly regained her strength.
When Araminta was about 19 years old, she married a free black man named John Tubman. Little is known about him, but the fact that he was free indicates that he married Araminta for love. At the time, any child born to an enslaved woman was also legally a slave. If not for love, why marry a woman whose children would be born into slavery?
In the years after her accident, Araminta’s religious faith had also become an increasingly motivating force in her life, driving both her work ethic and her decision-making. She felt that she had God’s protection, and knew it was her duty to work on God’s behalf.
The presence of God, the love of a husband. Araminta had, perhaps, found a kind of peace. It was short-lived. Shortly after her marriage, Tubman discovered a document that altered the course of her life forever.
The document was a written agreement between her mother and her mother’s previous owner. It stipulated that, at the age of 45, Rit, Araminta’s mother, and all her offspring would be granted freedom. Since Rit was now well over 45, this document meant that Araminta should have long been a free woman. But Rit’s previous owner had broken the agreement.
Then, in 1849, Araminta’s owner died. Far from bringing her joy, his death filled Araminta’s heart with fear. A new master might sell her and her other family members, tearing the family apart.
In the years leading up to 1849, Araminta had had a recurring dream. In the dream, she was in flight, “like a bird,” high above the fields and mountains and towns. Eventually, she’d arrive at a barrier. In some dreams, it was a large fence; in others, a river. Crossing this barrier was exceedingly difficult – but just as she was about to give up, a group of women, dressed in white, would appear and pull her across.
Trusting in God, trusting in her visions, Araminta decided to take flight while awake. In the fall of 1849, under cover of darkness, she escaped the bonds of slavery. She headed north. North, for 80 miles, always at night. North, for three dark, fear-filled weeks. North, until she reached the city of Philadelphia.
When Araminta arrived in Philadelphia, it was like stepping into a different world. For the first time, she saw black people working as barbers and vendors, as sailors and seamstresses – and saw them treated, not as chattel, but as citizens. They were all free, living a life utterly different from the one she’d known.
But Philadelphia was far from safe. It was common for black people to be kidnapped and sold to slave masters in the South. But the biggest danger wasn’t illegal slave traders; it was the law itself. In the late 1840s, record numbers of escapees like Araminta poured into Philadelphia from Maryland. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, giving federal and local authorities increased power to apprehend runaway slaves. A crackdown began.
In light of these dangers, Araminta assumed the only disguise available to her: a new name. And so it was that Araminta Ross Tubman became Harriet Tubman, the name she’d carry for the rest of her life.
Freeing herself inspired Harriet Tubman to help others achieve freedom. By the end of 1850, she’d already established connections within the Underground Railroad, a network of people and places that offered safe haven and safe passage to people fleeing slavery. And she began using these connections to help other enslaved people break their bonds.
In December 1850, Harriet got word that her niece Keziah, or “Kizzy,” as her family called her, was soon to be sold, along with her two children. This news tore Harriet’s heart. Kizzy was a favorite relative. Harriet referred to her as “sister.” What’s more, Kizzy’s mother had been sold South, never to be heard from again. Would Kizzy’s children be torn from their mother as Kizzy had been torn from hers? Harriet was determined to prevent history from repeating itself.
The news of Kizzy’s impending sale had been sent by her husband, John Bowley, a free black man. Using her connections, and enlisting the help of Bowley, Tubman devised a plan to save her beloved niece.
We’ll never know the exact details of Kizzy’s escape – but here is the story according to family legend.
Kizzy and her children were taken to a slave trader in Cambridge, Maryland. Kizzy’s husband, John Bowley, was there, too, and when the auctioneer went to eat dinner, Bowley made his move. He snuck his family onto a boat and rowed them across Chesapeake Bay to Bodkin’s Point, near Baltimore, a distance of some 37 miles.
Harriet was there waiting to guide them the rest of the way to safety.
Tubman’s role in Kizzy’s rescue was remarkable. For one, she’d made the risky decision to travel at a time when any traveling black person could be accosted and asked to present papers attesting to their freedom. What’s more, Baltimore was a particularly perilous place for fugitive slaves. Still, Tubman went. Perhaps she’d somehow acquired forged papers. Perhaps her time navigating the dangers of Philadelphia had given her courage and confidence. In any case, helping Kizzy was an act of extreme bravery and faith.
It was far from the last.
In the spring of 1851, she rescued more of her family. This time, she helped her brothers and two other men escape, again tempting fate and traveling back to Maryland.
Not long after, she took an even larger risk. She returned to the site of her enslavement – her hometown near Bucktown – in the hopes of being reunited with her husband. Again, Tubman avoided capture, but this mission’s outcome was far from happy. When Tubman arrived, filled with visions of joyful reunion, she discovered that her husband had married another woman. Crushed, Tubman had no choice but to return to Philadelphia.
