Nabb Research Center- Explore the history and culture of the Delmarva Peninsula


at Salisbury University

Preserving the heart and soul of Delmarva

  | Collections by Subjects
| Manuscripts

| Finding Aids
| Special Collections
| Family History
Digital Collection
| Microfilm Collection
| Newspapers

Map & Directions
Wayne and Power Streets
Salisbury, MD 21804
(410) 543-6000

Visiting Hours
Monday 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Dr. William Wroten

Delmarva Heritage Series

* Harriet Tubman - A Shore Moses

Salisbury Times - July 29, 1960

One day, about the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, a Negro slave, a run-away from a plantation near Huntsville, Ala., reported to the Yankee soldiers that found him:

"I's hoping and praying all the time I meets up with that Harriet Tubman

woman. She the colored woman what takes slaves to Canada. She always travels the underground railroad, they calls it, travels at night and hides out in the day. She sure sneaks them out the South, and I think she's a brave woman."

Thus it was that word of Harriet Tubman, the "Moses of Her People", had spread throughout the lands of slavery.

There were many women among the free Negroes of the North who aided in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Two rather unique women-two of the most remarkable in American history-came into prominence in the decades just before the Civil War. Each of these women in her own way did valiant service for the anti-slavery cause.

One was Sojourner Truth, who although born a slave in New York, became well-known for her wit, as she went about the country speaking in support of the abolitionist cause. But the most heroic figure in the Underground Railroad movement was Harriet Tubman. She was once introduced to Wendell Phillips (a famous abolitionist) by John Brown as "one of the best and bravest persons on this continent." Harriet Tubman had earned this tribute because of her unexcelled bravery in the underground movement.

Harriet Tubman was born about 1821 in the Bucktown District of Dorchester County. She was the daughter of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene, both of whom were slaves. She was first named Araminta, but early in life took on the name of Harriet.

In her early life Harriet was given an opportunity of working as a household slave-one of the best jobs that a plantation slave could receive. But for various reasons this arrangement did not work out and when on one occasion she was caught taking some sugar from the table (it seems that Harriet was always hungry) in the master's house, she was sent to work as a field hand. Thus, from her early teens she worked in the fields cultivating tobacco, corn, and hay, cutting, loading, and unloading wood, and even driving the ox-cart to market in Cambridge type of work evidently developed her great strength and remarkable powers of endurance which were important assets to her and her work in later life.

Because Harriett Tubman, even during her life time, became somewhat of a legend it is often difficult to separate from the many stories the true account of her life. This is especially true of her early life -before she won her freedom about 1849. Such a situation should be kept in mind when reading about her life on the Eastern Shore as a young slave girl. Her story has been told in a biography and also as a biographical novel.

Sometime in childhood or her teens she received an injury to her head, which must have caused pressure on her brain, for she was subject to sleeping spells. Throughout the rest of her long life she was subject without warning to these spells.

A biographical novelist tells the following story: It seems that at one time Harriet was farmed out to work where a slave-Barrett's Jim-had twice that year run away only to be captured. But everyone knew that the "North Star" had such a hold on Jim that he would make his break again someday.

It was Jim who told Harriet about the work of the Underground Railroad. While Harriet was at the farm, Jim tried again to escape and she stood in the way of the overseer when he tried to catch the slave. The overseer picked up a weight from a nearby scale and threw it at Jim, but instead he hit Harriet in the forehead.

Later on Harriet talked her master into letting her "hire out her own time" as the saying goes. Through this practice she was able to save a little money, enough to buy a pair of cattle. Then she talked the man who was hiring her into letting her have a little piece of land to farm as her own. She would farm this section before and after going to work each day, and when the crops were ready she would take them to the market in Cambridge.

