17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero

D.G. Hewitt - August 13, 2018

Harriet Tubman is widely regarded as one of the most important Americans who ever lived. Despite her humble origins, she rose to become a hero of the abolitionist movement, and then a hero of the Civil War. She was famous in her day – or infamous to slave owners and then the Confederacy – but achieved real fame after her death.

Tubman’s was a colorful, fascinating and long life – even if nobody knows exactly how long it was. Moreover, her legacy has been longer still. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement in 1950s and 60s America looked to her for inspiration, especially the women. What’s more, she’s still widely regarded as a hero today, with her bravery and moral courage admired by millions.

So who was Harriet Tubman? How did she escape a life of slavery in the bigoted South? And how did she grow up to become at first a living legend and then an icon of American history? Here’s all you need to know, and more, about this great life:

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Harriet Tubman’s exact date of birth wasn’t even known to her. Mashable

Nobody knows when exactly she was born

When she later claimed for a pension following the end of the Civil War, Tubman noted that the year of her birth was either 1820, 1822 or 1825. And that was about as close as she was able to guess. She had no clue what day or even what month she was born. Tragically, this was all too common for those who were born into slavery.

Historians looking into the matter generally agree with Tubman’s own estimates. Most researchers believe that she was either born in 1822 or 1825. There are some interesting clues to support this. As well as an invoice from a midwife working on the plantation where Tubman’s family were enslaved, there’s the ‘Wanted’ poster that was put up when she managed to escape to freedom. What’s more, in addition to the pension claim form, there’s Tubman’s death certificate and her gravestone. Combined, these show just how hard it is to come up with a concrete date of birth for one of America’s most-respected heroes.

What is known is that Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, into slavery. Little is known about her ancestors, aside from the fact that her grandmother (on her mother’s side) was taken from Africa and brought to America to work as a slave. Again, however, the year of her arrival on American soil is unknown and likely to remain so. The historical records do show, however, that young Harriet had eight brothers and sisters, namely: Linah (born in 1808), Mariah Ritty (1811), Soph (1813), Robert (1816), Ben (1823), Rachel (1825), Henry (1830), and Моses (1832). In a neat twist, Harriet would gain the nickname Moses in later life, thanks to her heroic work bringing slaves to freedom.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Harriet Tubman was more commonly known as ‘Minty’ by friends and family. Pinterest.

Harriet wasn’t the name she was born with

Harriet Tubman was actually born Araminta Ross. From a very early age, however, she was known by the affectionate nickname of “Minty”. It was as Minty that she grew up on a plantation and this was the name her owners used when addressing her, either out in the field or in the house when she started work as a cook and house slave.

Why she changed her name is a matter of some debate among historians. Certainly, Tubman herself never confirmed the reason behind her decision. In 1844, she met and married John Tubman. While he was also a man of color, he was a freeman. Such a union between a free person and a slave were far from uncommon in the South at the time. Minty took his surname, becoming Araminta Tubman. In a cruel twist, however, the law stated that any children born to the couple would be enslaved.

It was only when she had made her plans to escape to freedom that Tubman changed her first name. On the one hand, this was for practical reasons: changing her name would make it harder for the slaveowners to trace her and try and bring her back. But on the other hand, it was also a deeply personal decision. Tubman’s mother was called Harriet and so she chose the name to honor her and preserve her legacy. Notably, however, the change of name was not recognized under American law. Nevertheless, the name stuck and, once she reached freedom, she was able to build a new life with the name of her choosing.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
As a young girl on the plantation, Harriet was often rebellious. Wikipedia.

She was a born rebel

To say that Tubman had a tough childhood would be a significant understatement. As a young child, she was required to look after her younger brothers or sisters when their mother was away for long spells working in her owner’s home. Then, when Tubman herself was five or six years old, she was forced into domestic service herself. She was employed as a nursemaid and required to look after her owner’s baby through the night. If the baby woke and cried out, Tubman would be whipped.

Such cruelty at such a young age did not, however, break Tubman. In fact, it made her stronger. She carried out little acts of rebellion. She learned to wear several layers of clothing at all times. Though this might have been uncomfortable while working long days in the summer, it offered some protection from her mistress’s beatings. Tubman would also fight back against her mistress, even if this ended up getting her into more trouble.

