Harriet Tubman (c. 1820-1913), an escaped Black American slave, was the most famous and successful conductor of the Underground Railroad, helping over 300 blacks to escape slavery from 1849 to 1860, winning her the nickname of “Moses”.
- 1849: escapes slavery
- 1849-1860: helps over 300 others to escape slavery
- 1850s: speaks out for the immediate abolition of slavery.
- 1858: helps to find men for John Brown’s ill-fated slave uprising.
- 1861-1865: the civil war: a nurse, a spy and then a commander of army intelligence for the North.
- 1863: works with a black regiment in the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, helping to free 756 slaves.
- After the war: Unlike Frederick Douglass, she could not read or write, but with the help of Sarah Bradford she came out with two books about her life. She also spoke out for women’s rights with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The Underground Railroad was a chain of safe houses in the South that helped runaway slaves. They belonged to Quakers, free blacks, abolitionists and others who thought slavery was wrong. Those who led them from house to house were called “conductors”.
At first the Underground Railroad led to the free states in the North. But then in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act became law, making it a crime to help runaway slaves even in the North. The Underground Railroad then had to go all the way to Canada.
When she was little her father taught her how to move quietly through the woods. He told her how to find the North Star, the star that led the way to freedom. He told her to look for moss on trees, which grows on the north side.
A big fear for slaves was being sold. It meant they would never see their family again. It was when she was about to be sold that she made her escape. One night she took some salted pork, some cornbread and her quilt, walked outside and went north.
First she went to the house of a Quaker woman she had met. From there she went through the woods and swamps of Maryland and Delaware to other “stations” on the Railroad, travelling by night, sometimes dressing as a man, going up rivers where bloodhounds could not follow. When she arrived in Pennsylvania, a free state, it seemed like heaven.
She got work at a hotel in Philadelphia and then joined a vigilance committee, which helped runaways. They knew Quakers in the South who were willing to help slaves escape. With their help she saved her sister Mary and her family just hours before they were going to be sold! She led them along the Underground Railroad to the North.
She went back South again and again to help others in her family to escape and then complete strangers – with a $40,000 reward on her head! She never lost a “passenger”. When she came to her old house to help her husband escape, she found him with a new wife! He did not want to go. She found others who did.