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Author and Historian
"Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero"
October 12, 2004

There were many, many academics who told me, ”You’re crazy to do this project. You’ll never find any information about her. She was a slave. She could not read or write, therefore she didn’t leave any of her own writings behind. There was just not going to be any material to write about her.” Some academics encouraged me to write a book about the memory of Harriet Tubman or her representation in art and in culture, but that wasn’t my training and I didn’t feel equipped to do things like that. I really wanted to investigate her life as a woman, as a slave, as this cultural icon that we’ve all come to know and think that we know very, very well. I persevered. I’m fortunate enough to live in New England and that’s where I started my research. I knew that Harriet Tubman had spent time in New England. She had very, many close white abolitionist friends that lived in the New England area. And I also knew that old New Englanders never throw anything away. And fortunately, many of their family papers were deposited in libraries and archives throughout New England and that’s where I started.

And lo and behold, I started uncovering hundreds and hundreds of letters and diaries and newspaper accounts of Harriet Tubman’s life. People that knew her wrote about her on a daily basis. The people that were close to her spent time with her in Boston, in Wooster, they would write letters to each other and say Harriet Tubman was here today and she said this or she did this yesterday. So this world started to open up that I never expected to find and it was very, very exciting. And by following one letter to another letter led me to another family, to another community and this chain of events and this story of Tubman’s life in the North began to emerge.

Finally after I had exhausted as many resources as I thought that I could exhaust in New England, I decided to go to Maryland and start researching her life in slavery there. And once again, everyone was very, very discouraging, saying, “She was a slave. You’re just not going to find anything.” And to complicate matters, the county in which she was born, Dorchester County, Maryland had experienced a great fire in their courthouse in 1852 that destroyed all the records from colonial times up until that date; virtually destroying any records that I might have been able to find that dealt with Harriet Tubman’s life in slavery. But I went to Dorchester County anyway to experience the landscape, to talk to whoever I could talk to, see if I could dig up anything that would just give me a clue to her life and that way, I could just imagine what her life was like in slavery and write about that and then piece it together with her life in the North that was very well-documented.

Well lo and behold, when I arrived in Dorchester County, it turned out that not everything had burned in the Dorchester County fire. As the fire burned that early May morning, residents of Cambridge, the town where the courthouse stood, rushed to the courthouse and started pulling documents out of the building so many documents actually survived. And one crucial document included the court docket that the court registrar had taken home for that weekend in order to do work on it. And it covered the period form 1847-1852, a crucial period of time in Harriet Tubman’s life before she ran away and the lives of her family. It involved a court case contesting the ownership of her family as well as documenting efforts to sell members of her family and other issues that were involving the community at the time that were very important to telling the story of Harriet Tubman’s life.

Then I spent time at the Maryland state archives and they in fact had state records that were copies of many of the earlier records that had burned in courthouse in Dorchester County. And here, were more records that involved the earlier years in Tubman’s life and records of her family in fact. So what had been supposed – that there were no records at all available– was actually a cash of material related to Harriet Tubman, her family, and her community, both the white and black community in Dorchester County.

So this is what I discovered about Harriet Tubman: she was born in February or March 1822. We actually discovered an account record by Anthony Thompson who was the stepfather to Harriet Tubman’s owner. And he had a record to pay a midwife to help Harriet’s mother give birth in 1822. This midwife was paid two dollars for her services on March 15. And according to scholars, who deal with midwife records, that would indicate that the birth had occurred within a month of March 15, so we’re pretty sure that it was the end of February, beginning of March that Harriet Tubman was born. This is in combination with other court records that indicated that Harriet Tubman was also born in 1822. She was born on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, the man that I just said was the stepfather to her owner, Edward Broadus. She was the fifth of nine children. She had four brothers and four sisters. Her father was actually owned by Anthony Thompson, but her mother Writ was owned by Edward Broadus. Edward Broadus’ mother, Mary Patterson, had married a man by the name of Joseph Broadus who died the year after she gave birth to young Edward. She then remarried to Anthony Thompson who was a widower. And they lived on Thompson’s plantation, south of Madison and Dorchester County. And that’s where her older siblings were raised and they lived a relatively stable family life until Edward Broadus came of age.

In 1822, he turned twenty-one and within two years, he uprooted Writ and her children and took them to Bucktown, where he had a farm he inherited from his dead father and this is traditionally the area where Tubman has been associated with in all the books and stories about her life. She spent part of her childhood there although in testimony that she gave to newspapers and interviewers over the latter part of her life, she indicated that she rarely spent any time on the Broadus plantation. He had many, many slaves and he had too many to run the small farm that he had. He had about two hundred ninety acres and about half of that was tillable. So she was hired out like some of her siblings to neighboring farmers and it was at their hands that she suffered tremendous abuse and neglect. She had a horrible, horrible childhood. She was beaten and starved. She became very ill many times and had to be returned to Edward Broadus and her mother Writ had to nurse back to health.

