The people called her Moses. Like the Old Testament patriarch, she led an enslaved people out of bondage. The mysterious spells she suffered, replete with visions, brought a sense of spiritual urgency to her work, and only added to the belief that Tubman was on a mission from God. Tubman spent her whole life—nearly 100 years—working to improve the lives of society’s most marginalized people. She freed thousands, she said, “but could have freed a thousand more, if they only knew they were slaves.” Here are 42 liberating facts about Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman Facts
1. Born in Bondage
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery sometime between 1815 and 1825. Her parents, Harriet Green and Ben Ross, were slaves at Edward Brodess’s plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Tubman grew up on the Brodess plantation, even as her family was gradually sold to other plantations and broken up.
2. Staying Together for the Kids
Tubman’s mother did her best to keep the family together. When one Georgia slaveowner bought her youngest son, Moses, Harriet Green threatened to split the man’s head open with an ax. The slaveowner could tell she was serious and relented. This instance of successful resistance was to have a profound effect on the young Tubman.
3. Hidden Roots
It would be impossible to trace Tubman’s precise lineage under such circumstances. We do know that Tubman’s maternal grandmother was taken from Africa to America. There have been some suggestions that Tubman’s ancestors may have been members of the Ashanti tribe of what is now Ghana.
4. Minty Fresh
Harriet Tubman was not her name at birth. She was, in fact, born Araminta Ross; her friends and family mostly called her Minty. She adopted the name Harriet as a teenager as a way of honoring her mother. She took the name Tubman when she married her first husband, John Tubman.
5. Work Clothes
Tubman was frequently rented to out to other homes to serve as a maid, nursemaid, and field hand. Tubman was bad at most of these chores, a fact compounded by her own resistance to performing slave labor, and was frequently beaten. Tubman claims she was once whipped five times before breakfast had been served. She found an effective way to soften these beatings, however, by wearing several layers of clothing at once.
6. Talking to God
As a teenager, Tubman was struck on the head when an overseer threw an iron weight. She was knocked unconscious, and though she came to a short time later, she would struggle for the rest of her life with seizures and narcolepsy. Tubman claimed to receive visions and messages from God during these spells.
7. Terms and Conditions
Under a contract, Ben Ross was released from slavery at the age of 45. The terms of the contract were to extend to his wife and children, as well—all would be freed when they reached the age of 45. The Brodess family chose to ignore these terms of the contract, however. With the law against him, and no money to buy their freedom, Ben Ross was powerless to help his family.
8. Opposites Attract
In 1844, the erstwhile Harriet Ross married John Tubman. The Tubman’s marriage was complicated: John Tubman was free, while Harriet Tubman was still a slave. This was not an uncommon situation in a state like Maryland, which sat between the north and the south.
9. Separate Ways
When Harriet Tubman finally fled to freedom in 1849, escaping to the free state of Pennsylvania, John Tubman did not follow her. He later remarried.
10. Wishes Do Come True
In 1849, Tubman fell ill and Brodess tried, unsuccessfully, to sell her. When Tubman realized that, not only would Brodess never release her from slavery, but would actively try to break up her family, she prayed he would die. The slaveowner died a week later.
11. Going Solo
Tubman attempted to escape on September 17, 1849. She was accompanied by her two brothers, Ben and Henry. The brothers got cold feet, however, and persuaded Tubman to return with them. Weeks later, Tubman again attempted to escape. This time, she would go without her brothers.
12. Master of Disguise
During her escape, Tubman demonstrated an innate talent for evasion and subterfuge. For instance, upon seeing one known bounty hunter coming toward her, she picked up a newspaper. The bounty hunter, looking for an illiterate slave—and being, perhaps, not one of the smarter bounty hunters—passed her by.
13. All Aboard
Tubman safely made it to Philadelphia, relying on help from the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of Quakers and abolitionists. Once she had gained her own freedom, however, Tubman immediately turned her attention to freeing others. She took a number of odd jobs to raise money for the abolitionist cause, and began using her own talents to smuggle slaves out of the Delaware plantations.
Soon, Tubman was one of the most important “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.
14. Why the Caged Bird Sings
Tubman didn’t just show up at a plantation and free the slaves. Escapes could take months of planning. Tubman would visit the plantation and teach the slaves special versions of gospel songs. These spirituals had the words changed to contained coded directions and other important information about the escape.
15. Pace Yourself
Though she never led more than 15 people at a given time, Harriet Tubman was personally responsible for the liberation of more than 300 slaves.
16. Extreme Measures
In 19 trips on the Underground Railroad, Tubman never lost a soul. Not one person was killed, captured, or returned to a plantation in fear. To keep her record spotless, Tubman did sometimes resort to extreme methods. She would give children opium to keep them calm and quiet. She also carried a gun and threatened to shoot anyone who considered turning back.
17. Early Edition
Newspapers would print notices and rewards for runaway slaves, but they didn’t run until Monday. Tubman planned all her escapes for Saturdays before dawn. That way, she and her followers got a two-day head start.
18. Nighttime is the Right Time
Tubman planned most of her escapes for the fall and winter months. The nights were longer, so they could remain under cover of darkness, and the cold weather meant potential witnesses were less likely to be outdoors.
19. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Tubman may have been an expert at covert operations, but that doesn’t mean she went unnoticed. She was known throughout the south for her work, and hated by plantation owners. At one point, a reward for her capture was offered, valued at $40,000—that’s more than a million dollars by modern standards.