Increasingly, Tubman looked to her faith for guidance on how to endure life as a slave. Like many fellow slaves, she shunned the New Testament, where slaves are advised to behave and accept their lot in life. Rather, Tubman found comfort and inspiration in the books of the Old Testament. Here, the slaves fought back and eventually escaped to their freedom. From a young age, then, Tubman dreamed of deliverance and liberty. Indeed, as a child, she even ran away from her plantation for one day or several days, though she always came back. Tubman would have to wait until she was older and stronger until she could run away for good.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
A serious injury as a child afflicted Tubman for many years. Charleston City Paper.

She claimed her unruly hair once saved her life

Tubman’s rebelliousness as a child slave would often result in whippings or beatings. However, on one notable occasion, she paid a much higher price for a little act of resistance. And it was something that would affect her for the rest of her long life. The exact date of the incident has been lost to history. However, thanks to Tubman’s own testimony, we know almost all of the details.

It was a day when Tubman was sent out on errands rather than forced to work in her master’s home. Upon reaching the store, she came across a young slave boy. He was ‘owned’ by another family and had been caught attempting to run away. The slave’s plantation supervisor ordered Tubman to help restrain the boy. Bravely, she defied his orders. The slave boy managed to break free and run away.

As he was running, the cruel overseer threw a metal weight at him. He missed and the weight hit Tubman on the head instead. She was knocked unconscious and was bleeding heavily from the head. According to Tubman’s own recollections, had it not been for the fact that her hair was thick and unruly after years of not being able to cut it, she would have been killed outright. As it was, she was carried back to her owner’s house. He tried to sell her, fearing she would be of no use to him, but was unsuccessful.

Tubman’s family looked after her for several days as she drifted in and out of consciousness. She suffered fits and even started falling asleep suddenly and with no warning. This narcolepsy, as well as the fits, stayed with her for many years, a lasting testament to both the cruelty of the plantation owners and their staff, and to Tubman’s bravery.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Like many slave children, Harriet never learned to read and write. Pinterest.

She was illiterate – but that didn’t hinder her!

Like almost all slave children, young Harriet (or ‘Minty’ as she was known during her early years) received no formal education. She was too busy working to study, and even if she had free time, there were no schools for slave children. As such, she never learned to read and write. Any education she did get, she received from her mother reading her bible stories.

Tubman’s lack of literary skills didn’t stop her in her heroic work. While she couldn’t communicate with escaping slaves or other fellow freedom fighters through letters, she did have one key advantage: she would often sing to the fleeing slaves, using slang and dialect that no white people could hope to understand.

What’s more, according to legend, Tubman’s illiteracy also saved her from being captured. The tale goes that she was travelling by train one time when she one of her former masters boarded. Fearing she would be recognized and reported, she grabbed a newspaper. She started to pretend to read and hoped for the best. The ploy worked – the white slaveowner had seen her ‘Wanted’ poster. It stated on here that Tubman, an escaped slave, was illiterate. Amazingly, the ploy worked. The slaveowner and his companions simply ignored the woman with the newspaper and Tubman remained free to carry on her secret work.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Tubman’s first escape alongside her brothers made the news. Wikipedia.

Her teenage escape made the news

In 1849, Tubman and her fellow slaves heard a rumor they were to be sold. Fearing that they might end up working under an even crueler owner, they made the decision to escape. By this point, Tubman was married. Her husband, John Tubman, refused to join her, however. He was already a free man and knew the risks that came with escaping to the north.

Initially, Tubman was joined by two of her brothers on her escape. They had no maps (not that they would have been able to read them) but knew they needed to head north. They followed the north Star, therefore, and made slow but steady progress. Before long, however, Tubman’s brothers changed their minds. One of them had just become a father and convinced his two siblings to turn back. They all did, their escape having gone unnoticed. But, a few days later, Tubman decided to go for it again, even if she had to escape alone. Famously, she recalled: “There was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other.”

She relied on the Underground Railroad for her escape. Their secret supporters passed her along the well-trod route over the Mason-Dixon line. However, while Tubman’s might be one of the most famous escapes, and one of the most notable victories of the heroic Underground Railroad, very little is actually known about her life-changing journey. It’s highly likely that followed the Choptank River through the state of Delaware and then crossed the line close to Pennsylvania. In all, historians of the era believe she covered 90 miles on foot. How long it took Tubman to reach Pennsylvania – and freedom – is not known.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Tubman became one of the most legendary figures of the Underground Railroad. Wikipedia.