When she was about thirteen or fourteen years old, she had been hired off the plantation to a neighboring farm and it was late in the season. She gave this testimony to a woman in Auburn, New York in 1904. It is an unpublished interview with Harriet Tubman and it’s an incredibly revealing interview. She tells stories that she had never told before and she gave details in this interview that she had never revealed before as well. This is t h famous story that I think most people are aware of, at least most schoolchildren at this point are very aware of at this point. But, she tells the story in a slightly different way.

She was out in the field breaking flacks. And she describes that her hair was very dirty and greasy. When she would eat a meal, she would wipe her hands in her hair. And when she was breaking the flacks, the dust from the flacks flew up into her hair and it became very, very messy. The plantation cook came to her and asked her to come to the dry-good store with her to buy goods for the plantation kitchen. And Harriet Tubman was very embarrassed because her hair was very dirty so she grabbed a scarf and tied it around her hand and walked to the neighboring dry-good store, which we have identified as a store that still exists in Bucktown. And as they were approaching the store, an overseer arrived and he was chasing a young enslaved boy who had run away from his work assignment in the fields. And the boy had run into the store and as Harriet entered, the overseer yelled to her to block the entrance so the boy could not run out of the store. She refused and the boy ran out of the store and she stepped into the doorway to prevent the overseer from following this boy. He picked up a weight from the dry-good store counter and threw it hoping to hit the escaping slave boy, but he hit Harriet with such force that she described the weight being driven into her skull and driving pieces of that scarf into her skull as well.

She immediately collapsed and was unconscious. They brought her back to the plantation where she had been hired out and they laid her on the seat of the loom, they didn’t put her on the bed, they didn’t put her on hay on the floor, just laid her on the hard seat of the loom and there she stayed for day and a half. When the master of the plantation got irritated and forced her up and back into the fields and she describes in this interview, working with the blood and the sweat dripping down her face until she collapsed and they had to return her to Edward Broadus. It was months before she recovered from this horrific head injury and as a result of this head injury, she suffered a variety of symptoms for the rest of her life. In my book I talk about researching the symptoms that she experienced and I have determined that she probably suffered from epilepsy. About fifty percent of people who suffer from this disease actually get it as a result of extreme head injuries. And the symptoms include not only losing consciousness or seemingly falling asleep in a moment’s notice, but also these symptoms that she experienced regularly: seeing bright lights and r’s, hearing music, water rushing, hearing voices, experiencing tremendous sensations of deja vus and falling asleep and experiencing flying above the earth. These are all symptoms that epilepsy patients who are not medicated experience at different moments in time when they suffer from seizures. Rather than look at it as a disability, she incorporated it into her personality and into her worldview; it enhanced her existing spirituality. Tubman was raised in a community that had many, many spiritual influences. And in her life, her spiritual experience was shaped by African cultural and spiritual retentions. Her grandmother Modesty was brought from Africa. Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, Quaker, and Methodist teachings all influenced Tubman. She was hired out to various masters of all these different religious experiences and she was forced many times to attend services of these different masters. Her father in fact practiced many Catholic type of rituals, but also Methodist and Episcopal. So they incorporated many of these spiritual experiences into their daily lives. Tubman found great strength and solace in her faith, which was not directed by one particular spiritual experience, but a blending of all these different faiths in her community.

She recovered and Edward Broadus hired her out to a man by the name of John T. Stewart who lived in the Madison area of Dorchester County, which brought her back into the familial and social community of her father, Ben Ross. This is near where Anthony Thompson plantation was. This was the enslaved community that Tubman had been born into and actually, it was the social community that her family had maintained their ties to even though they had been moved to Bucktown. Ben Ross had stayed on the Thompson plantation. Her relatives lived on that plantation and this was her home in a sense. And this was a very important event in Tubman’s life because it brought her back into this community that nurtured her and helped raise her and also provided her with skills that she would use later in her life on the Underground Railroad and in the Civil War.