This devastating experience caused Tubman’s confidence to falter. But rather than giving up, Tubman turned to her faith.
According to Tubman, God spoke to her and reminded her that she needed to carry on. And so she did, this time with even more determination.
By now, Tubman had solidified a series of relationships with conductors – individuals prepared to offer fugitive slaves directions to the next safe house or “station.” Indeed, she had become an outstanding Underground Railroad conductor herself.
Throughout the first half of 1850, Tubman made two trips south each year, often during winter when the darkness of night could protect her for longer. Each time, she brought large groups of slaves back with her, sometimes dozens. By 1854, Tubman had conducted five trips and freed as many as 30 slaves. For this, she earned yet another name. People began calling her “Moses,” after the prophet who emancipated the Israelites from Egypt.
As Tubman continued successfully rescuing slaves and transporting them to safety, her reputation grew. Abolitionists and antislavery advocates began to sing the praises of this mysterious “Moses,” who was breaking the shackles of her people and leading them to freedom. By the mid-1850s, Tubman drew audiences in Boston, which she enthralled with stories of her rescue missions.
Like the time Tubman led 25 fugitive slaves through dangerous swampland, where they were forced to hide for more than a day. The waiting, the wilderness, the lack of food and sleep – it began to wear the group down, until one man suggested they turn back and return home. Tubman wouldn’t hear of it, though. She knew that if he got caught the rest of the group would be in grave danger.
So Tubman pulled out her pistol and aimed it at the man’s head. She told him sternly that she’d kill him if he didn’t push on with the rest of them. He agreed, and the group’s morale lifted enough for them to continue on to safety.
But what did safety mean for fugitive slaves? For many, Tubman included, it meant Canada. In the 1850s, Tubman settled in a small town across the Canadian border called St. Catharines. It was here that she brought her family – her five siblings, her niece, and, eventually, her parents.
Tubman rescued her elderly parents in 1857. By then, they were too old to make the journey on foot. So Tubman had a wagon rigged with a space comfortable enough for them to hide in. Together, they traveled for several nights until they safely made it 80 miles out of Maryland. From there, they boarded the train to Canada, where Tubman’s parents were reunited with their children. They also, for the first time, saw their grandchildren.
These were joyful times for Tubman and her family.
As Tubman’s fame grew, she began to draw the attention of other leading figures in the United States. One of these was William Henry Seward, who would go on to become secretary of state under President Lincoln. Seward was so fond of Tubman that he even offered up one of his houses in Auburn, New York, as a home for Tubman and her family.
Another important figure in American history, abolitionist John Brown, also had a great interest in Tubman. Brown had been recruiting people for his own abolitionist army. He planned an attack on slaveholders in the South, and was determined to spark an uprising in the slave population. He and Tubman met in 1858.
Brown’s determination to fight slavery and win impressed Tubman deeply. For his part, Brown was entirely taken with Tubman’s spirit, and even nicknamed her “General Tubman.” But when he launched an attack on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia on October 16, 1859, Brown’s army consisted of fewer than 30 men. The uprising of enslaved people he’d been counting on to boost his numbers never happened. In December 1859, he was captured and executed.
Despite the failure of John Brown’s grand plans, he served as a major inspiration for Tubman. After his death, Tubman vowed to carry on his mission and continue to fight for African-American freedom. It wasn’t long before Tubman made her first bold move.
Charles Nalle had escaped enslavement in 1858, fleeing a Virginia plantation and settling in New York. But, in early 1860, he was captured and slated to be sent back South.
In April 1860, protesters gathered outside the New York courthouse where Charles Nalle was imprisoned. Among them was Tubman. The protest soon devolved into a riot, and during the commotion, Tubman crept into the courthouse, physically wrenched Nalle free from two guards, and exited the building with him. In the confusion, Nalle was put on a wagon and sent off to safety.
The public liberation of Charles Nalle and John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry greatly increased the tension that had developed between the Confederate South and the Union North. When Confederate soldiers fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, that tension reached breaking point and the Civil War began.
As the conflict grew, Tubman did what she did best. She helped people fleeing enslavement, providing them with food and protection at Fort Monroe, in Maryland, where thousands of escapees sought sanctuary before traveling north up the East Coast.
Soon enough, however, Tubman was asked to turn her skills and knowledge to a different task: developing military tactics. In 1863, she began working for the Union’s Department of the South, helping them establish a spy network. She built relationships within the local slave community in South Carolina, which was able to share invaluable information with the Union.