A price was put on her head

Since Tubman would often work on other plantations and was even occasionally hired out to work for other families, her absence was not immediately apparent. In fact, it was a full two weeks before a runaway notice was placed in the local newspaper when Tubman first escaped along with her two brothers. On this occasion, the note, published in the Cambridge Democrat offered a reward of $100 for each of the three runaways.

In some histories of Tubman’s life, there’s mention of a much larger reward being placed on her head a few years later. According to some accounts, this might have been as large as $5,000, with slaveowners coming to realize her key role in making the Underground Railroad a success. There is, however, no proof that such a huge reward was ever offered, though rumors of it have only helped add to Tubman’s legendary status.

That’s not to say that there was no effort made to capture Tubman. As soon as she became involved in the Underground Railroad, she placed herself at significant personal risk. Right across the South, professional ‘slave catchers’ made a living capturing escaping slaves and returning them to their owners. Most had dogs and were violent and cruel in their methods. Before long, rumors of a small, illiterate former slave lady leading groups of escapees to the north started circulating. Tubman became one of the most-wanted people in all of America. It was only her cunning and caution that kept her from being captured and sent back to slave on a plantation – or even a fate worse than enslavement.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Harriet Tubman had a huge family, and she was determined to rescue them all. Pinterest.

She then helped her family find freedom

Upon reaching the city of Philadelphia, Tubman was safe and free. However, she was not content. As she wrote later: “I was a stranger in a strange land,” she said later. “[M]y father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were [in Maryland]. But I was free, and they should be free.” She found work as a domestic servant in the city, saving as much money as she could. Within a year, she had enough money to begin her work: she was about to become a ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad.

In December of 1850, Tubman received word that her niece, Kessiah and Kessiah’s two young children were due to be sold. She made a plan to rescue them. Tubman crossed back over into the South. Her brother-in-law hid her in Baltimore until the day of the slave auction. On the day of the sale, Kessiah’s husband, a freeman, made the winning bid. But instead of paying, he waited until the auctioneer went for lunch then they all made a break for it. Under cover of darkness, they sailed on a canoe to Baltimore. Here, they met up with Tubman and she led them to Philadelphia and to freedom.

Boosted by the success of her first mission, Tubman returned to Maryland the following spring. This time, she rescued her youngest brother, Moses, and two other men. Then, in the fall of 1851, Tubman vowed to return for her husband, John. She even saved up enough money to buy a new suit for him to wear while heading north. However, once she arrived in Maryland, she learned he had married another woman. So instead, Tubman agreed to take some other slaves – all strangers to her – with her across the Mason-Dixon Line.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Harriet Tubman believed God talked to her and guided her brave actions. Politico.

She was strongly motivated by her faith

Tubman’s decision to risk her life going back for family members is understandable enough. However, she then went back to the South to free more slaves – almost all of them complete strangers to her. As Tubman herself revealed later, it was her strong Christian faith, instilled in her while she was a young girl growing up on a slave plantation, that motivated her brave actions.

Ever since she was a child, Tubman claimed to have experienced vivid dreams, which she saw as messages from God. She also claimed to have seen visions. All this, along with her close reading of the New Testament, convinced her had a duty to help those still enslaved. What’s more, slaves who traveled the Underground Railroad guided by Tubman would reveal that, at points along the way, she would confer with God. Some even noted that, while many people got sick on the long, perilous journey, Tubman never did – something that again was interpreted as a sign of divine intervention.

In later life, Tubman devoted herself to her beloved church. Using what little money she had, and then the Civil War pension she was finally granted, she funded the construction of the Thompson African Methodist Episcopal Church, a movement that was initially founded by one-time slave Richard Allen. The church finally opened its doors in 1891. Upon her death, Tubman lay in state there for several day. The church still stands today, a living testament to Tubman’s unwavering faith.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Tubman often outsmarted slave hunters along the Underground Railroad. Black Matters US.

She was a cunning Underground Railroad ‘conductor’

For more than a decade, Tubman crossed back and forth into the Eastern Shore of Maryland to rescue slaves and guide them to freedom. It was dangerous, highly-risky work. The fact that Tubman managed to work undetected and maintain her freedom for so long is testament to her cunning. She knew the risks and so planned every trip meticulously. While she would improvise if necessary, for the most part, she liked to follow her own rules and demanded others obey her instructions to the letter.

