Harriet Tubman: An Inspiring Life

Discover more about Harriet Tubman—abolitionist, suffragette and Union spy.

Abolitionist, suffragette and Union spy Harriet Tubman led a fascinating and inspiring life. While you may recognize her name, you may be surprised to learn some of the details about the life of this iconic American hero.


Guideposts: A woodcutting depicting Harriet Tubman as a young woman

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Abolitionist, Union spy and suffragette Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in Dorchester, Maryland, around 1822 (her exact date of birth is not known). She was one of nine children born to enslaved parents Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross. 

Guideposts: An 1880 portrait of Harriet Tubman

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As a child, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her masters, even suffering a traumatic head injury that caused her to experience seizures and headaches for the rest of her life.

Guideposts: A portrait of Harriet Tubman

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Around 1840, Tubman’s father was freed in the will of his enslaver. Tubman later learned that her mother, too, was supposed to be freed at the age of 45 and that any children she gave birth after that point would be free, but Tubman had little legal recourse to follow up on this discovery. Around 1844, Tubman changed her name to Harriet and married a free black man named John Tubman.

Guideposts: Harriet Tubman (far left) with family and neighbors, circa 1887, at her home in Auburn, NY.

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In 1849, Tubman was suffering with poor health. When her enslaver, Edward Brodess, died, she feared her relatives would be sold off. “There was one of two things I had a right to,” Tubman later explained. “Liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” She managed to escape with the assistance of the Underground Railroad, traveling by foot under the cover of darkness until she reached Pennsylvania. “When I found I had crossed that [state] line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” said Tubman, a devout Christian. “There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” After escaping, she completed 19 trips to the South, rescuing more than 300 people over 10 years.

Guideposts: A 1910 portrait of Harriet Tubman

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When the Civil War broke out, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a nurse and a cook and eventually as a scout and a spy. In 1863, she led the raid at Combahee Ferry, which saw the liberation of more than 700 slaves. At war’s end, she retired to a farm she had purchased in upstate New York to care for her aging parents, but she remained active in social causes. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement until her health intervened. She died in 1913.

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