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Summary: Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton

Key Takeaways

  • Dive into the remarkable life of Harriet Tubman with Catherine Clinton’s insightful biography, “Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom,” as it unveils the inspiring journey of a courageous woman who defied the odds to become a pivotal figure in the fight against slavery.
  • Discover the untold chapters of Harriet Tubman’s life and legacy by immersing yourself in the pages of “Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.” Uncover the extraordinary story of resilience, courage, and determination that shaped one of history’s most iconic figures.

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.


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.

Book Summary: Harriet Tubman - The Road to Freedom

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.

Chapter 1

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.

Chapter 2

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.

Chapter 3

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.

Chapter 4

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.

Chapter 5

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.


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

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 book is a biography of Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous and influential figures in the history of the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. The author, Catherine Clinton, is a professor of history and a specialist in American women’s history. She traces Tubman’s life from her birth as a slave in Maryland in the early 1820s to her death as a revered icon in New York in 1913. She also examines Tubman’s role and impact in various events and contexts, such as:

  • Her escape from slavery in 1849 and her return trips to the South to rescue hundreds of other slaves
  • Her involvement in the antislavery movement and her collaboration with other activists such as Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison
  • Her participation in the Civil War as a scout, spy, nurse, and leader of a raid that freed over 700 slaves
  • Her advocacy for women’s suffrage and civil rights after the war
  • Her establishment of a home for elderly and needy African Americans in Auburn, New York

The book is based on extensive research, including primary sources such as Tubman’s own words, letters, documents, and photographs. The book also includes a preface, an introduction, an epilogue, a chronology, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

The book is an engaging and informative read for anyone who is interested in learning more about Harriet Tubman and her legacy. Clinton’s writing style is clear, concise, and compelling. She uses simple language, analogies, metaphors, stories, and examples to explain complex concepts and convey her messages. She also injects humor, passion, and empathy into her writing, making it more relatable and motivating.

The book is not a dry or boring academic treatise, but a lively and relevant narrative that brings Tubman to life as a complex and multifaceted person. Clinton does not idealize or idolize Tubman, but rather presents her as a human being with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and flaws, successes and failures. She also situates Tubman in her historical and social context, showing how she was influenced by and influenced the people and events around her.

The book is not a one-sided or biased presentation, but a balanced and objective analysis that acknowledges the complexity and diversity of human emotions and experiences. Clinton does not claim to have all the answers or the ultimate solutions. She acknowledges the limitations and uncertainties of her arguments as well as the potential trade-offs and ethical dilemmas involved. She also respects the views and values of her readers and encourages them to think critically and independently about the issues and options.

Overall, however, the book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the life and work of Harriet Tubman. It challenges us to think differently and act differently in pursuit of our goals and values. It reminds us that we are all part of a complex and dynamic history that is still unfolding and transforming. And it urges us not to split the difference, but to make the difference.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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