Harriet Tubman was a Black woman who escaped slavery and helped others escape to the North via the Underground Railroad network. She was born Araminta Ross in 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her parents called her “Minty.” She later changed her name to Harriet in honor of her mother. She was separated from her family, including her eight brothers and sisters, at the age of 5 to serve as a nursemaid. When the baby cried, she was whipped, leaving her with permanent internal and external scars. Around age 7 she was “rented out” to work as a field hand. At age 12, she protected a Black fugitive by stepping in between him and an overseer who was throwing a huge rock to punish the man. The rock hit Tubman in the head and cracked her skull, leaving her to suffer with headaches and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. She married a free Black man, John Tubman, in 1844 but the marriage was not awesome.
In 1849, Harriet learned her brothers Ben and Henry were about to be sold, so on September 17 they escaped together and with the help of the Underground Railroad travelled 90 miles north to Pennsylvania and their freedom. She found work as a housekeeper in Philadelphia, but she soon returned to the south to lead her niece and children to Philadelphia via the same network she had used. She tried to rescue her husband John, but he had remarried and chose to stay in Maryland. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (more on this later) made Tubman’s job much harder and she had to extend her route up to Canada and begin travelling only at night.
Tubman was just over five feet tall, but was a formidable woman. She always carried a gun, both for protection and to “persuade” any passengers who had second thoughts. She would sedate babies and toddlers to prevent any slave catchers from hearing them. She personally led 70-300 people to freedom (Tubman claimed much lower numbers than her later biographer). She knew a great deal about herbal medicine and served as a nurse during the Civil War, and in 1863 she became head of an espionage unit for the Union Army. She helped liberate more people to form Black Union regiments and provided critical intelligence on Confederate supply routes and troop positions.