We think we know Harriet Tubman: former slave, Underground Railroad conductor, and abolitionist, but do we really? Much of Tubman’s real-life story has been shrouded by generations of myth and folklore, propagated through children’s books, that has only obscured her great achievements.
During the century since her death, next to nothing was written about her aside from juvenile biographies. But starting in the early 2000s, several new scholarly biographies emerged. Of these Tubman scholars, Kate Clifford Larson is widely recognized as the gold standard of Tubman scholars.
Doctor Larson has debunked several myths about who Tubman really was. For instance, I bet you’re picturing Harriet Tubman as a decrepit old woman. Your image of her reflects photographs taken late in her life. These ubiquitous images have the effect of softening who Tubman was, and how she accomplished her heroic legacy.
But drawing from a trove of new primary documents and untapped sources as well as extensive genealogical research, Larson reveals Tubman as a complex woman who was brilliant, shrewd, and deeply religious. Moreover, Tubman was 27 years old when she worked as an Underground Railroad conductor – not exactly your grandmother.
Donald Trump reportedly said to one of his advisers – perhaps after seeing one of these images — “you want me to put that face on the $20 bill!” Trump and his treasury secretary could have easily produced a more youthful picture of Tubman to engrave on the $20 bill if they so desired.
Somewhere around 1822, Harriet Tubman was born an ordinary woman, under sub-ordinary conditions, but rose to extraordinary heights. “Two roads diverged in her woods, and she chose the one less traveled,” which made all the difference.
As we prepare to celebrate the Tubman-Bowley connection to Georgetown this September, here are 11 little-known facts about Tubman you may not have known.
1. Her real name wasn’t Harriet Tubman. Born one of nine children to Harriet and Ben Ross, Harriet Tubman’s real name was Araminta Ross.
2. She was abused as a child. From an early age, Tubman was subjected to the beatings and abuse by her masters. When she was in her early teens, she was severely injured when an owner, trying to stop the escape attempt of another slave, threw a large weight across a room, striking Tubman in the head. She never recovered from the damage done to her brain and skull, suffering recurrent seizures.
3. James Bowley of Georgetown was the first person Harriet Tubman freed on her Underground Railroad. Fearful that her master was going to sell her, Tubman escaped in 1849. But once free, she realized that freedom was not what she expected it to be, because everyone she loved was back in Maryland, and they were enslaved.
Later, when she learned her niece Kessiah (who she called her sister) and her two children, six-year-old James Bowley, and his baby sister Araminta, would soon be auctioned off to different masters, Tubman secretly returned to Baltimore until the day of the auction.
Tubman and Kessiah’s husband, John Bowley, a free black, had previously devised a plan to escape. After bidding on his family, when the auctioneer stepped away to have lunch, John, Kessiah, and their children escape to a nearby safe house.
When night fell, John, a master carpenter, and seamen sailed his family in a canoe to Baltimore where they met Tubman. Tubman guided them to Philadelphia and hid them in various safe houses until moving on to Canada the next year. Harriet kept James with her in Philadelphia several years securing a formal education for him that would later pay off.
4. Her work with the Underground Railroad was not her most significant contribution. Shortly after the Civil War broke out in 1861, Tubman joined a group of other abolitionists who headed south to assist refugee slaves who’d escaped to safety behind the Union lines. A proven survivor, Tubman quickly learned the lay of the land then offered her services to the Union Army as a spy.
Her reconnaissance work at Port Royal, South Carolina, laid the foundation for one of the more daring raids in the Civil War when she accompanied Union soldiers into their nighttime raid at Combahee Ferry in June of 1863. Under her leadership, more than 700 slaves working on nearby plantations escaped. Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead a raid in the Civil War.
5. She was a highly effective nurse. In military language, fugitive slaves were called “contrabands.” As the Union Army moved deeper into the South, more and more slaves escaped from their masters. Many joined the army, but many more were women, children, and the elderly. In Port Royal, nearly all of them were Gullah/Geechees.
When the soldiers and contrabands succumbed to diseases like malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, chickenpox, they summoned for Nurse Tubman. Her healing powers were legendary because she knew how to prepare remedies from local plants — probably from her days of successfully surviving in the wilderness.
6. Her work with refugees pre-dated the Reconstruction Period. As the Union sent down many missionaries from the North to help former slaves, Port Royal became a dress rehearsal for what was to become in the South. After millions of ex-slaves were emancipated, there was a challenge defining their status because they were neither slaves nor freedman. Hundreds of thousands had died for their cause, and now it was necessary to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate these so-called contrabands.
7. Harriet Tubman was a genius. “Even though she could not read or write,” said Dr. Larson, “Harriet Tubman was brilliant.” She had eight male scouts working for her. All of her escapes were meticulously planned and brilliantly executed. John Brown, the great abolitionist, said she was the bravest person he had ever met.
“She remembered everything that she heard and saw,” Larson said. “Unfortunately, genius back in those days was recognized only through letters — people who could write and read letters. But Tubman had this amazing skill to be able to read a landscape, to read the night sky, to read people, to hear and listen and sense danger.”
8. She cared about Georgetown, S.C. Having seen firsthand the horrendous conditions that former slaves endured in Port Royal, Tubman encouraged her favorite nephew, James Bowley to return to South Carolina and help them.
In the early postwar days Tubman organized Freedom Fairs, a fundraising bazaar in Auburn, New York. She urged her influential friends to gather clothing, food, books, supplies, and money for the schoolchildren of Georgetown. At the time Bowley was a teacher on the Rice Hope Plantation in Georgetown. Tubman held several Freedom Fairs raising over $500 (equivalent to $9000.00 today) each time.
9. She fought for women’s rights. In her later years, Harriet worked to promote women’s rights to vote. A white woman once asked Tubman whether she believed women ought to have the vote, and Tubman replied: “I suffered enough to believe it.” Tubman began attending meetings of women’s rights organization and was soon working alongside women such as Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland.
10. She had brain surgery late in her life. As she got older, the seizures, headaches, and suffering from her childhood head trauma continued. In the late 1890s, she underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Tubman received no anesthesia for the procedure reportedly choosing instead to bite down on a bullet, as she had seen Civil War soldiers do when their limbs were amputated.
11. Harriet Tubman died broke in 1913. Her lifelong charity and generosity toward her family and fellow ex-slaves, coupled with poor financial investments, left her in desperate financial straits. Still, she continued to donate what little she had to various causes including giving some of her property near her home in Auburn, New York, as a home for the aged.
In honor of the Tubman-Bowley connection to Georgetown, my next article will highlight 11 things James Bowley accomplished that Harriet Tubman could never have dreamed of when she rescued him in 1850.
To all of you who donated to our campaign to erect a street marker of Tubman-Bowley this September, as well as bring Kate Clifton Lawson to Georgetown, I sincerely thank you. The response has been truly phenomenal.