Abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
Slave, Abolitionist, Humanitarian, and Union Spy
(1822 - March 10, 1913)
|Harriet Tubman (c. 1910)
|Harriet Tubman (c. 1910)
Harriet Tubman, a fugitive slave who personally escorted over 300 slaves to freedom,
was known for thinking her way through perilous situations. Her ingenuity is illustrated in an incident that occurred in 1860
in Troy, New York, in which she set her mind to setting free a fugitive who had been captured and was being held at the office
of the United States Commissioner.
The slave, a man named Charles Nalle, did escape--thanks to Tubman's efforts.
He later bought his freedom from his master, a man who also happened to be his younger, half-brother.
The following excerpt was taken from Harriet Tubman, The Moses of Her People.
The story was told to the book's author, Sarah Bradford, in an interview with Harriet Tubman.
Incident in Troy, New York
In the spring of 1860, Harriet Tubman was requested by Mr. Gerrit Smith
to go to Boston to attend a large Anti-Slavery meeting. On her way, she stopped at Troy to visit a cousin, and while there
the colored people were one day startled with the intelligence that a fugitive slave, by the name of Charles Nalle, had been
followed by his master (who was his younger brother, and not one grain whiter than he), and that he was already in the hands
of the officers, and was to be taken back to the South. The instant Harriet heard the news, she started for the office of
the United States Commissioner, scattering the tidings as she went. An excited crowd was gathered about the office, through
which Harriet forced her way, and rushed up stairs to the door of the room where the fugitive was detained. A wagon was already
waiting before the door to carry off the man, but the crowd was even then so great, and in such a state of excitement, that
the officers did not dare to bring the man down. On the opposite side of the street stood the colored people, watching the
window where they could see Harriet's sun-bonnet, and feeling assured that so long as she stood there, the fugitive was still
in the office. Time passed on, and he did not appear. 'They've taken him out another way, depend upon that," said some of
the colored people. "No," replied others, "there stands ‘Moses' yet, and as long as she is there, he is safe." Harriet, now
seeing the necessity for a tremendous effort for his rescue, sent out some little boys to cry fire. The bells rang, the crowd
increased, till the whole street was a dense mass of people. Again and again the officers came out to try and clear the stairs,
and make a way to take their captive down; others were driven down, but Harriet stood her ground, her head bent and her arms
folded. "Come, old woman, you must get out of this," said one of the officers; "I must have the way, cleared; if you can't
get down alone, some one will help you." Harriet, still putting on a greater appearance of decrepitude, twitched away from
him, and kept her place. Offers were made to buy Charles from his master, who at first agreed to take twelve hundred dollars
for him; but when this was subscribed, he immediately raised the price to fifteen hundred. The crowd grew more excited. A
gentleman raised a window and called out, "Two hundred dollars for his rescue, but not one cent to his master! " This was
responded to by a roar of satisfaction from the crowd below. At length the officers appeared, and announced to the crowd,
that if they would open a lane to the wagon, they would promise to bring the man down the front way.
The lane was opened, and the man was brought out -- a tall, handsome, intelligent
white man, with his wrists manacled together, walking between the U. S. Marshal and another officer, and behind him his brother
and his master, so like him that one could hardly be told from the other. The moment they appeared, Harriet roused from her
stooping posture, threw up a window, and cried to her friends: "Here he comes -- take him!" and then darted down the stairs
like a wild-cat. She seized one officer and pulled him down, then another, and tore him away from the man; and keeping her
arms about the slave, she cried to her friends: “Drag us out! Drag him to the river! Drown him! but don't let them have him!"
They were knocked down together, and while down, she tore off her sun-bonnet and tied it on the head of the fugitive. When
he rose, only his head could be seen, and amid the surging mass of people the slave was no longer recognized, while the master
appeared like the slave. Again and again they were knocked down, the poor slave utterly helpless, with his manacled wrists,
streaming with blood. Harriet's outer clothes were torn from her, and even her stout shoes were pulled from her feet, yet
she never relinquished her hold of the man, till she had dragged him to the river, where he was tumbled into a boat, Harriet
following in a ferry-boat to the other side. But the telegraph was ahead of them, and as soon as they landed he was seized
and hurried from her sight. After a time, some school children came hurrying along, and to her anxious inquiries they answered,
"He is up in that house, in the third story." Harriet rushed up to the place. Some men were attempting to make their way up
the stairs. The officers were firing down, and two men were lying on the stairs, who had been shot. Over their bodies our
heroine rushed, and with the help of others burst open the door of the room, and dragged out the fugitive, whom Harriet carried
down stairs in her arms. A gentleman who was riding by with a fine horse, stopped to ask what the disturbance meant; and on
hearing the story, his sympathies seemed to be thoroughly aroused; he sprang from his wagon, calling out, "That is a blood-horse,
drive him till be drops." The poor man was hurried in; some of his friends jumped in after him, and drove at the most rapid
rate to Schenectady.
Source: Harriet, the Moses of her people, by Sarah H. Bradford, New York,
For the Author by G.R. Lockwood & Son, 1886.
