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Harriet Tubman is an American icon who was enslaved and rose to become the leader of the Underground Railroad, which facilitated many slaves to gain liberty before the civil war began. She was a nurse who also acted as the Union’s spy while a bounty on her head had been placed (Krasner 2). Harriet was born in 1820 and worked as a cook before being rented as a muskrat traps setter. At the age of twelve, she began her quest for justice, but this led to a head injury due to heavy weight that was thrown at her but intended to hit another fugitive (Mcelya 1). The traumatic head injury made her dizzy and hypersomnia. She began to have strange visions and elaborate dreams and believed that they were from God. Religious background and the experience led her to be religiously devout. Harriet was a major activist for the suffrage of women movement. She was married to John Tubman, who was a free black man and acquired his second name.
Since Harriet got a head injury, she never regained normal health. This led to a major sickness in 1849, which rendered her useless as a slave, and her master could not get a buyer for her. She was discontented to learn of her master trying to sell her and continuous enslaving her relatives further (Larson 7). After the death of Edward Brodess, his wife wanted to sell Tubman and her relatives, but she decided to liberate herself. She believed that it was either liberty or death for her to be free despite persuasion from her husband. Harriet managed to escape together with her brothers in the same year she got sick. Her escape was hardly noticed by Brodess’s wife Eliza for two weeks (Whitehead 3). Eliza decided to offer a $100 bounty for every escapee and posted it on the Cambridge Democrat. Following the bounty, her brothers decided to return, and this forced Tubman to return with them.
Tubman did not stay long before she planned and executed another escape alone. She informed her mother of her planned escape through an encoded message in the form of a song. She escaped using the Underground Railroad route, which is not exactly known. This route network had been well established by other free and enslaved black people, white abolitionists, and other people who fought for the rights of others. The Quakers were dominant members of the Underground Railroad movement in Maryland (Broyld 7). It is believed that from Maryland, Tubman traveled through Preston close to Poplar Neck and then headed to Pennsylvania through Delaware. Through the journey, she traveled at night and followed the North Star as the direction guider. This enabled her to hide from the slave catchers who hunted for escaped fugitives and collected their bounties. To ensure protection, the conductors of the movement had to use deception techniques so as not to be recognized (Clinton 30). One would be given some chores so as to appear as to be working for a certain family during the day and at night be transferred to another household using a cart.
While in Philadelphia in 1850, the U.S. Congress approved the fugitive slave law, which advocated for a hefty punishment for those slaves that escaped. The law enforcers in all States were forced to assist in capturing the escapees. This made it difficult for Harriet Tubman to remain free. Following notice on the sale of her niece and her two children, Tubman hid in Baltimore with her brother-in-law Tom Tubman. Her niece Kessiah and the children managed to escape with the help of John Bowley using a canoe to Baltimore, where they reunited with Tubman (Larson 14). In 1851, she returned to Maryland and escaped with her brother Moses and two other men. When she traveled to Dorchester County to meet her husband, she learned that he had married another woman. Tubman tried to persuade them to follow her, but they refused to claim that they were comfortable with their lives (Whitehead 4). John Tubman was later killed sixteen years later due to a confrontation with a white man.
By December of 1851, Tubman managed to escape with eleven fugitives and headed north. The Fugitive Law of 1851 had made life unbearable for the escaped fugitives, and the only option was to escape. Evidence indicates that Tubman and the eleven fugitives visited Fredrick Douglass, who was an abolitionist and a former slave (Clinton 32). Tubman’s continuous assistance for the escape of slaves gave her more confidence to continue with the work she had started. The returns to Maryland led to saving another seventy slaves over a period of eleven years. It is believed that this took thirteen returns to achieve. Approximately another sixty slaves managed to escape northwards without Tubman, but they were given instructions by her (Broyld 7). She managed to lead a group of eight fugitives harbored by her father when she learned of the possibility of his arrest. Her efforts to assist slaves into freedom from the whites earned her the nickname ‘Moses’, comparing her to the biblical Moses, who assisted the people of Israel in gaining freedom from the Egyptians.