Above all, she had a rule of working during winter months. Not only did this time of year offer more chance to hide and travel under the cover of darkness, it also meant that fewer people were out on the streets. What’s more, Tubman would look less conspicuous wrapped up in bundles of clothes, plus nobody would think twice about people being hidden away in their houses rather than out and about. As one contemporary of Tubman famously recalled of her methods: “She always came in the winter, when the nights are long and dark, and people who have homes stay in them.”

Tubman could do nothing to disguise the fact she was a short woman of color. But she did do her best to disguise herself. She would recycle a collection of bonnets and outfits. Additionally, she would always try and look busy: when she and some slaves were hiding out at a home on the Underground Railroad, for example, she might sweep the steps to make it look like she was a domestic servant. On other occasions, she would walk with live chickens under her arms. This way, white people would usually just ignore her, believing her to be a slave or servant running errands.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Tubman carried a gun on her missions, mainly to keep her party in line. Noir Guides.

It was dangerous work – so Tubman carried a gun

Tubman’s work was very dangerous indeed. All along the route of the Underground Railroad, slave-catchers and their dogs looked for runaways. They were armed and ruthless in their methods. While they preferred to capture slaves alive, they would not face prosecution for shooting them. Tubman knew full well the risks. But she carried on with her work anyway. She did, however, carry a gun with her at all times.

Interestingly, however, Tubman revealed that she carried a firearm not just to defend herself from slave-catchers. Rather, her primary reason for being armed was to ensure the slaves she was escorting maintained their discipline, followed her rules and, above all, didn’t quit. As she openly explained, she was prepared to shoot any escaping slave who threatened to give up. She argued: “If he was weak enough to give out, he’d be weak enough to betray us all, and all who had helped us; and do you think I’d let so many die just for one coward man.”

In the end, Tubman never needed to fire her weapon at a ‘cowardly’ slave. Just by carrying it, she earned a reputation as someone not to be messed with. Anyone joining her ‘train’ knew that quitting was simply not an option. There was only one occasion where her patience was truly tested in this way. Tubman told of how one time, a male slave informed the rest of the group that he intended to go back to the plantation. She simply took her gun, pointed it at his head and stated: “You go on or die.” He decided to go on – and within a few days, he and the rest of his party had made it safely into the United Province of Canada.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Dozens of slaves made it to Canada and freedom thanks to Tubman. Human Rights Canada.

Dozens of slaves owed their freedom to her

The records show that, over the course of her 10-year career volunteering on the Underground Railroad, Tubman made 19 separate trips into the South. Since every time she crossed the Mason-Dixon line she risked capture and being made a slave again – or even worse, since punishments for ‘runaways’ were cruel and even included death – she became a bone-fide legend. Indeed, in her day, Tubman became known as Moses after the biblical prophet who led his people to freedom.

Overall, it’s estimated that as many as 300 slaves owed their freedom to her. Notably, Tubman once told Frederick Douglass, who himself had escaped from slavery to become a prominent social reformer, that she had “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a single passenger” on her many journeys along the Underground Railroad.

At one point, Tubman turned up at the home of Douglass with a large group of escapees. He recalled: “On one occasion I had eleven fugitives at the same time under my roof, and it was necessary for them to remain with me until I could collect sufficient money to get them on to Canada. It was the largest number I ever had at any one time, and I had some difficulty in providing so many with food and shelter.”

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
John Brown needed fighters, and Tubman found them for him. NPR.

She recruited fighters for John Brown

By 1858, Tubman was something of a legend of the Underground Railroad. That spring she was introduced to the leading abolitionist John Brown. While some sought to abolish slavery through peaceful means alone, Brown felt violence could be justified. He wanted slaves to rise up. All he needed was a small army of men and their first battle would, Brown believe, trigger a widespread slave uprising across the South.

Tubman was attracted by Brown’s religious beliefs and passion. He in turn saw Tubman as a valuable asset. Above all, her knowledge of escape routes and support networks could be of huge value to Brown and his fellow abolitionists. What’s more, Brown knew that Tubman had helped slaves get to Ontario. He asked her to recruit men who might be willing to fight with him. “General Tubman” as he called her, agreed. Additionally, Tubman also helped raise funds to help Brown in his fight.

In the end, however, Tubman played no active part in Brown’s attack on the town of Harpers Ferry in Virginia. Instead, she was many miles away, giving pro-abolition talks and looking after her family. Her absence was a blessing. The raid failed, and Brown was captured. He was tried and convicted of treason. Brown was hanged in December 1858. Tubman was among those who saw him as a martyr for the abolitionist cause. She noted that Brown had “done more in dying than 100 men would in living.”