The information from Tubman’s network of spies assisted the Union troops in avoiding mines as they traveled down the Combahee River to liberate 750 slaves and destroy plantations. Tubman also took on the role of nurse following the less successful battle at Fort Wagner, where hundreds of wounded black soldiers needed medical assistance. For her efforts, US Surgeon General Joseph Barnes rewarded Tubman by appointing her an official Matron, a title that no African-American woman had held before.
In the South, meanwhile, Tubman was a wanted woman, with more than $40,000 worth of bounties on her head.
By the time the war ended, Tubman had worked with both the Underground Railroad and the Union Army for 15 years. Her services were essentially voluntary. At no time did she receive financial compensation.
But Tubman worked on. She was devoted to helping African-American people gain the rights and freedoms they deserved, and she helped build freedmen’s schools and collected donations for the Salvation Army.
Tubman also advocated for women’s rights, and fought tirelessly for women’s right to vote. Her contributions were so great that Susan B. Anthony introduced her as a “living legend” at a New England Women’s Suffrage Association conference in 1897.
Despite her hard work and dedication, Tubman remained in dire financial straits. In 1869, she married Nelson Charles Davis, and throughout her marriage, she had to rely on selling baked goods in her spare time to get by.
After Davis passed away in 1888, Tubman started receiving a widow’s pension – a mere $8 per month. Although this pension was meager, Tubman had a strong network of friends who supported her when she needed it.
As time went on, friends of Tubman’s petitioned the government to recognize her contributions and provide her with financial compensation. These efforts finally bore fruit in 1899. The US government increased Tubman’s pension to $20 per month.
With this money, Tubman started her own charitable organization. In 1908, she opened The Harriet Tubman Home, which housed and sheltered African-American people in need.
Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913. Across the United States and Canada, charities and schools bear her name, and in Auburn, New York, there’s a special plaque in her honor. During her life, Tubman risked her hard-won freedom time and time again to help others achieve theirs. Cobblestone by cobblestone, she worked, with bravery, selflessness, and determination, to pave the road to freedom.
About the author
Catherine Clinton was born in Seattle on April 5, 1952. She was raised in Kansas City, Missouri from the age of two and attended the Sunset Hill School for Girls (now Pembroke Hill School), graduating in 1969. She graduated from Harvard University (Lowell House) with a joint degree in Sociology and Afro-American Studies in 1973. Her senior honors thesis was on the role of the plantation mistress in the Old South. She won the Isobel Briggs Traveling Fellowship from Radcliffe College and went to England. She received her M.A. in American Studies from the University of Sussex in 1974, completing her thesis on Fanny Kemble. After a detour as an instructor at the University of Benghazi in the Libyan Arab Republic, she returned to the United States to attend Princeton University. She entered the Ph.D. program in history at Princeton University in 1975 and left to take a job at Union College in 1979. She received her doctorate in history from Princeton in 1980, completing her dissertation on the role of the plantation mistress from 1780-1835 under the direction of James M. McPherson. In 1982 she married New York City architect Daniel Lee Colbert. In 1983 she left Union College to take a job in the history department at Harvard University, the same year that she published her first book: The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South. She and her husband moved to Winchester, Massachusetts. In 1984 her first child, Drew Colbert was born in Boston. The same year her second book, The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century, appeared. In 1988 she left the history department at Harvard to teach in the Department of American Studies at Brandeis University. During this period, she became interested in children’s education and became a consultant and writer for secondary school social studies texts. In 1989 her second son, Ned Colbert, was born in Boston. In 1990 she returned Harvard to teach in the Department of Afro-American Studies. She and her family moved to Greenwich, Ct. in 1991. In the fall of 1993, she left Harvard to teach African-American literature in the Department of English at Brown University, where she taught for one semester. In 1994 she decided to concentrate on writing full time to give her the flexibility to spend more time with her young children. She has written, edited, co-authored or co-edited over a dozen books to date. In 1993 she became interested in screenwriting and sold several historical projects for television, although none, to date, have been produced. She has written for the History Channel, consulted on projects for WGBH, and is a member of the Screen Writer’s Guild. She also became involved in writing children’s books, and has concentrated on non-fiction books for kids. In the fall of 1997 she held the Douglas Southall Freeman Visiting Chair of History at the University of Richmond, and then in the fall of 1998 was the Lewis Jones Visiting Chair of History at Wofford College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. From the fall of 1999 until May 2001 she held the Weissman Visiting Chair of History at Baruch College, City University of New York. For the academic year 2001-2002 she held the Mark Clark Chair of History at the Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2003-2004, she will be a visiting professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Ct. She continues to be an affiliate of the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University. Her newest children’s book, A Poem of Her Own, has been published by Harry Abrams in 2003. She has recently completed a biographical study of Harriet Tubman.