Recommended Reading: Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton. Publishers Weekly: Clinton has an extraordinary
knack of compressing complex history into an informing brief paragraph or a single sentence, making this "first full-scale
biography" of Tubman (18251913) a revelation. To the task of illuminating the "difficult to document" life of the woman known
as "Moses," Clinton brings her deep immersion in Southern
history, women's history and African-American history. Continued below…
she sets the stage upon which Tubman moves, offering just enough biographical detail to give less well-known figures vitality
(Mary Shadd Cary gets more space than Frederick Douglass; Union general David Hunter more than William Lloyd Garrison) and
just enough historical detail to render Tubman's milieu meaningful (unfamiliar Canadian history gets more space than the familiar
Fugitive Slave Acts). Although she often posed as an old woman, Tubman was in her 20s when she began her rescues, and in her
mid-30s as the Civil War broke out. Clinton is meticulous (without being annoying) in distinguishing the
speculative from the known in Tubman's private life. Of far greater consequence is Clinton's
revelation of Tubman's public (though usually clandestine) work. In distinguishing between "runaways" and "fugitives," between
"conductors" and "abductors... those who ventured into the South to extract slaves" ("all of them white men" before Tubman),
in detailing the extent to which she "never wavered in her support" of John Brown, in chronicling her role in the Combahee
River raid, Clinton turns sobriquets into meaningful descriptors of a unique person. In her hands, a familiar legend acquires
human dimension with no diminution of its majesty and power.
Recommended Reading: Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad. Description: Born a slave, Harriet Tubman dreamed of freedom.
And through hard work and her willingness to risk everything-including her life-she was able to make that dream come true.
But after making her escape, Harriet realized that her own freedom was not enough. So she became a conductor on the Underground
Railroad, and devoted her life to helping others make the journey out of bondage. An invisible threat to plantation owners,
she served as a symbol of strength and inspiration for her people. She was the legendary "Moses," delivering hundreds from
the desert of slavery. With indisputable narrative skill, Ann Petry recreates the life of a woman of great strength, bravery,
and unshakable moral fiber.
Recommended Reading: Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life. From Publishers Weekly: No escaped
slave's story grips the American imagination as deeply as Harriet Tubman's, with the melodrama and near mythic grandeur of
her frequent returns to slave territory to rescue her family members and scores of others. Since Tubman (1822–1913)
never learned to read or write, her story comes second or third hand, offering researchers a challenge and creative nonfiction
writers an opportunity. Continued below…
Lowry, a novelist
and author of a re-creation of the life of the first African-American woman entrepreneur, Madame C.J. Walker (Her Dream of
Dreams, 2003), "reimagined" Tubman's life in four parts: her childhood as a field slave called Araminta; her marriage, escape
and early "rescues" when she was known as Harriet; her legendary Underground Railroad years when she was called Moses; the
Civil War years when she was scout and courier for the Union army (John Brown dubbed her "the General"); and her postbellum
work with emancipated slaves. Lowry carries the reader through the milestones without slipping into a morass of detail, through
legal thickets (largely created by treating persons as property) and Tubman's encounters with many abolitionists without meandering.
Tubman's life invites imagining, and Lowry's reader-friendly book, which "does not pretend to be a work of intense scholarship,"
presents her story with a novelist's sense of pace, suspense and speculation.
Reading: Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero. From Publishers Weekly: Few American historical figures are as familiar in legend
as Tubman (1822?-1913), and as little known in fact. Although at least 30 juvenile biographies have treated her, Larson's
is the first adult biography to appear since Earl Conrad's Harriet Tubman (1943). This pedestrian (in the neutral sense) account
presents new investigative sources, utilizing court records and contemporary local newspapers, wills and letters, along with
legal and illegal transactions. Continued below…
tangled traffic as Tubman and her relatives are "passed down through several generations"; she traces the lives of the white
owners as well the black "blended community of free and enslaved people" on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Tubman grew up in slavery and where she returned time and again to
spirit slaves to freedom. In recounting Tubman's routes and ruses, as the figure known as "Moses," Larson freshly identifies
many of the escapees as she delineates the solid role of free and enslaved blacks in the Underground Railroad. She identifies
Tubman's "sleeping spells, periods of semi-consciousness," as temporal lobe epilepsy. With Tubman's support of John Brown
and her activities during the Civil War, Larson arrives where the Tubman legend usually ends with Tubman immortalized "forever
as an Underground Railroad Agent and Civil War spy." As in the only other adult biography, Sarah Bradford's Scenes in the
Life of Harriet Tubman (1869), Larson follows her subject into her post-Civil War life supporting freedmen in the South and
tending to a large household, including a young woman Larson speculates may have been Tubman's daughter.
Recommended Reading: Harriet Tubman: The Life
and the Life Stories (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography) (Hardcover).
Publishers Weekly: Conductor of the Underground
Railroad for eight years, Harriet Tubman famously boasted that she could say what most conductors couldn't: "I never run my
train off the track and I never lost a passenger." The quote fits with the popular image of Tubman as the courageous, inspired
"Moses of Her People," yet Humez, a professor of women's studies and scholar of African-American spiritual autobiography,
argues that the edifice of Tubman iconography has concealed the woman herself. Humez has assembled a trove of primary source
documents-letters, diaries, memorials, speeches, articles, meeting minutes and testimonies-that create a more intimate portrait
of Tubman. Continued below…
of interpreting the rich materials she has collected, Humez offers a biography of Tubman and then includes a scholarly article
asserting that since Tubman was illiterate, and her stories and correspondence have been recorded by others, "such texts cannot
be read at face value" and must be understood to have undergone at least minimal changes from the author's original statements.
Although Humez's prose lacks narrative flair, she aptly places Tubman in a broad historical context, documenting her relations
to John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Frederic Douglass, Northern abolitionists and the nascent women's movement.
The book is at its best in the last two primary-source sections. Through Tubman's documented words and the observations of
others, "Aunt Harriet" emerges as an even more charismatic figure than American history has allowed: profoundly spiritual,
irreverent, witty, wise, impoverished and ultimately neglected by the Union she defended.