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Tubman spied, and even led armed men into battle, during the Civil War. National Geographic.

She was a spy during the Civil War

When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, Tubman and her fellow abolitionists sided with the Union. They saw the defeat of the Confederacy as an essential stepping stone to ending slavery for good. To begin with, Tubman served as a nurse. She ended to sick soldiers in Port Royal, including men suffering from smallpox. But, while she was a good nurse, she also had more useful skills, and these were soon put to good use by the Union military.

Working alongside Colonel James Montgomery, Tubman was tasked with leading scouting missions behind enemy lines. Using her experience of travelling undetected, she helped map the marshes and rivers of South Carolina. Her intelligence was crucial when Montgomery took the city of Jacksonville. Her scouting missions also helped the Union gain an idea of the morale of the people living on the other side of the frontlines. But Tubman wanted to do even more. She was, after all, a woman of action. And in the summer of 1863, her chance finally came.

Montgomery launched a series of raids on plantations dotted along the Combahee River. Tubman was put in charge of three steamboats. She guided them around mines, leading them safely to the river’s edge. There, Union troops fought the enemy in a series of skirmishes. Under the cover of fire, around 750 slaves ran to freedom, many of them boarding Tubman on the steamboats. Her heroism and leadership made headline news. What’s more, her bravery inspired many of those rescued slaves to join up and fight with the Union. After that heroic raid, however, Tubman largely returned to nursing and advocacy.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Tubman was owed a pension for her services to the Union, but had to wait 30 years to get it. Biography.com.

It took her 30 years to get her veteran’s pension

Despite her service and many achievements during the Civil War, Tubman had to wait three long decades before she received the pension she was owed. The official reason for this was that, while her wartime exploits for the Union were nothing short of legendary, there were no official records was of her service. This lack of compensation almost caused Tubman’s ruin.

In many instances, Tubman made financial sacrifices in order to carry out her work. This was especially true in the days she was helping slaves escape to safety. What’s more, by the 1860s, she having to take care of her elderly parents as well as herself. Thus, Tubman was almost destitute when she first applied for a veteran’s pension in the summer of 1865. She had numerous supporters, many of them very influential men. However, her appeals fell on deaf ears, with the lack of official documentation standing in the way of her and a steady income.

Finally, in 1890, with the death of her second husband, Tubman was able to receive a widow’s pension of $8 a month. But this wasn’t enough for her or her supporters. They kept campaigning and finally, in 1892, they succeeded. Congress passed a Bill granting Tubman a veteran’s pension of $25 a month in recognition for her services as a nurse during the Civil War. By this point, however, Tubman was almost 80 years old and had been forced to endure many years of financial suffering.

17 Incredible Things That Never Cease to Amaze Us About Harriet Tubman, A True American Hero
Harriet Tubman died a hero and got a hero’s farewell. Wikipedia.

She was buried with full military honors

Harriet Tubman died on 10 March 1913. She had been in poor health for many months. She was old and frail and finally succumbed to pneumonia. Since even Tubman herself couldn’t say when she was born, her age at death will never be known, though it’s likely she was around 88 or even 98 years old. Her Christian faith remained strong until the very end. In fact, her last words, spoken to friends and family gathered around her bed were: “I go to prepare a place for you.”

Some histories note that Tubman was buried with “full military honors”. This is only true. She was, in fact, buried with semi-military honors. She was laid to rest in the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York. A few months later, the city of Auburn erected a plaque commemorating Tubman’s life and work. To this day, however, there is much disagreement over the wording of the plaque. To some, the use of dialect (“I nebber run my train off de track”), while an accurate representation of how she herself spoke, is disrespectful.

Ever since her death, Tubman’s life has been remembered in a variety of ways. Right across the United States, schools and libraries have been named after her and numerous states erected. Tubman regularly appears towards the top of lists of the Greatest Americans who ever lived. Her supporters have long campaigned to have Tubman’s face on the US $20 bill, though it could be some years before their hopes are realized.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“In Search Of Back Pay For Heroine Of Civil War.” The New York Times, November 2003.

“Harriet Tubman.” National Women’s History Museum.

“Harriet Tubman.” U.S. National Park Service.

“What You Never Knew About Harriet Tubman.” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2017.

“The Life of Harriet Tubman.” New York History Net.

“Harriet Tubman Myths and Facts.” Harriet Tubman Biography.

“Harriet Tubman.” The Library of Congress, America’s Library.