Table of Contents
Also by Catherine Clinton
THE PLANTATION MISTRESS:
WOMAN’S WORLD IN THE OLD SOUTH
THE OTHER CIVIL WAR:
AMERICAN WOMEN IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
HALF SISTERS OF HISTORY:
SOUTHERN WOMEN AND THE AMERICAN PAST
WOMEN, WAR, AND THE PLANTATION LEGEND
I, TOO, SING AMERICA:
THREE CENTURIES OF AFRICAN AMERICAN POETRY
CIVIL WAR STORIES
FANNY KEMBLE’S CIVIL WARS
FANNY KEMBLE’S JOURNALS
A POEM OF HER OWN:
VOICES OF AMERICAN WOMEN YESTERDAY AND TODAY
The definitive biography of one of the most courageous women in American history “reveals Harriet Tubman to be even more remarkable than her legend” (Newsday).
Celebrated for her exploits as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman has entered history as one of nineteenth-century America’s most enduring and important figures. But just who was this remarkable woman? To John Brown, leader of the Harper’s Ferry slave uprising, she was General Tubman. For the many slaves she led north to freedom, she was Moses. To the slaveholders who sought her capture, she was a thief and a trickster. To abolitionists, she was a prophet.
Now, in a biography widely praised for its impeccable research and its compelling narrative, Harriet Tubman is revealed for the first time as a singular and complex character, a woman who defied simple categorization.
“A thrilling reading experience. It expands outward from Tubman’s individual story to give a sweeping, historical vision of slavery.” – NPR’s Fresh Air
“Clinton’s well-researched book reveals Harriet Tubman to be even more remarkable than her legend.” – Liza Featherstone, Newsday
“Superior. Clinton wisely keeps the focus on Tubman and her remarkable life…This compelling biography brings alive the passion of those tormented times.” – Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
“A lucid, well-researched biography that contextualizes a remarkable life in all its remarkable accomplishment.” – Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, Christian Science Monitor
“Reads more like an adventure tale than a history lesson…This biography provides an in-depth look at Harriet Tubman and holds moments of wonder for readers.” – Bernadette Adams Davis, BookPage
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Chapter One: Born into Bondage
AT THE TURN of the nineteenth century, the Eastern Shore of Maryland was in many ways a world apart—the rich, rolling fields semicircling Chesapeake Bay, abutting Delaware to the east and grazing Pennsylvania to the north. Fields dappled with sun and lush with grain were crisscrossed by dozens of waterways throughout the peninsula, joining rivers flowing from marshes out to the beckoning salt water. Waterfowl and wildlife were abundant, offering hunters as rich a harvest as that gathered by those who cultivated the land. The Eastern Shore was separated from its sister slave counties by the oyster beds that spread underneath the water to Maryland’s other, western, shore, where the bustling ports of Annapolis and Baltimore dominated the regional economy.
Beaver traders originally populated the Eastern Shore, but by the 1660s the pelt trade was depleted and planters began to settle the region. Commercial rather than domestic agriculture flourished, as tobacco farms dominated at first. By the 1750s, fields of tobacco were replaced by fields of corn, as planters found it less labor intensive and more profitable to plant food for export to the West Indies. Philadelphia merchants moved south along Indian trails, scouting for grain, finding eager suppliers along the Choptank River.
In early America, the planters who settled the marshes of the Eastern Shore, the African Americans who struggled within the bonds of slavery there, and the clusters of emancipated blacks who formed pockets of liberty within the countryside created a complex tangle of competing agendas. Black and white, slave and free, acquisitive and hardscrabble crowded together within this narrow strip of Maryland.
This was the world into which Harriet Tubman was born and came of age, a time and place gnarled by slavery’s contradictions. She was born near Bucktown in Dorchester County, Maryland, to parents who named her Araminta and cared for her deeply. Yet because she was born a slave, the exact year of her birth remains unknown, unrecorded in an owner’s ledger—lost even to the parents and child themselves.
Most accounts offer her birth year as 1820, 1822, or circa 1820, roughly two hundred years after the first boatload of Africans was sold off a Dutch slave ship in 1619 at Jamestown, Virginia. “Circa” affixed before a birth year is one of the most common legacies of slavery. “Like sources of the Nile,” the antebellum black leader Samuel R. Ward confessed, “my ancestry, I am free to admit, is rather difficult of tracing.” 1 Harriet believed that she was born in 1825, and testified to this fact on more than one occasion.2 When she died, her death certificate indicated her birth year was 1815. Her gravestone listed her year of birth at 1820. Whatever the year affixed, details of the earliest years of Araminta Ross are equally obscure.
