Who was Harriet Tubman?

Posted at 6:39 PM, Apr 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-20 18:41:58-04

Harriet Tubman will soon be the new face of the $20 bill, dethroning former President Andrew Jackson, and becoming the first woman on U.S. Currency.  But who was this woman, who would rise to become one of the most prolific "conductors" of the Underground Railroad? 


Tubman was born Araminta Harriet Ross, to enslaved parents in Dorchester County, Maryland.  Tubman's exact date of birth is unknown, but historians believe she was likely born somewhere between 1820 and 1825. 

According to Biography.com, physical violence was a part of daily life for Tubman and her family.  Historians say the violence Tubman suffered as a child, resulted in permanent injuries that plagued her throughout her life.

Tubman made the daring and dangerous decision to escape from slavery in 1849.  She relied on the network known as the Underground Railroad to secure her freedom in Pennsylvania. (To learn more about Buffalo's role in the Underground Railroad, click here). Tubman was later quoted as saying:

"When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.

There was so much 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


Rather than spending the rest of her days in the safety of the free states, Tubman vowed to make it her mission to help others escaping slavery. That mission changed dramatically with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The Act made it so runaway slaves could be captured in the North and returned to their owners in the South. (To learn more about the Fugitive Slave Act, click here)

In response to the new law, Tubman helped re-route the Underground Railroad to Canada, where slavery was prohibited.

Tubman stayed active throughout the Civil War.  She worked for the Union Army as a cook and nurse. Tubman went on to become an armed scout and spy for the North.  In fact, Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war.  According to Biography.com, "she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.

In 1859, Tubman bought a small plot of land near Auburn, New York.  She went on to marry a Civil War veteran and the couple adopted a baby girl.

Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913.


This article barely scratches the surface of Harriet Tubman's life.  To learn more about the life and times of Harriet Tubman, here's a list of resources.