Harriet Tubman, née Araminta "Minty" Ross, abolitionist, “conductor” of the Underground Railroad (born c. 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland; died 10 March 1913 in Auburn, New York). Tubman escaped from enslavement in the southern United States and went on to become a leading abolitionist before the American Civil War. She led numerous enslaved persons to freedom in the “free” Northern states and Canada through the Underground Railroad — a secret network of routes and safe houses that helped people escape enslavement.
Born into enslavement in Maryland, Harriet Tubman spent her childhood working without payment for the benefit of her owners. Preferring work in the fields, she learned to follow geographical directions and to use therapeutic herbs from her family and other enslaved persons. These survival skills became instrumental when Tubman realized that the only way she could gain her freedom was to run away.
In 1834, Tubman witnessed a young man attempting to escape. She was struck in the head by a heavy weight that had been thrown at the escaping man by his owner. She suffered a serious head injury, which caused her to suffer from seizures, hallucinations and sleep attacks for the rest of her life.
In 1844, she married John Tubman, a free Black man, though the marriage was not recognized by law and her enslavement persisted. She tried to convince him to run north with her, where they could both live in freedom, but he refused.
The Underground Railroad
After her owner died in March 1849, Tubman was in a difficult position. To settle debts, owners or their families would often sell their slaves and reduce their holdings. Tubman feared that she would be sold to another owner and fled north on her own. She made her way to Philadelphia with the assistance of Quakers active in the Underground Railroad.
Tubman worked in Philadelphia for a year to raise money to fund her first rescue mission. In December 1850, she heard that her niece Kessiah and her two daughters were to be auctioned off to another slaveholder. Tubman covertly returned to Maryland, where she helped them escape and guided them back to Philadelphia. So began her crusade as a "conductor."
Tubman received assistance from abolitionists such as Jermaine Loguen, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Garrett Jr., and William Still to help freedom-seekers reach safety along the secret network. These men operated stations of the Underground Railroad where fugitives could receive food, clothing and financial assistance.
At first, Tubman and her charges were safe upon their arrival in the Northern US. However, in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. According to the act, all refugee slaves in free Northern states could be returned to enslavement in the South once captured. Tubman therefore changed her escape route so that it ended in Canada. She then began and ended her rescues in St. Catharines, Canada West (Ontario), where she moved in 1851. "I wouldn't trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, but I brought 'em clear off to Canada," she later said.
Life in St. Catharines
St. Catharines was one of the Canadian “terminuses” of the Underground Railroad. When Tubman arrived in December 1851, she quickly found employment and rented a house on North Street. At the time, there was already a small Black community in the town, which was growing rapidly due to the arrival of freedom-seekers. By late 1855, according to a local newspaper, 500 Black people were living in St. Catharines, which then had a total population of 7,060. Only six years later, the American abolitionist William Wells Brown reported that the community encompassed 800 people and that “about seven hundred of them are fugitive slaves.”
Tubman’s neighbours included men and women who were coopers, shoemakers, woodcutters, domestics, and farmers. The centre of the Black settlement in St. Catharines was located only 100 metres away from Tubman’s home, at the intersection of North Street and Geneva Streets. Two churches were located there: the Zion Baptist Church, later led by famed fugitive Anthony Burns, and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Today, the AME church is a heritage site and is known as the Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church. Both churches provided spiritual and social support to the growing free community.
Tubman lived in her North Street home with members of her family. She continued her humanitarian efforts in St. Catharines, frequently opening her doors to other newly arrived refugees. Tubman also offered food and clothing to those in need. She was involved in a charity established by Reverend Hiram Wilson to assist newly arrived fugitives. In 1861, she founded a benevolent organization with her brother William Henry called the Fugitive Aid Society of St. Catharines to provide recent refugees with aid. Tubman even took in orphaned children from the area.
In 1858, she met John Brown, the revolutionary leader of the attack on Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Tubman supported his plan to lead a rebellion against enslavement in the American south. She hosted a meeting at her home to find recruits for Brown and to share information that would be useful to his plot. Brown wanted “General Tubman” to accompany him in the uprising, but her health condition prevented her from joining him.
Tubman resided in the Niagara Region town between 1851 and 1861 for varying periods of time while she continued her rescue missions in Maryland.
Tubman’s daring rescue incursions were well-organized. She forged her own routes through the swamps and forests of various states, using the North Star to navigate her path. She travelled only during the night and hid her passengers during the day in inconspicuous locations. Tubman created her own network of safe houses and employed many strategies to conceal her charges and their identities. For instance, several of her missions left on a Saturday night in order to buy enough time before runaway notices were published in Monday’s newspaper. In total, Tubman made at least 10 trips and transported at least 70 people, her own family included, to freedom in Canada. Remarkably, she always eluded pursuit and never lost a passenger.
Return to the United States
Harriet Tubman moved her parents and her brother John to Auburn, New York, in 1859. The two previous winters were too harsh for her elderly parents, who were unhappy in St. Catharines. New York Senator William Seward had offered Tubman a house and land for purchase on very reasonable terms in Auburn, where there was a small community of freedom-seekers from Dorchester County, Maryland. Tubman began giving lectures at anti-slavery gatherings to raise money to support her family and the abolition movement. She shared stories about the evils of enslavement and about her harrowing rescue missions. Upon her return to the US, Tubman expanded her activism for human rights and became involved in the women’s rights movement. In early 1862, following the outbreak of the Civil War, she went to South Carolina to enlist in the Union Army. She served as a nurse, a spy, a scout, a laundress, and a cook until 1864.
Tubman returned to her Auburn home after the Civil War, where she remarried and adopted a little girl. In the early 1900s, she built and operated a nursing home for elderly African Americans on her property. She continued her efforts to fight for the rights of women and African Americans.
Harriet Tubman died on 10 March 1913 in Auburn. She devoted her life to serving others and fighting for freedom and equality. Tubman’s activism extended beyond her daring missions to guide escaping slaves to freedom. She travelled in the US to speak out against enslavement and fought for universal suffrage. In honour of her courage, humanitarian efforts, heroism, and her life of service, 10 March was declared Harriet Tubman Day in the US, as well as in St. Catharines, in 1990. In 2005, she was designated a Person of National Significance by the Government of Canada.
Tubman remains an icon of freedom. She was the inspiration for the Harriet Tubman Community Organization, which was founded in 1972 in North York, Ontario. The organization partners with institutions and organizations to build relationships with young people experiencing racialization. In 2019, Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” — the first feature film about Tubman — premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.