Achieving such tremendous and noble tasks was not easy for Tubman as there was a bounty on her head. It took a lot of determination and courage to carry out the plans. She came up with an ingenious plan that worked marvelously. Every time she had to escape with the slaves, it had to be during the winter season. During this time, it was cold, and people had to stay at home (Calkhoven 15). Also, the nights are longer and the day time shorter. Therefore it would be easier for her to flee unnoticed at night and travel for long hours the night with the fugitives. She always made early contact with the slaves, and the escape would be conducted on Saturday evening. This was because the runaways were not printed on weekends and had to wait until Monday (Hobson 6). This would give them ample time to be far from the bounty hunters. The art of subterfuge played a major role in hiding the slaves. They would pretend to carry out normal errands and thus go unnoticed as escapees.
Tubman was a staunch religious believer and used her visions to guide her and the others as they escaped. She altered songs to inform the fugitives when it was safe and unsafe in their journey. Due to the success achieved, more slaves believed opted to follow her (Krasner 112). She used to carry a revolver, which offered security and never feared using it when required. It is believed that the revolver was also used to threaten any slave who would try to return back or escape. Due to her methods of escaping with the slaves, the slaveholders did not know that it was Tubman who was responsible as she was considered disabled due to the head injury (Broyld 2). They thought that there was a white abolitionist who lured the slaves to himself from the region. When they came to realize it was Tubman, a huge bounty of about $40,000 was given for her in 1868.
Tubman met John Brown, an abolitionist, in 1858, and the two believed to have a divine calling. Brown believed that slavery would only be abolished by the use of violence, while Tubman advocated for peaceful means. However, she decided to support his ideology of direct action. Brown sourced support from activists, abolitionists, and fugitives to form a movement that would attack the slave masters (Clinton 65). He met with Chatham Ontario and gave him his plan. The plan was leaked, forcing Brown to change it. Tubman offered invaluable strategies adding them to the plan. However, the plan failed, and Brown was arrested, convicted for treason and hanged. Tubman considered his death as worth more than a hundred living men who were not resisting slavery (Calkhoven 20). Brown’s resistance gave many slaves and abolitionists the courage to fight more for freedom.
In 1861, the American civil war began, and this was an opportunity for Tubman to help in ending slavery. Due to the help that slaves got from the army, Tubman felt that the Union Army would be the solution to slavery. She wanted to assist the Union with her expertise and thus became a spy (Larson 14). She joined other abolitionists, where she was able to assist more fugitives. The Union’s generals, such as Benjamin Butler and David Hunter, supported the abolition of slavery and ordered the freeing of contrabands in the regions. Former slaves joined the army regiment and thus empowered the black community in the fight against enslavement (Hobson 4). At Port Royal, while an abolitionist and a spy, Tubman became a nurse where she made concoctions of traditional plants for the treatment of dysentery and smallpox.
In 1863, Tubman led an army assault. She then joined Montgomery at the Combahee River and raided plantations using steamboats (Krasner 121). They managed to destroy properties worth thousands of dollars using fire and also seize food. When the slaves in the area saw this, they ran towards the boats together with their belongings and children (Calkhoven 24). Over seven hundred and fifty slaves gained freedom during that raid, and Tubman was hailed for the work. She continued to work with the Union Army until 1865, when she went back home. In 1869 she was involved in an argument with a train conductor. The conductor wanted her to move to the baggage car, but she refused as she had papers allowing her to be in the half-price area. The conductor was assisted by two other white passengers and got Tubman into the baggage section. Her hand got broken, and this act of defiance has been hailed since then (Broyld 11). She spent the rest of her life with her family in Auburn.
Harriet Tubman played a major role in the abolishment of slavery in the Northern region of America. She used to be a slave but got injured on the head and could not be sold as a slave. The injury gave her visions, which she believed were from God. She managed to escape and began her journey as a freedom fighter for people of color who had been enslaved. Through many returns to Maryland, she managed to escape with more fugitives to freedom despite having a bounty on her head. She met with many abolitionists and planned more for the fight for the end of slavery. When she joined the Union army, she led an attack that saw over 750 slaves were rescued. Her works are remembered today in American history as an icon. In her old age, she advocated for women’s suffrage as she believed that women had equal rights to vote as men. Suffragist activism earned her more admiration in America.
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Calkhoven, L. Harriet Tubman: Leading the way to freedom. Sterling Publishing Company, 2008.
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Krasner, B. Harriet Tubman: Abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017.
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Mcelya, M. “:Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, And History”. The American Historical Review, vol 113, no. 4, 2008, pp. 1163-1163. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1086/ahr.113.4.1163.
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