And so is her place of birth. Educated guesses place her mother at several different locations during the period 1815-1825, but the Brodess plantation near Bucktown, Maryland, is most likely her place of birth and is certainly where she spent her earliest years, with her mother. Family lore claimed she was one of eleven children, but no family Bible with names inscribed survived, and family records present conflicting accounts about the names and the number of Tubman’s brothers and sisters.
There is no firm evidence of Araminta’s place in the birth order. However, she later recalled that she was left in charge of both a baby and another younger brother while her mother went to cook up in “the Big House.”3 Tubman also indicated that she had older siblings, so clearly she was born somewhere in the middle of a string of children, perhaps nearly a dozen. She might have arrived near the end, as her mother was in her forties when she was born.
Araminta was born to Harriet Green4 and Benjamin Ross, a slave couple who spent a good deal of their married life in close proximity to one another. They struggled, like most enslaved spouses, to create conditions that would allow them to live together, or at least near each other. They negotiated with their owners—and they had different owners throughout their time in slavery—to create a more stable family life.
With each new child, hope might spring anew for slave parents, and Tubman was no exception. She recalled that her cradle was carved from a gum tree—most likely by her father, who was a skilled woodsman. She remembered being the center of attention when young white women from the Big House visited the slave cabins. They playfully tossed her in the air when she was just a toddler.5 These two hazy memories—the cradle and being tossed in the air—are Tubman’s only recorded recollections from her youngest years.
Harriet confessed that during her youth she was described as being “one of those Ashantis.”6 While she may have had ancestors from Ghana who were of Asante lineage, there is no evidence for this. Perhaps it was the Asante proverbs that Harriet picked up as a young girl (“Don’t test the depth of a river with both feet”) that led her to these claims. All her grandparents might have been African born, but we know the origins of only one.
Tubman’s mother’s mother arrived on a slave ship from Africa, was bought by an Eastern Shore family named Pattison, and was given the name Modesty.7 She gave birth to a daughter named Harriet, who was called Rit (by her family) and Rittia (in Pattison records) sometime before 1790.8
In one biographical article published the year before Tubman died, the author alleged that her mother, Rit, was the daughter of a “white man,” but there is no mention of this in any other records or in family lore.9 In 1791 Harriet Green was listed as property in the will of Atthow Pattison: “I give and bequeath to my granddaughter Mary Pattison, one Negro girl named Rittia and her increase until she and they arrive to forty-five years of age.”10 This language was standard in nineteenth-century wills and indicated that Rittia was to be given her freedom at forty-five, as would any of her issue born while she was a slave.
If Harriet Green had been the daughter of a white man—even of Pattison himself—this would explain why she was given this special dispensation. It was not an uncommon practice among Chesapeake planters to make a provision for the emancipation of illegitimate, mixed-race offspring.
Mary Pattison inherited Rittia in 1797 and three years later she married planter Joseph Brodess. It was also not uncommon for the father of an illegitimate, mixed-race daughter to “give” the slave daughter to his legitimate white daughter—much as Sally Hemings was brought to the Thomas Jefferson household by his new wife, Martha, as part of her dowry. Half sisters commonly lived under the same roof as mistress and slave.
Whatever their relationship, Rit accompanied her mistress to a new household after Mary wed Joseph Brodess, on March 19, 1800. Brodess and his brothers inherited a 400-acre plot of land only six miles east of Chesapeake Bay, known as “Eccleston’s Regulation Rectified.” This land had come to their father to settle a debt in 1792. The nearest settlement was Bucktown.11
Even less is known about Tubman’s father, Benjamin Ross. Nearly all accounts suggest he was a “full-blooded Negro,” which may have been to contrast his bloodline with that of his wife. His owner indicated he was born in 1795, which would have made him years younger than his wife. However, this was Ben’s age as calculated by a master who inherited him. As Ben was also entitled to his freedom at the age of forty-five, his master may not have been scrupulous about Ben’s year of birth. Postponing emancipation meant maintaining added income from the labor of a skilled slave.
As slaves, Tubman’s mother and father were forced to do a master’s bidding, their child’s fate determined by their chattel status. Araminta was doubtless provided little more than the bare necessities of life. Planters doled out a minimum of food to keep slave offspring alive.12 Clothing for these children was scanty and inadequate. One former slave recalled:
The clothes that I wore did not amount to much, just a one-piece dress or gown. In shape this was more like a gunnysack, with a hole cut in the bottom for me to stick my head thru, and the corners cut out for armholes. We never wore underclothes, not even in the winter. . . . We never had more than one at a time, and when they had to be washed, we went naked until they had dried.13
To an owner a slave child was purely a commodity, one whose labor could be bartered, whose sole purpose was his own gain. The clarity of this fact overwhelms any effort to give Araminta a childhood.