At first she worked in the house and then she worked on the docks. The Stewarts owned a great farm. They were shipbuilders. They were merchants. They owned great vast tracks of timber so they were in the timbering business so she had an opportunity to actually work in all these various businesses. She became very, very strong and she talks about hauling goods in and out of ships coming up to the docks to bring to the store that they operated. And then she was able to work in the timber fields with her father. Her father was a renowned timber man. He was greatly skilled at identifying the best timber. There was great white oak in that area of Dorchester County, which was prized by shipbuilders up and down the East coast and she worked with him. And by working with him and also working on the docks, it brought her into this incredibly important maritime world. And of course the Chesapeake area, Dorchester County – life there was defined by water. And for Harriet, this was a crucial moment in time where she became connected to these maritime links. She met the mariners on the docks and most of those mariners were African American men, slave and free. And in the timber fields, these were men that were free and enslaved. And the watermen that helped bring those logs up from the interior Dorchester County up the canals, rivers and streams to the bays where they were cut and shipped off to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New England. And these men told her about freedom and where all the safe places were and how she could get to certain places, how to read the star, and how to survive.
In 1844, she married John Tubman, a free black man living in Dorchester County. We suspect that he probably worked for John T. Stewart as a timber man as well and that’s how she got to know him. In many of the children’s books and also in the original biographies of Tubman in the 19th century, John Tubman gets a pretty bad wrap as a lousy husband. When Harriet Tubman ran away, he did not follow her and he eventually married another woman and that portrayal that has sort of labeled him as an awful person, but I believe that actually he loved Harriet very, very much because for a free man to decide to marry an enslaved woman was a very, very serious decision. That man would give up all rights to his wife because she was owned by another man and he would also have no rights to their children. So for John Tubman to marry Harriet must have been a very serious decision and he must have loved her very, very much.

By the time she ran away, he had been free his whole life in Dorchester County, he may not have wanted to give up what he had established there. His family – they were all free, his friends, his job; it was probably a very difficult decision for him. In 1849, Edward Broadus died at the age of forty-seven years old. He left behind a wife and eight children; six of them were minor children. And he left his wife Eliza in tremendous debt. And she had to sell her slaves in order to pay off these debts so this is what set Harriet Tubman on her road to freedom. On September 17, 1849, Harriet Tubman ran away with her brothers Ben and Henry. They stayed away two or three weeks and for some reason, they returned. Harriet said in several of her narratives that her brothers became frightened and they would not follow her to freedom so she came back with them. The reason we know it was September 17 is that about a year and a half ago in Dorchester County, a house on High Street, which is the most famous street in Cambridge, went up on sale. The same family had lived in that house for well over two hundred years. And this is when I discovered that Southerners don’t throw anything away either. And it turns out that the family had kept everything and the new buyers had come in and they were throwing everything in the house into dumpsters sitting out beside the home. And a friend of mine who is a Tubman fanatic was going by the house and had no qualms jumping into that dumpster to see what was in there and what did he find but a copy of the newspaper that listed Harriet Tubman’s runaway ad. It was a remarkable event. And in fact, he also found bound volumes of Dorchester County newspapers from the 1830s through the 1860s and these had been missing for a hundred and fifty years. The Library of Congress didn’t have copies of them; nobody did. And there were lots of conspiracy theories about why they were missing, but in fact they had been sitting in the attic of this home so he had them donated to the local Historical Society and they’ve been microfilmed and now they’re accessible for everybody.

So Harriet came back with her brothers, but she knew she was about to be sold. In fact, we know this because the court record that also survived from the great fire indicates that Eliza Broadus was petitioning the court to allow her to sell some of her dead husband’s slaves which included Harriet and several other members of her family. Now in the meantime, Harriet had already witnessed the sale of several of her sisters. She had four sisters: Lyna, Marie Ridie, Solph, and Rachel. Lyna, Marie Ridie, and Solph had all been sold away between 1825 and 1845 and it was a horrible, horrible experience. She describes watching them being taken away and the screaming and the yelling. And she was not about to let herself be sold away as well. So after she came back with her brothers sometime in October, she prepared again and within a couple of weeks, she also took off again, by herself and she made it all the way to Philadelphia in freedom. But freedom only meant so much when she didn’t have her family with her and she vowed then that she would do anything she could to bring her family and friends away. And over the next eleven years, she brought away sixty to seventy family friends in about thirteen trips. The story about her bringing away three hundred people in nineteen trips is not true; it was made up by Sarah Bradford who wrote the first book-length biography in 1869. Sarah Bradford was a Victorian sentimental author and she was prone to exaggeration and this is one of the things she exaggerated, which is a great tragedy because the fact that Tubman brought anyone away is amazing in itself because virtually no one did. She is almost unique in the numbers that she brought away and sixty or seventy is a remarkable number.

