Meet Harriet Tubman. Born “Araminta Ross”(she was called “Minty”for most her life, including in her work as a conductor of the Underground Railroad) in what is believed to be around 1822. Her parents, Harriet Green, known as “Rit,” and Ben Ross were both slaves. Minty’s grandmother, “Modesty” came to America on a slave ship from Africa, so Araminta and her family were only two generations removed from the horrid, infamous, transatlantic slave trade. Harriet’s mother and father were married in 1808, while being owned by separate plantation owners. They had 9 children together. Linah, Mariah Ritty, Soph, Robert, Araminta (Minty), Ben, Rachel, Henry, and Moses.
Growing up Araminta witnessed her mother’s struggle to keep their family together. At one point a man approached their master about buying Araminta’s youngest sibling, her baby brother Moses. As a result, her mother organized both the slave and free black community to help hide Moses from this fate. When the plantation owner and his prospective buyer found Araminta’s mother Rit and Moses hiding in a cabin, Rit told both the white men,
“You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.”
This threat made the plantation owner change his mind about the sale and many biographers agree, witnessing this happen had a profound impact on “Minty” as it showed her the power of resistance.
As a child all the way into adulthood, Minty was rented out to other slave drivers in Dorchester County, Maryland and the surrounding area. In an incident where she refused to help an overseer collect a rebellious field slave, she ran away from the overseer, so he threw a large metal weight that struck her in the head and knocked her out completely. This would change her life forever. She said the strike “broke my skull” and subsequently caused her a lifetime of epileptic seizures, headaches, powerful visions, and dreams in her sleep.
In Maryland during the 1840’s almost half the African American population was freed. Harriet’s father had earned his freedom by the age of 45. It was common place for the slaves to marry freed black men. Minty, now in her 20’s, married freedman John Tubman in 1844 and for unknown reasons decided to take her mother’s name Harriet. Henceforth, Araminta would be known as Harriet Tubman. At this time, much of her own legal freedom was bind to paperwork and contracts written in regards to her mother’s freedom. So Harriet spent a lot of time investigating the legality of her mother’s slavery, hoping to find something that would free them both as her father had been. She so badly wanted her and her mother’s freedom, she even found ways to save money in order to pay a lawyer $5 to look into freeing herself and her family. Harriet is said to have been very religious and prayed mightily in this time.
She often prayed for situations that would make her owners give her freedom, and when her slave master decided to advertise her for sale, she prayed this would not happen as she didn’t want to be sold and shipped off somewhere away from the family she had grew to know in Dorchester County. When it appeared she would, infact be sold, she began praying for her master’s death and any situations that would allow her to stay in Dorchester County. Her prayers seemed to be answered, as due to her head injuries she was considered unwanted by potential buyers and her owner, Edward Brodess, dropped dead before a sale could be completed.
When Edward died, his wife began the common practice of liquidating the assets of his estate. Despite her head injuries rendering her an undesirable sale, the death of her master increased the likelihood that she would be sold off to some distance suitor. Rather than continue to allow other people to dictate her future, Harriet finally decided to take control of her own life and began plotting an escape to freedom. Her husband John tried to talk her out of this, but she was determined to grip her own destiny.
Harriet made one failed attempt to escape with her brothers while they were being rented out to a plantation in the neighboring county. After this escape did not work she began planning another one. She made use of the Underground Railroad to aid her. She traveled at night using the North Star, she sent coded messages to her mother through other slaves, and she met many Quaker families that help guide her to her freedom in Pennsylvania. This time she successfully escaped on her own. She later said of the moment,
“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.”