For the decade following her escape to freedom, Harriet Tubman devoted her energy to helping her friends and family attain their own emancipation. As the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, she was almost constantly on the move between Canada and Maryland. In that time, she rarely had an opportunity to establish a home base for herself. Realizing that a Civil War was imminent, Tubman found a haven for her family in the pastoral village of Fleming, New York, just outside the city of Auburn.
Auburn, NY was a hub for abolitionists in the mid-1800s and had ties to Philadelphia, PA where Harriet Tubman lived immediately after she escaped from slavery in Maryland. While in Philadelphia, Harriet met many influential abolitionists, including William Still, the African American Purvis extended family, Lucretia Coffin Mott, and Frederick Douglass. William Still would keep records of freedom seekers passing through Philadelphia and he interviewed Harriet and her brothers on one of her trips. Harriet’s allies in Philadelphia would aid her greatly in leading her family and friends north. Harriet had to change hiding places frequently to avoid detection and Philadelphia abolitionists would open their houses and provided aid to make the passage as save as possible. After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 passed, aiding any person escaping from slavery was illegal and subject to criminal punishments. These wealthy and powerful, mostly white, abolitionists would be risking much to aid freedom seekers like Harriet Tubman, but by the same token would have more protection through their status in society.
Harriet Tubman used her connections to finally secure a place where she could have her own home and determine the course of her life in freedom. Lucretia’s sister, Martha Coffin Wright, lived in Auburn, NY in the 1850s and would become friends and colleagues with Harriet Tubman. Martha’s husband David was in a law practice with William Seward. Seward’s wife, Frances Miller Seward, Harriet, and Martha all worked to provide support for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad in Auburn, NY.
Harriet Tubman purchased her 7-acre parcel from Frances Seward in the late winter or early spring of 1859. A limited Women’s Married Property Act had been passed in NY in 1848 which allowed Frances Seward to inherit land from her father under certain conditions. The transfer of land to a self-emancipated person was illegal under the Fugitive Slave Act. Frances Seward was breaking the law and taking a large risk to help Harriet Tubman have her own land. Frances rightly thought that since her husband, William Seward, was a powerful politician in New York State that no action would be taken against them.
In the wooden home already on the property, Harriet Tubman’s parents, brothers, nieces, and nephews would be protected by her powerful abolitionist friends during the Civil War. Here they could build a life among the familiar rhythms of the seasons and connect with other families from the eastern shore of Maryland in the free black community of “New Guinea.” Harriet Tubman would start her returns to Maryland in 1850, only a year after she escaped. She would return 13 times and rescue about 70 people by 1860. Harriet rescued her brothers, James, John, and William and some of their family members in 1854 when she received word that they might be sold. Harriet had already lost three sisters after they were sold down south and she would never be able to find them. Harriet had gone back to rescue her sister, Rachel and Rachel’s children, but is unable to. She learns Rachel has died in 1859 and Rachel’s young son and daughter are left behind. Instead, she will rescue other friends and relatives. Her family would travel between St. Catharines and Auburn depending on which was safest for them at the time.
Canada had outlawed slavery by this time and becomes a haven for African American freedom seekers. Her brothers would settle in St. Catharines in Canada in a community of other Black freedom seekers. It was common for freedom seekers to change their name to avoid detection or to start a new life with a name they chose. Harriet and her brothers’ surname had been Ross. Upon escaping Harriet’s brothers, adopted the surname of Stewart after a powerful white family in Dorchester County, Maryland where they were from and changed their first names. Harriet herself had changed her name when she married from Araminta to Harriet after her mother. The Tubman part of her name was from her first husband, John Tubman. John was born a free Black man and after Harriet escaped in 1849, she came back to rescue John two years later. Harriet was heartbroken when not only did John refuse to come with her, but he had also moved on and married another woman. She would be successful in rescuing her elderly parents, Ben and Rit, and bringing them to Canada after they were facing prosecution for helping others escape.
Harriet Tubman purchased the farm at 182 South Street for $1,200, with $25 down. The rural setting would be more familiar to Harriet and her family from their days in Maryland and would be more appealing than a town lot. At the time of purchase, the farm included a wood-frame farmhouse on a fieldstone foundation, measuring 22 by 28 feet, facing the plank road and probably with a gable front. A barn would have been at the rear. These buildings could have dated back to 1840 or may have been built after 1853. Harriet Tubman continued her devotion to supporting others by opening her home on the farm to let people stay, specifically those people who had suffered the most under slavery and war. Harriet Tubman welcomed many people into her home, including orphans, people who were disabled, and anyone too old to work and support themselves.
Harriet Tubman would never have a lot of money, especially since she was starting with very little. She relied on her friends and her talents at promoting her causes. She also had a generous nature and would help her family, friends, and causes financially. She would tour around telling her story and speaking about the injustices of slavery. In the Civil War, Harriet was a nurse, a spy, and a successful armed raid leader which resulted in the rescue of more than 700 enslaved people in South Carolina. Despite her achievements, she had to fight to receive a pension for years. Her friends in Auburn would aid her once again in this long struggle that resulted in Harriet finally receiving $20 a month in 1899 for her work as a Civil War nurse. In 1890, she applies for a widow’s pension after the death of her second husband, Nelson Davis and receives $8 a month. She works with Sarah Bradford to write and sell biographies, often when she needs additional money.
After the Civil War, she opened her house up to boarders to make money. One of the boarders was a young Nelson Davis. Nelson Davis worked at the brickyard near Harriet’s house. Harriet and Nelson’s relationship grew and they married in 1869. In 1874, they will adopt a young girl named Gertie. In 1880, a careless boarder accidentally set Tubman’s wood-frame house on fire and it was destroyed.
The community rallied around Harriet and made plans to build a new brick house for her. Constructed between 1881 and 1882, the new brick house we see today was erected on a foundation of cut Onondaga limestone laid upon the subsurface rubble stone footing of the old house. At a full two stories with an attic, the new house was probably larger than the old one, with about 1,200 square feet on two finished floors. The house was entirely designed and built by African Americans—most likely Tubman’s second husband, Nelson Davis, and Tubman’s relatives and friends. Some of the bricks were even made on site.
Harriet Tubman would buy a second, 25-acre parcel from the lot next to her homesite in 1896 using the profits from her second biography. She envisioned a home and hospital for elderly and sick African Americans. On her properties she also has orchards and additional crops that were familiar to her from her time in Maryland. She raised pigs because they were a familiar part of the typical cuisine in Maryland. Harriet Tubman continued to operate the farm, producing thousands of pounds of pork, hundreds of pounds of butter and enough food grown to feed the growing number of people that Harriet Tubman continued to love and support.
Harriet Tubman lived in Auburn, New York from 1859 until her passing in 1913. She lived on the South Street property, adding new buildings for her family to live in. Her brothers, John and William Henry Stewart Sr. and their families, her parents, and other relatives lived with Harriet at various points when they were not in Canada and helped maintain the farm and land, especially as Harriet grew older and frailer, and be close to family members in the area. Harriet Tubman transfers the 25-acre parcel to the AME Zion Church in 1903 to realize her dream of a Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Infirm Negros so that there would be a place of refuge for the elderly, sick, and homeless she knew. The Home for the Aged officially opens in 1908 and Harriet will enter the Home in 1911 and live there until she passes in 1913.
Last updated: March 12, 2022