It was during this period of her life that she met and married John Tubman. There are several versions of this affair. One is that she was forced by her master to marry this man who was most unfaithful to her. Another is that she met and married him on her own; that Tubman was a free Negro, lazy, and lived off his wife. Soon Harriet's savings were gone trying to keep him in tobacco, food and clothing. Although much later she married a man named Nelson Davis, it is interesting to note that she has been known through the years as Harriet Tubman.

A few years after her marriage to Tubman, about 1849, her master died and Harriet became worried that, like her sisters before her, she would be "sold South". Now, she decided, was the time to follow the "North Star" to freedom. For sometime she had been noticing a Quaker woman in the Bucktown region, and she had been told that a Quaker could secure a ticket on the Underground Railroad. So, when word reached her that she was to be sold she made her contacts; she headed for the Choptank, on to Camden and Middletown, Del., and finally to the home of the Quaker Thomas Garrett of Wilmington. Garrett had one of the most important "stations" on the Underground Railroad, and he gave Harriet all the help possible; especially seeing to it that she was taken on to Philadelphia.

Harriet was able to find work in Philadelphia, for she was willing and able to do such things as washing, scrubbing floors and walls and beating carpets. After a summer as a cook at a resort hotel at Cape May, N.J., Harriet decided to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad. But in between these journeys she continued to work as a cook in order to earn the money to aid the slaves she was to free.

Harriet Tubman's adventures on the Underground Railroad are as interesting and exciting as those of well known cowboys, mountainmen, Indian scouts, and military spies; it is a case of truth being stranger than fiction. Although she could neither read nor write her shrewdness in planning hazardous enterprises and skill in avoiding arrest were phenomenal. In 1857 she returned to Dorchester County and let her own parents (who were very old at this time) to freedom, and settled them on a little farm in auburn, N.Y. which she had purchased from William H. Seward, secretary of state for Abraham Lincoln.

She made about 19 trips into this region of Delmarva. All in all she helped about 300 slaves escape to freedom. "She seemed absolutely fearless and was willing to endure any hardship. To a remarkable degree she was guided in her work by visions and sustained by her faith in God." John Brown, whom she met in Canada and who often referred to her as "General Tubman", confided in and relied on her for aid in his plan to free the slaves of Virginia.

Harriet, on her journeys, was somewhat like a military commander in time of danger. There was one rule which she herself made and enforced: There was to be no turning back or surrender. There were times when she had to put her pistol in the backs of the weaker ones and say, "Move on or die! Dead men tell no tales." Is it any wonder that the aggrieved slave-owners offered rewards as high as $40,000 to the man who brought her in dead or alive.

In 1868 Frederick Douglass, a fellow Marylanders, wrote to her: "The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day-you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt 'God Bless you' has been your only reward."

During the Civil war she worked with the Union Army in South Carolina. At times she was a cook, a laundress, and nurse, but she also served behind the Confederate lines as a scout, spy, or soldier, helping to feed and clothe the Negroes, and even bringing some to freedom.

After the war her work continued as she was concerned with the establishment of schools for freed men in North Carolina. She worked for the temperance movement, women's rights, and in her own home at Auburn she supported several children and penniless old people. The Harriet Tubman Home for indigent aged Negroes continued to exist for a number of years after her death.

Today, visitors to Auburn can see both the old Tubman Home and the tablet erected in her memory.

Born a slave in Maryland about 1821
Died in Auburn, N.Y., March 10, 1913
Called the "Moses" of her people,
During the Civil War, with rare
Courage, she led over three hundred
Negroes up from slavery to freedom
And rendered invaluable service
As nurse and spy
With implicit trust in God
She braved every danger and
Overcame every obstacle, Withal
She possessed extraordinary
Foresight and judgment so that
She truthfully said-
"On my Underground Railroad
I never ran my train off the track
And I never lost a passenger."

Return to Delmarva Heritage Series article index

Copyright & Fair Use   *  Standards & Policies   *  Citation Guidelines

Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture
East Campus Room 190 | Salisbury, Maryland 21801 | 410.543.6312

Salisbury University