Slavery’s ferocious foothold in British North America began in the Chesapeake region, where Araminta spent her entire youth. By the first decades of the seventeenth century, when attempts at permanent settlement of European colonies commenced, land was bounteous but labor was scarce. The English in North America welcomed and eventually institutionalized human bondage, fueling a boom in the African slave trade.
By the time of the American Revolution, slavery was as much a part of Maryland as the tobacco planted in its soil and the oysters harvested from its muddy shores. Although they were shifting into grain agriculture by 1800, slaveholders on the Eastern Shore owned, on average, eleven slaves apiece.14
The children of the earliest Africans in the North American colonies were not always born into bondage. Some blacks came as sailors and explorers. Others came as indentured laborers later granted their freedom. A few of these went on to own slaves themselves. But free blacks continued in the minority, and over time, racial boundaries became more rather than less rigid. Even after the prolonged battle for independence, when cries for liberty rang throughout the countryside, opportunities for both emancipation and free blacks diminished. Whites assumed the innate inferiority of those with darker skin and imposed their prejudices through custom and law.
For example, Maryland slave law took a dramatic turn in 1712, when the colonial legislators adopted a new measure: the status of a child would follow the status of its mother, partus sequitur ventrem. This statute overturned centuries of patriarchal tradition and law. This radical shift was in response to sex across the color line, most especially white males coupling with slave women.
As the number of persons of color with white ancestry began to grow, the exponential growth of a mixed-race population presented a threat to the white hierarchy. The 1712 law allowed white men to pursue their appetites and maintain the status quo, while white women were hemmed in by increasingly rigid prohibitions and restrictions on their behavior. A white man who fathered a slave child could mask his illicit sexual connection. A white woman risked not just ostracism, but exile or worse if she was discovered in any sexual connection with a black. By law, any child born to her would be born free. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born in 1818 on a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, near present-day Easton—less than thirty miles from Harriet Tubman’s own place of birth—never knew the name of his father. Speculation points to a white slaveholder, perhaps his mother’s master, but the details of his lineage remain unconfirmed.
By the close of the eighteenth century, the invention of the cotton gin (1793) fueled a stampede of slaveholders further south and west. Fortunes could be made planting cotton once an easier, inexpensive way of processing the crop was developed. Settlers began pouring into the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee, where Revolutionary War veterans cashed in on land grants. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and eventually Louisiana lured thousands onto their rich soils with a promise of extravagant fortunes, all to be made in the wake of slavery’s widening sphere.
By 1808 the external slave trade was prohibited due to constitutional mandate. After almost two hundred years of imports, cutting off the supply of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean had a profound impact on slavery in the United States—with especially drastic results for slaves in the upper South, where Tubman and her family lived.
The domestic slave trade became crucial to slaveholders eager to settle the southwestern frontier. Suddenly, enslaved African American women, already expected to perform harsh and exacting physical labor, became the sole legal source of slave labor. Deep South politicians were in a frenzy to see their plantation economy thrive and to keep slavery booming. Cotton was not a cash crop in Maryland, but its plantations produced one of the most invaluable crops for the southern antebellum market: slaves. The children of slaves quickly became a vital commodity and source of income for cash-poor planters of the Chesapeake, and of increasing significance to the prosperity of the lower South.
When the international slave trade ended, the enslaved population in America was not quite 2 million. Less than fifty years later, with the outbreak of the Civil War, slaves in the American South numbered nearly 3.5 million. This was an astonishing growth rate, given the high mortality among slaves, especially infant mortality. Slave babies commonly succumbed to any number of childhood diseases that plagued all newborns in the South but that visited the slave cabins with depressing regularity. The mortality rate for black children in the Chesapeake during the first half of the nineteenth century was double that of white infants. While enslaved mothers were in the plantation fields picking throughout September and October, infant mortality spiked. Further, many slave mothers had to contend with their own ill health during the winter season, when congestive diseases might fell both mother and child. These illnesses proved more often fatal for infants and young children.
The southern climate also meant that blacks, and especially slave children, endured exposure to malaria, cholera, smallpox, and a range of fevers, including the deadly “yellow jacket” (yellow fever). In the antebellum South any outbreak or epidemic (with the exception of malaria) hit African Americans in much higher numbers than whites. Despite these health and medical statistics, the increase in the slave population was explosive. By comparison, while the black female birth rate skyrocketed during the half century leading up to the Civil War, the white female birth rate in the country was declining, and reduced by half by century’s end. During this same period approximately 10 percent of adolescent slaves in the upper South were sold by owners; another 10 percent were sold off in their twenties. Slave parents lived in abject terror of separation from their children. This fear, perhaps more than any other aspect of the institution, revealed the deeply dehumanizing horror of slavery.