She also gave instructions to another sixty or seventy who found their way to freedom on their own using her directions. We can document the names of about one hundred ten of the one hundred forty that she brought away and a great majority of them are family and friends that come from Madison Towne Point area of Dorchester County, near the area where she was born and where she worked for many, many years for John T. Stewart. Very, very few people ran away from Bucktown and in lots of the children stories it is assumed that some of the people she helped came from Bucktown, when in fact, that never happened. She never returned to the plantation herself. She always had them meet her at another location as safety and protection. She did carry a pistol. They say it’s because she wanted to encourage reluctant runaways to continue on the path instead of turning around, but I am sure she also used it as protection from slave capturers, or intended to. The gun in supposedly still held in the Tubman family. A descendant of one of her nephews who actually lives here in Virginia says that he has this pistol, but I have not seen it so I’m not really sure. But the family story about how they came to possess it is fascinating so I actually have no doubts that he actually owns the pistol.

In 1858, she met John Brown. She had re-moved to Canada at this point. All throughout the 1850s, she had brought her family and friends to St. Katherines, Ontario which the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, it was no longer safe for fugitives to stay in the United States and she brought them all away to St. Katherines where they built an amazing community that mirrored their community in Dorchester County. All these Dorchester County slaves lived near each other, attended the same churches, they worked together. It’s an amazing story of transplanting their lives to Canada. She herself kept an apartment in Philadelphia for several years until it became too dangerous to stay there so she was in St. Katherines in 1858, John Brown had heard about her exploits, going back to rescue her family and friends, and he believed that she might be really helpful to him in his planned raid on Harper’s Ferry. And in recruiting fugitives living in Canada to be a part of his army that he was hoping to build to attack Harper’s Ferry. He was blown away by her when he met her. He was very, very impressed with her military genius, her ability to strategize, and the power of her personality.

Many people wrote about her personality, that it was so overwhelming and a lot of white people couldn’t figure out why they liked her so much. It was easy for them to say why they liked Frederick Douglas so much, he was so literate and he seemed like them in many ways. But here was this illiterate, plantation slave and she was so dynamic and they were drawn to her and it just didn’t fit their understanding of the world order. Even these liberal anti-slavery activists couldn’t figure out why they liked her so much. She had this amazing personality that people were just drawn to. She was incredibly bright, she loved to talk politics, everyone listened to her; she was an amazing, amazing individual. It wasn’t just a person who had a lot of courage. This was an incredibly bright person too who had lots going on. So John Brown referred to her as a man. He called her the “Most of a Man” and he called her “General Tubman” and in his worldview, that was not an unkind thing to say. He believed that someone with her intelligence and her abilities were characteristics of white generals, white military officers, so for him this was a compliment to her. She helped recruit men for his army. She recruited many Dorchester County runaways that actually were friends of hers to join him. Ultimately they did not follow him to Harper’s Ferry, which is a good thing because they probably would have been killed or caught. Tubman was supposed to follow him, but she was supposedly sick in New Bedford at that time and did not meet him in time to participate in the raid, which is another fortuitous event as well. She believed that he was the greatest white man that ever lived and she just revered him for rest of her life. But she also believed that he did more for the cause of liberty and freedom by dying than he would have if he had lived.

She participated in the Civil War. She was one of the early participants in the Port Royal experiment in Hilton Head, in South Carolina. She traveled down there with a group from Boston and she became a spy and a scout. She was extremely effective. The territory and the landscape in that area of South Carolina is amazingly similar to Dorchester County so she could be comfortable with the landscape. She understood the water. She knew how to navigate the water. It wasn’t a barrier to her – it was a passage, it was a pathway. Just like it was a pathway in the Chesapeake to freedom, this was a pathway for her to get information to travel into enemy territory and get information from local populations.
She was involved in important raid where she helped lead Colonel James Montgomery and volunteers up the river on June 2, 1863. They routed out rebel forces. They freed seven hundred fifty three slaves. They burned plantations and collected a lot of contraband supplies and when they arrived back in Port Royal, the newspapers made a very big deal out of this raid that was lead by a black woman. And this is remarkable for the time period because it’s still an incredibly racist society and for major newspapers to credit this raid to a small black woman called Moses is a remarkable event so there is no doubt that she was actively involved and responsible for this important raid.

After the Civil War, she settled in Auburn, New York in a home that William H. Steward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, had sold her. He actually sold her this home in 1859, putting himself at great risk because it was illegal to sell property to a fugitive slave and she insisted on the property being sold to her, not to her father who was free, and not to anybody else, but her. And she kept up the payments for a while, but eventually she fell behind in the payments and his son forgave the debt and Tubman owned her home free and clear. She lived in Auburn until her death in 1913. Her door was constantly open to anyone in need – orphans, the aged, anyone sick and disabled – it was always open. It was a revolving door. So her life is a story of struggle and tremendous poverty and adversity, but it’s also an amazing story of just continuing to struggle and have hope, the pursuit of freedom and equality, justice and self-determination. And that’s why I call her an American Hero.

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Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia