On The Road To Harriet Tubman

PrintPrintEmailEmailLike all biographers, I search for compelling figures with universal appeal. I seek someone who will keep me awake nights, who will take me on strange detours, who will make me crazy with curiosity. Those very vital questions that form the core of an individual’s experience will engulf and overwhelm, and perhaps even undermine me—as, once again, I take the plunge. I feel lucky indeed to have found such a subject in Harriet Tubman.

She is a character familiar to twenty-first-century school-children, but a name all too absent from the annals of the American academy. Born into slavery in the third decade of the nineteenth century, Harriet Tubman lived into the second decade of the twentieth. She emancipated herself by running away from her Maryland owner in 1849, and she joined the growing cadre of black freedom fighters in the North. Committed to the battle against slavery, she took on the dangerous role of rescuing others and conducted hundreds of fugitives to freedom along networks established by the Underground Railroad. During the 1850s she became a beloved figure among abolitionists, revered as “Moses” within antislavery circles.

After the Civil War began—in a sense moving her “underground” struggle aboveground—Tubman joined with Federal forces, working behind enemy lines as a spy and scout. (These clandestine activities finally won her a pension of $20 after 30 years of petitions to Congress.) She spent the post-war years in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York and by the 1870s was being described in local papers as a philanthropist. After sheltering the needy in her own household for decades, she was finally able to open a charitable home for blacks in her adopted hometown of Auburn. She was outspoken on behalf of women’s suffrage and other movements for social justice at the turn of the century. When she died in 1913, Booker T. Washington and other race leaders hailed her contributions and sacrifices.

Writing a biography of Tubman has been both a joy and a challenge. A joy, in that her life is so full of inspirational material, and a challenge because her status as a folk heroine in many ways obscures how little we can really document about it. Although she is often celebrated as a heroine of the Underground Railroad, there is hardly any mention in Civil War literature of her extraordinary efforts during the conflict, when missions took her as far south as Fernandina, Florida.

Because Tubman remained illiterate, there are only a few dictated letters and no diaries.

Because Tubman remained illiterate all her life, there are only a few dictated letters and no diaries on which to draw. Yet during the past half-century she has been the subject of first a trickle and then a flood of children’s literature, 37 books since 1990 alone, and her image adorns dozens of reference-book covers, logos, and Web sites. However, I discovered when writing an encyclopedia article on Tubman in 1992, only a handful of articles had been published about her, and a single adult biography—in 1943. And so began my quest.

Laudatory obituaries appeared widely following her death on March 10, 1913. Yet, like that of many born into slavery, her birth date remains unknown. I have come to believe that the two sworn statements she submitted to the United States government when applying for a widow’s pension are the most accurate estimate of her age: Tubman was likely born in 1825.

SCHOLARS NATURALLY SEEK THE EXACT DATE OF HER birth. At least a birth year would be especially helpful to those involved in the excavation of the former plantation site that has been identified as Harriet Tubman’s birthplace, a remote stretch of farmstead in Bucktown, a few miles from Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The progress on this archeological dig, funded by the state of Maryland, has been painfully slow, as a hardy team of scholars, among them Bonnie Ryan of Syracuse University and John Seidel of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, comb the terrain with a gang of eager students summer after summer.

During the early years of my research, I sought traces of Tubman and her family in newspapers, in public records, in the archives—all the usual places where we historians seek out clues. But the Maryland State archivists Chris Haley and Rocky Rockefeller prodded me to expand my searches beyond microfilm and manuscripts. They insisted I meet the people who are engaged in the preservation of Tubman’s historical legacy, and this proved advice for which I remain grateful.