Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

“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.” Harriet Tubman

Tubman stands beside her family members.
Left to right: Harriet Tubman; Gertie Davis [Tubman’s adopted daughter]; Nelson Davis [Tubman’s husband]; Lee Cheney; “Pop” Alexander; Walter Green; Sarah Parker [“Blind Auntie” Parker] and Dora Stewart [granddaughter of Tubman’s brother, john Stewart].

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.

In 1849 Harriet Tubman learned that she and her brothers Ben and Henry were to be sold. Financial difficulties of slave owners frequently precipitated sale of slaves and other property. The family had been broken before; three of Tubman’s older sisters, Mariah Ritty, Linah, and Soph, were sold to the Deep South and lost forever to the family and to history.

Determining their own fate, Tubman and her brothers escaped, but turned back when her brothers, one of them a brand-new father, had second thoughts. A short time later, Tubman escaped alone and made her way through Maryland, Delaware, and across the line into Pennsylvania and freedom. Tubman’s biographer, Sarah Bradford, quoted Tubman recalling, “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.”

Tubman came from a strong community with regular connections to other places through the travelers and workers who passed through on its roads and waterways. Her father and others taught her skills about the natural world and she developed savvy that helped her navigate across landscapes and through life. Her bravery may be attributed to these skills, but most of all, Tubman had a lifelong, fierce, and unwavering faith in God. Abolitionist Thomas Garrett said of her, "I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.”

Despite additional dangers resulting from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Tubman risked her life and ventured back to the community where she was born to rescue family, friends, and others. The act required the reporting and arrest of anyone suspected of being a runaway slave, eliminated protections for suspected runaways, and provided economic incentives to kidnap people of African descent.

Tubman returned to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to rescue members of her family; her brothers, Henry, Ben, Robert, and Moses, their wives, and several of her nieces and nephews and their children. Tubman’s husband, John Tubman, a free African man, had married again after Tubman first left Maryland and declined to go north when she came to get him. The decision to self-emancipate was a difficult one with complicated considerations about family ties, children, how to make a living, and how to navigate the unknown.

Tubman rescued her elderly parents in summer 1857 when her father, Ben Ross, was warned that he would be arrested for suspicion of sheltering the Dover Eight, a group of eight freedom seekers from her home county in Maryland. Ross had been manumitted, or freed, by this owner’s will in 1840 and he had purchased his wife, Harriet “Rit” Green’s freedom in 1855. Freedom was always tenuous and the threat of imprisonment made them leave Maryland.

Over about a decade and in about thirteen separate trips, Tubman led approximately 70 people to freedom and provided instructions to 50-60 others to help them escape. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called her “Moses” for her work leading people from slavery. She was proud of her accomplishments and in 1896 spoke at a women’s suffrage convention, “I was the 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.”

Freedom was bittersweet for Harriet Tubman. Despite the separations imposed by slavery, Tubman came from a close family in a tight community and she missed them. She believed they should be free, too. She said, “I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home, after all, was down in Maryland, because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.”

Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park

Last updated: March 11, 2017