All over Maryland, slaves dreaded the “Georgia traders,” the appellation given to any slave buyers who appeared. By the 1820s Maryland newspapers were filled with advertisements seeking slaves for sale; sometimes as many as two hundred were sought at a time.15 The Eastern Shore was a prime place to seek slaves to funnel into the Deep South, and there were approximately 5,000 slaves in Dorchester County (between 1810 and 1830).
Tubman was deeply aggrieved by the disappearance of siblings, carried off by the slave coffle: “She had watched two of her sisters carried off weeping and lamenting.”16 Tubman was permanently affected by this episode, as she witnessed the “agonized expression on their faces.”17
No record of her sisters’ fate has ever been uncovered, and even their names are a source of confusion.18 White records suggest these daughters were called Linah and Soph.19 A family tree constructed by one of Ben and Rit’s descendants identifies them as Harriet and Mary Lou, while a later version by another descendant called them Katherine and Marie.20 Whatever the names of these lost sisters, these women were sold away, stolen from their families and never reunited with parents, siblings, or children.
Those left behind suffered more than just mourning. Family members lost to slave sales were worse than dead, as there was no peace or closure. Fugitive slave Lewis Hayden painfully recalled: “I have one child buried in Kentucky and that grave is pleasant to think of. I have got another that is sold nobody knows where, and that I never can bear to think of.”21
Slaveholders treated slave children as commodities, and as a means of anchoring adult slaves on the plantation. Owners believed parenthood reduced the rate of runaways. Thus southern masters actively promoted pair bonding and childbearing, even though the integrity of these families was constantly threatened by sales. The rates of miscarriage were much higher for African American women than for white women, and better care and feeding during pregnancy was the exception rather than the rule for enslaved women. These were the “family values” shaped by slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
Nonetheless, the pregnancies of slave women interfered with women’s productive roles as slaves. Indeed, one Maryland slaveholder advertised one of his chattels as “young NEGRO WENCH, with a Male Child two years old. She can wash and iron.” But, he added with some disdain, she “is sold for no fault but for being pregnant.”22
Planter records indicate that supervisors of female slaves were often suspicious of their claims of impending childbirth. Owners, physicians, and overseers regularly accused female laborers of pretending to be pregnant. The charge of “shamming” was a self-serving lament as much as a legitimate concern, as it was rare for pregnant women to be given any dispensation. Some supervisors did lighten the workload of expectant women in the advanced stages of pregnancy to reduce the chances of miscarriage. Thus slave childbearing provoked a host of contradictions for plantation society.
During the crucial first months of a slave child’s life, little was done by owners to combat infant mortality.23 Few slaveholders reduced the hours for nursing mothers. Fanny Kemble, married to one of the largest slaveowners in Georgia, indignantly reported in 1838 that her husband sent women back into the fields only three weeks after their confinements. While Kemble condemned his regimens as brutal, his Sea Island neighbors viewed her husband as a model and indulgent slaveholder. She described the plight of a mother who lost a newborn to snakebite: her nursing infant was bitten while lying in a field where the mother toiled nearby—but not near enough to save her child.24
In 1801 Tubman’s mother’s master, Joseph Brodess, died. He left behind his widow, Mary, and their infant son, Edward, who presumably would inherit the five slaves in the household. In 1803 Mary remarried widower Anthony Thompson, and Harriet Green, once again, came with the marriage. Mary Brodess’s new husband owned Ben Ross, which is presumably how Harriet Green met her husband.
Upon Mary’s premature death in 1810, the nine-year-old Edward’s legal guardian and stepfather, Anthony Thompson, looked after the boy’s interests. During this period, Harriet and Ben were able to live together as man and wife and start a family. By 1820 Thompson owned nearly forty slaves.
But Edward Brodess broke up the Ross family by starting his own. In 1824, now twenty-three years old, Edward Brodess married Elizabeth Anne Keene, and the couple moved into the home his stepfather had helped him build on his late father’s land near Bucktown, less than ten miles away. Harriet Ross and her children went with them, while Ben most likely was forced to remain behind. By 1840 Brodess headed a household that consisted of his wife and two sons. His slaves included Rit and eight children: one boy under five, two boys between ten and twenty-four, one older male, two girls under ten, and two girls ten to twenty-four. Harriet was one of these females.
