As a child in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten by masters to whom she was hired out. Early in her life, she suffered a severe head wound when hit by a heavy metal weight. The injury caused disabling seizures, narcoleptic attacks, headaches, and powerful visionary and dream experiences, which occurred throughout her life. A devout Christian, Tubman ascribed the visions and vivid dreams to revelations from God.
In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Traveling by night, Tubman (or "Moses", as she was called) "never lost a passenger". Large rewards were offered for the return of many of the fugitive slaves, but no one then knew that Tubman was the one helping them. When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring law officials in free states to aid efforts to recapture slaves, she helped guide fugitives farther north into Canada, where slavery had been abolished in 1834.
When the American Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army. After the war, she retired to the family home in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She became active in the women's suffrage movement in New York until illness overtook her. Near the end of her life, she lived in a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped found years earlier.
The severe head wound occurred when Tubman was becoming deeply religious--although one must note this is not insinuating this as being the chief cause. As an illiterate child, she had been told Bible stories by her mother. The particular variety of her early Christian belief remains unclear, but Tubman acquired a passionate faith in God. She rejected the teachings of the New Testament that urged slaves to be obedient and found guidance in the Old Testament tales of deliverance. Additionally, Tubman began having visions and potent dreams, which she considered signs from the divine. This religious perspective instructed her throughout her life.
Particulars of her first journey remain shrouded in secrecy. She crossed into Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled the experience years later:
"When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."Despite the best efforts of the slaveholders, Tubman was never captured, and neither were the fugitives she guided. Years later, she told an audience:
"I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Tubman saw a Union victory as a key step toward the abolition of slavery.
Tubman soon met with General David Hunter, a strong supporter of abolition. He declared all of the "contrabands" in the Port Royal district free, and began gathering former slaves for a regiment of black soldiers. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, however, was not prepared to enforce emancipation on the southern states, and reprimanded Hunter for his actions. Tubman condemned Lincoln's response and his general unwillingness to consider ending slavery in the U.S., for both moral and practical reasons. "God won't let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing," she said.
Master Lincoln, he's a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That's what master Lincoln ought to know.Despite her years of service, she had never received a regular salary and was for years denied compensation. The U.S. government was slow in recognizing its debt to her. Tubman did not receive a pension for her service in the Civil War until 1899. Her constant humanitarian work for her family and former slaves, meanwhile, kept her in a state of constant poverty, and her difficulties in obtaining a government pension were especially taxing for her.
In her later years,Tubman worked to promote the cause of women's suffrage. A white woman once asked Tubman whether she believed women ought to have the vote, and received the reply: "I suffered enough to believe it." Tubman began attending meetings of suffragist organizations, and was soon working alongside women such as Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. This wave of activism kindled a new wave of admiration for Tubman among the press in the United States.
At the turn of the 20th century, Tubman became heavily involved with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn. In 1903, she donated a parcel of real estate she owned to the church, under the instruction that it be made into a home for "aged and indigent colored people." The home did not open for another five years, and Tubman was dismayed when the church ordered residents to pay a $100 entrance fee. She said: "[T]hey make a rule that nobody should come in without they have a hundred dollars. Now I wanted to make a rule that nobody should come in unless they didn't have no money at all." She was frustrated by the new rule but was the guest of honor nonetheless when the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged celebrated its opening on June 23, 1908.
By 1911, her body was so frail that she had to be admitted into the rest home named in her honor. A New York newspaper described her as "ill and penniless," prompting supporters to offer a new round of donations. Surrounded by friends and family members, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913. Just before she died, she told those in the room: "I go to prepare a place for you."
Harriet Tubman, widely known and well-respected while she was alive, became an American icon in the years after she died. A survey at the end of the 20th century named her as one of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War, third only to Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. She inspired generations of African Americans struggling for equality and civil rights; she was praised by leaders across the political spectrum.