Also known as Moses, Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820 or 1821. At the age of six, she began working as a house servant for people her master hired her out to and as a teenager she worked in the fields. As many other slaves experienced, she was treated cruelly. Despite hardship, her courage was apparent in her youth. When she was thirteen, she blocked the way of an overseer who was trying to capture a fleeing slave. As a result, she was hit in the head with a two-pound weight that was intended for the fugitive slave. She suffered sleeping spells for the rest of her life as a result of the trauma.
In 1849, Tubman escaped from slavery. To reach freedom in Pennsylvania, Tubman was helped along the way abolitionists who hid her in various places, including under a blanket in the back of the wagon, in a haystack on a farm belonging to German immigrants, and in a potato hole in a cabin belonging to free blacks.
It was in Philadelphia, working as a hotel cook, that Tubman became involved with the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee whose sole objective was to help slaves escape and avoid capture through the Underground network.
Despite the name, the Underground Railroad was not really a railroad, but was a network of people who assisted fugitive slaves. Many fugitives who escaped to the North and Canada received assistance along the way from individuals who were involved in this network. By the early 19th century, the organization became so successful that it is estimated that between 1810 and 1850, 100,000 slaves escaped from the South through the network.
Tubman became a conductor for the Underground Railroad shortly after her introduction to the organization. When she heard that her sister and sister’s children were going to be sold, she ignored warnings about the dangers she might face as a fugitive slave, and volunteered to help them escape from Maryland.
This was just the start of her role as a conductor. Beginning in 1851, Tubman made two trips a year, one in the spring and one in the fall. In between trips, she worked to fund them. After the Fugitive Slave Act, the destination of her trips changed. The act required Northern states to return escaped slaves, so it became dangerous for fugitives to settle in the North. Instead, Tubman made sure that each party she conducted made it safely to Canada.
By 1858, Tubman had led over 300 fugitive slaves to freedom, and had become known for her work with the Underground Railroad network. As a result, a $40,000 reward was offered for her capture.
During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse and spy for Union soldiers. After the war, Tubman spent her time helping former slaves, raising money to pay for the education of ex-slaves, for children's clothing, and for schools. Later in her life, she devoted her time to women's suffrage. She died in 1913.