Brodess expanded his holdings by buying thirteen acres, a part of “Taylor’s Delight” on the road from Bucktown to Little Blackwater Bridge, in September 1834. Except for census data, a marriage license, and abstracts from land records, Edward Brodess left very little to offer us clues to his life as a Maryland planter. In 1852 his will was burned in a fire that destroyed the Dorchester County courthouse, and its provisions were reconstructed in 1854. Ironically, more information about his role as a slaveowner comes from black sources.
According to Harriet Tubman’s brother, their mother, Rit, was able to keep her family together when a slave sale threatened to rob her of a child. Rit became alarmed after seeing her master take money from a Georgia man named Scott. Hearing the master then summon one of her sons, Rit appeared unexpectedly in the room. Brodess attempted to distract her by ordering her to bring him a pitcher of water. After returning to her work, she overheard Brodess call for the boy again, this time to harness a horse. She immediately returned to Brodess’s side. Tubman’s brother Henry witnessed Brodess’s exasperation with his mother and his complaint, “What did you come for? I hollered for the boy.”
Harriet’s mother then accused Brodess of wanting her son for “that (ripping out an oath) Georgia man.” Unwilling to resort to force, Brodess was stymied when Rit kept her son hidden in the woods and with friends for over a month. This prolonged period of subterfuge testifies to the complex strategies and networks of slave resistance, which extended throughout the Eastern Shore. It also suggests that relations between master and slave might have been less rigid, more negotiable, than they were in the Deep South.
Seemingly more annoyed than infuriated, Brodess finally found a servant who knew where the boy was hidden and tried to enlist him to set a trap. When this ploy failed, Brodess went to Rit’s cabin to demand the boy, but she threatened, “The first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.” Harriet Ross must have been both a valuable and a formidable woman, to stand up to her master and protect her child with such ferocity. In this case, her tactics succeeded. Such family lore, too, would have provided Tubman with a powerful example of the possibilities for resistance.
Tubman’s brother Henry reported that finally Scott gave up and returned to Georgia. At the end of the standoff, when Rit’s son returned home, Brodess “said he was exceedingly glad she hid the boy, so that he couldn’t sell him.”25
Henry’s account raises many questions about the complex negotiations between owners and slaves. Was Brodess himself torn up over the prospect of sale, and sincere in his expression of gratitude over Rit’s measures to prevent it? Or was he trying to placate her? The cat-and-mouse game lasted for over a month, suggesting the persistence of either the Georgia buyer or the ambivalence of the Maryland seller. When Rit stood up to Brodess in this case, was it because she had already lost children to sales and would not allow another to be taken?
This and other family lore make it clear that Harriet’s parents fought to keep their family together. Henry grimly confided that Brodess pledged that if Rit would remain “faithful” (presumably meaning obedient), “he would leave us all to be free.”
Despite such promises, Harriet’s brother recalled, “at his death, he left us all to be slaves.”26
Chapter Two:Coming of Age in the Land of Egypt
AT WHAT POINT would any child born into bondage “come of age” and be made aware of her status? Four? Five? How quickly would she discover that the larger world designated some people free and some slaves? What about the color line? When would the difference become crystalline and its consequences devastating?
Most slave children in the antebellum era learned the twin maxims of slavery by harsh experience: their labor was not their own, and they could be deprived of kin. Although African Americans toiling in the field might be seen as the quintessential image of slavery, the more potent symbol of the system was the auction block. Josiah Henson, a fugitive slave who published his memoir, bitterly recalled, “My brothers and sisters were bid off one by one, while my mother, holding my hand, looked on in agony and grief.” Henson was also sold apart from his mother.1 In this way slaves were forced to confront their utter powerlessness, “soul by soul,” as one scholar has characterized it.2
Children were particularly vulnerable to the devastation wrought by the selling off of siblings. More than any other insult, this would have sharpened their sense of the fragility of their existence. Tubman experienced the loss of at least two siblings to the slave coffle. One older sister was forced to leave her own two children behind. How could grieving parents explain this loss? Ben and Rit withstood these tragedies by maintaining their faith in God, by seeking comfort in biblical wisdom. While enduring such sorrows they could only hope for a better world beyond the “land of Egypt,” where all their brethren suffered the scourge of slavery.
Slave children had every stage of childhood cut short, from nursing onward. They were propelled into adulthood by slaveholders’ impatience. Many were sent to the fields as human scarecrows as soon as they were able to walk.3
In an account of Tubman’s life written by her later patron and friend Sarah Bradford, her childhood is presented as a series of tough seasonings. From the earliest age, her sense of the world was defined by the displacement whites imposed as much as by any loving circle forged by parents and siblings. In interviews she gave in later life, Tubman indicted the treatment she experienced during her formative years: “I grew up like a neglected weed,—ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.”4
Araminta’s birthplace was one county over from the headquarters of a notorious crime ring, the Cannon gang.5