Harriet Tubman

Honored by:Iowa State University History Department
Brick location:PAVER:22  map

HARRIET TUBMAN, known as "the Moses of her people" and perhaps the best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad, once had a reward of $40,000 offered for her capture. Born a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore in the 1820s, she escaped to the North and is best known for her nineteen trips back to rescue perhaps as many as three hundred others. Despite periods of dizziness resulting from pressure on the brain caused by being hit at age thirteen with a two-pound weight thrown by an overseer, she managed to bring all of her charges to safety. Remarkably resourceful, she once took her charges on a southbound train, assured that her pursuers would never think to look on a train headed in that direction. Another time when she saw a former master coming, she turned loose some chickens she had with her and in the scurry to recover them went unrecognized. She preferred to start an escape on Saturday so that owners could not get notices in the newspapers until Monday. She carried a gun for her own protection and to prod any of her charges who became fainthearted. Not all of her rescues were made in the South. In 1860 in Troy, New York, she participated in the leadership of a crowd which overpowered officers holding a fugitive slave and helped him escape to Canada. Indeed, she was well known in abolition circles and sometimes addressed their conventions. John Brown sought her out at her home in Ontario, Canada, referring to her afterward as "General Tubman." Although as a woman she was not considered a part of the military, she was a spy for the Union forces and commanded several men acting as scouts in South Carolina during the Civil War in addition to working as a nurse and hospital cook. In later years, she applied for pension benefits which were widely available to veterans. Despite her work, her case was rejected, for as a woman she did not come under any pension legislation. In 1897, however, Congress recognized her contribution to the war effort by enacting a private bill providing her with twenty dollars a month for life. After the war, Tubman returned to a small farm near Auburn, New York, which she had purchased in the late 1850s on favorable terms from Senator William H. Seward and where she remained for the rest of her life. She took in orphans, cared for her aged parents and turned her residence into a home for the old and indigent. Herself illiterate, she promoted the establishment of schools for the freed people of the South. She attended suffrage meetings and was active in the expansion of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in upstate New York. In 1869, she married Nelson Davis, a Civil War veteran. Her first husband, who had declined to follow her north and who had subsequently remarried, was killed two years earlier. She lived until 1913 and was so renowned that Booker T. Washington spoke at the erection of a plaque in her memory. Tubman's exploits came to the knowledge of the general public in 1869 with the publication of a biography by Sarah Bradford, the proceeds from which went toward paying off the debt on Tubman's farm. Frederick Douglass captured the meaning of her life when he wrote her that except for John Brown "I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have."


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