20. The Ones That Got Away
Tubman worked tirelessly to free the enslaved people in Delaware, but there were just three people in particular she wanted to rescue: her sister, Rachel, and her two children. It took Tubman 10 years to finally track them down, by which time Rachel had died. The children could be bought for $30, but Tubman didn’t have the money.
She rescued one last group of escapees, and never went down the Underground Railroad again.
21. John Brown’s Buddy
In 1859, Tubman was introduced to the insurgent abolitionist John Brown. The two had immediate mutual respect for each other and shared the belief that they had personally been visited by God.
22. Missing the Boat
Brown also understood what a formidable person Harriet Tubman was. He called her “General Tubman,” and she used her connections and knowledge of underground operations to help Brown plan his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Tubman supported the raid, but illness prevented her from taking part.
23. O, Canada!
Tubman spent much of the 1850s living in St. Catharines, Ontario. The Fugitive Slave Act made life in even free states much riskier for escaped slaves and their accomplices, and St. Catharines became home to a thriving black community.
24. Going Upstate
Tubman did not like St. Catharines, however. The winters were harsh, and she felt it hindered her abilities to be active in the United States. In 1859, she purchased a parcel of land in Auburn, New York, from senator William H. Seward. She would reside in Auburn for the rest of her life.
25. Harriet the Spy
Tubman’s talent for leading slaves out of the south caught the attention of the Union Army. When the Civil War broke out, she was placed in charge of a special force of 150 freed black soldiers, tasked with raiding several rice plantations in South Carolina. The raids were spectacularly successful, with Tubman liberating a further 750 slaves.
26. Side Hustle
Tubman might have gotten a lot of respect and personal satisfaction from her work with the army, but she didn’t get rich. Tubman only earned $200 in three years as a member of the Union Army. To compensate for her low salary, Tubman began her own business, brewing and selling root beer.
27. Down on the Pharmacy
As if it wasn’t enough that Tubman was a master spy and an entrepreneur, she served as a doctor, as well. Her knowledge of local plants and herbs in Maryland allowed her to treat Union soldiers who were suffering from dysentery, cholera, yellow fever, and chickenpox.
28. Let’s Take a Vote
After the Civil War, with black Americans officially free from slavery, Tubman turned her attention to women’s suffrage. She frequently spoke in Washington, Boston, and New York alongside such noted suffragists as Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. Tubman was the keynote speaker at the first meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women.
29. The Little General
Tubman was undoubtedly one of the most inspiring and imposing people of her day. Even so, she stood just under five feet tall.
30. Settling Down
John Tubman died sometime during the Civil War. Now legally single, Tubman married Nelson Davis, a former private in the 8th US Colored Infantry Regiment. Together, they adopted a girl named Gertie. Though he was 22 years young than Tubman, Davis died many years before Tubman, succumbing to tuberculosis in 1888.
31. No Place Like Home
In 1896, Tubman purchased 25 acres of land in Auburn, New York, and established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Tubman lived there herself, working to run the home until 1911, at which point she retired and became just a regular patient. In 2017, the house and several adjacent properties were declared a National Historic Park.
32. On a Budget
Though she remained a well-known public figure for the rest of her life, Tubman struggled to make ends meet. It took five years for her to prove she was the widow of Nelson Davis, and therefore eligible to receive benefits after his death, and her own military service was only partially recognized by the government.
Between her reduced military pension and that of Nelson Davis, Tubman subsisted on just $20 a month.
It didn’t help matters that, in 1873, Tubman was robbed by two con artists. They had told her they had a cache of gold, taken from South Carolina during the war, worth about $5,000, and that Tubman could have it in exchange for $2,000 cash. The esteemed emancipator borrowed the money from a wealthy friend and arranged to meet the two men.
When she got there, however, the men knocked her out with chloroform and stole the money.
34. From Con to Congress
The public responded with shock and disgust that someone would take advantage of Harriet Tubman that way. Two congressmen even tried to pass a bill that would award $2,000 to Tubman “for her services” but the bill never passed.
35. G-g-g-ghost writer
Tubman remained illiterate her whole life, but in 1869, an admirer named Sarah H. Baldwin wrote and published a biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Baldwin donated the profits to Tubman and her family.
36. Biting the Bullet
In her 70s, Tubman finally agreed to surgery which would free her from the seizures and narcoleptic spells she had suffered since childhood. Tubman refused anesthesia, preferring to bite down on a bullet, as she had seen soldiers do in Civil War medical camps.
37. Clearing the Way
Tubman passed away in 1913, following a bout of pneumonia. She was buried with military honors at the cemetery in Auburn, New York. Just before her death, she told an audience “I go to prepare a place for you.”
38. St. Harriet
Following her death, Harriet Tubman was recognized as a saint by the Anglican church.
39. In the Navy
In 1944, the US Maritime Commission named its first Liberty-class cargo ship the SS Harriet Tubman. The ship survived the war, but was scrapped, alongside all other surviving Liberty ships, in 1972.
40. Follow the North Star
In 2014, Tubman lent her name to an asteroid, 241528 Tubman.
41. A Day in the Park
Tubman has been the recipient of countless honors. She is the frequent subject of statues and monuments, has appeared on two stamps, and she has been inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. But perhaps the greatest honor was the naming of Harriet Tubman Grove in Baltimore, Maryland. Harriet Tubman Grove, in Baltimore’s Wyman Park, was once home to statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; the statues were taken down when the grove was renamed in Tubman’s honor.
42. A Change is Gonna Come
In 2016, the US Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Plans have since been delayed, and the change will not be made until after 2020.