The exact year of Harriet Tubman’s birth is unknown due to conflicting documents, it was most likely between 1820 and 1822. Her parents gave her the name Araminta Ross and called her Minty. Born a slave in Maryland, Tubman was hired out by her owner as a young girl, and according to her later accounts was the target of numerous beatings. Tubman’s education was limited to the hearing of Bible stories as told by her mother, but she also claimed that her mother had little time for her as a child, as her work in the plantation mansion kept her from her own family. As a teenager Tubman began experiencing what she called visions, in the form of dreams.
A head injury she sustained when one of her masters struck her on the head with a thrown object led to lifelong seizures which may have been epileptic in nature. She married a free black named John Tubman sometime around 1844. She also began calling herself Harriet in the 1840s. When her frequent illnesses lowered her value as a worker, her owner attempted to sell her, but died before a sale was consummated. The death of her owner made the likelihood of several slaves being sold, common when estates were settled at the time, and rather than waiting to be sold Harriet and two of her brothers decided to escape slavery.
After her brothers had second thoughts they forced Harriet to return with them. Harriet subsequently escaped again, this time alone, and made her way north to Philadelphia using the Underground Railroad along Maryland’s Eastern Shore and through Delaware. Tubman began operating as a conductor on the system, her first-hand knowledge of the swamps and bogs along the Eastern Shore provided numerous hiding places for escaping slaves during daylight hours, and allowed her to serve as a reliable guide while moving on foot at night. Tubman became a regular conductor on the Underground Railroad for the next eleven years.
Tubman made about a dozen trips to the Eastern Shore over the remaining years before the outbreak of the Civil War, escorting about 70 escaping slaves over the system. She also made trips along the northern portion of the Underground Railroad, guiding escaped slaves to the Canadian border. Most of her trips were made during the winter months, to take advantage of the longer period of darkness each night. Despite her success, the myth that Southern slave owners offered a $40,000 reward for her capture is just that – a myth. The existence of a reward of that amount has never been found in any periodical of the day, and the amount was greater than that offered for John Wilkes Booth after he killed the President.
Much of the Harriet Tubman story is similarly exaggerated. Often overlooked is her work with abolitionist John Brown to help him recruit men for his raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. There is much more to her story, including her activities during the Civil War, but her last trip as a conductor on the Underground Railroad was undertaken beginning in November 1860. By then Tubman had a home in Auburn, New York, and most of her extended family lived in the same community, having returned from Canada. Her career as a conductor came to an end when the party she was guiding reached Auburn near the end of December, 1860.