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An African American woman in a dress sits sideways in a chair with her arm leaned on the back.
[Portrait of Harriet Tubman], Powelson, photographer, [1868-1869]. Prints & Photographs Division. Collection of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad

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Our Headlines and Heroes blog takes a look at Harriet Tubman as the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. Tubman and those she helped escape from slavery headed north to freedom, sometimes across the border to Canada. With the Texas origins of Juneteenth in mind, let’s also remember a lesser-known Underground Railroad that headed south from Texas to Mexico.

“Harriet Tubman,” The Sun (New York, NY), June 7, 1896, p. 5.

Harriet Tubman escaped slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1849. She then returned there multiple times over the next decade, risking her life to bring others to freedom as a renowned conductor of the Underground Railroad. She was called “Moses” for her success at navigating routes, along with knowing safe houses and trustworthy people who helped those escaping from slavery to freedom. Prior to the Civil War, newspaper coverage of her successful missions was not extensive, but what is there serves to document the breadth of her successes in engineering these escapes.

Tubman was born Araminta Ross around 1822. Her earliest attempted escape was with two of her brothers, Harry and Ben, as found in an October 1849 “runaway slave” ad, where she is referred to by her early nickname, Minty.

“Three Hundred Dollars Reward,” Cambridge Democrat (Cambridge, MD), October 1849. Courtesy Bucktown Village Foundation, Cambridge, MD.

While that first attempt was unsuccessful, Tubman escaped on her own soon after. Although the ad does not reflect it, she had already adopted the first name, Harriet, perhaps in honor of her mother, Harriet Green Ross. She also had married and taken her husband John Tubman’s surname.

From December 1850 through 1860, she returned to Maryland approximately 13 times to lead 60-70 family members and other enslaved individuals to freedom, as detailed in Kate Clifford Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.

In October 1857, two groups of slaves escaped from the Cambridge, Maryland area. Tubman did not directly guide them, but is credited with indirectly helping them by providing detailed instructions. Forty-four men, women, and children escaped in what was described in the press as “a great stampede of slaves.”

“A Great stampede of slaves…” The Anti-Slavery Bugle (Salem, Ohio), November 7, 1857, p. 3.

Multiple articles about these escapes stated that fifteen individuals had fled from Samuel Pattison. The Pattison family had held Tubman and most of her family in bondage. Tubman’s connections to the area were strong.

In the late 1850s, Tubman’s speeches at antislavery and women’s rights conventions gave her a platform to tell her personal stories recounting the horrors of slavery, her escape, her efforts to rescue others, and the need to fight for freedom and equal rights. Articles about her speeches from this time are difficult to find because she was often introduced using a pseudonym to protect her from being captured and returned to slavery under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act.

“Harriet Garrison” in “The New England Convention,” The Weekly Anglo-African (New York, NY), August 6, 1859, p. 3.
“Harriet Tribbman” in “Grand A. S. Convention in Auburn, New York,” Anti-Slavery Bugle (Salem, Ohio), January 21, 1860, p. 2.
“Harriett Tupman” in “A Female Conductor of the Underground Railroad,” The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), June 6, 1860, p. 1 (perhaps just a misspelling).

In addition, Tubman’s speeches, if written about in newspapers, were only described and briefly quoted, rather than printed in full, as other abolitionists’ speeches sometimes were. She was illiterate so no written copies of her speeches appeared to be available.

On April 27, 1860, Tubman’s rescue efforts moved from Maryland to New York, with the rescue of Charles Nalle, who had escaped slavery in Culpeper, Virginia, but was arrested in Troy, New York, where Tubman was visiting. A large mainly African American crowd freed Nalle twice and Tubman is credited in some accounts with taking the lead in his rescue. When she spoke about these events at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Boston in early June 1860, the Chicago Press and Tribune reporter responded with racist outrage at the audience’s favorable reaction to Tubman’s story of Nalle’s rescue, as well as her recounting of her trips back to the South to bring others to freedom. Antislavery publications at the time applauded Nalle’s rescue, but initially did not mention Tubman by name. Later coverage of Tubman’s role was often laudatory and dramatic.

“Our Boston Letter,” The Press and Tribune (Chicago, IL), June 8, 1860, p. 2.

“Another Trying to Down Her, She Choked into Half Unconsciousness” [Charles Nalle’s rescue], The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), September 29, 1907, p. 14.
The lengthy 1907 article that accompanied the illustration in The San Francisco Call, focused on Tubman’s lifelong commitment to gaining black freedom and equality. This and several other later articles are featured in Harriet Tubman: Topics in Chronicling America, recounting her Underground Railroad days, her impressive Civil War service as a nurse, scout, and spy in the Union Army, and her post-war efforts. Certain content in these profiles may have been embellished at times, in keeping with such contemporary biographies as Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869) and Harriet, the Moses of her People (1886), both by Sarah H. Bradford, and Harriet Tubman, the Heroine in Ebony (1901), by Robert W. Taylor, financial secretary, Tuskegee Institute. These books provided some financial relief to a nearly destitute Tubman. The article, “Troubles of a Heroine,” which Taylor wrote just prior to his book’s publication, requested that checks be sent directly to Tubman for the payment of the mortgage of her property so that she could turn it into an “Old Folk’s Home.” Twelve years later, on March 10, 1913, Tubman died at the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged Negroes, Auburn, New York.

These newspaper accounts offer us valuable glimpses into the extraordinary heroism of Harriet Tubman, as well as providing examples of the wealth of primary sources available in Chronicling America.*

Discover more:

* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Comments (31)

  1. As soon as I saw the auction catalog entry for the album containing this photo, I knew it needed to be at the Library of Congress for everyone to share. I recommended its acquisition and others worked out the arrangement for joint purchase with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Now it is internationally available to explore from so many different perspectives, including contemporary newspaper articles!

    • Wonderful you got the acquisition process started. I wanted to feature this incredible image of Harriet Tubman here because it is believed to be her earliest existing photo, and, therefore, closest to the time when she risked her life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

  2. AAAAAAAAAAAA THIS IS AMAZING I’M USING IT AS A SOURCE FOR MY HISTORY FAIR!

    • Thanks so much for letting us know and good luck on your History Fair project!

  3. Heyyy!!!!! Im doing a project for school and ive been having trouble finding the PERFECT article. This story helped ALOT! Tysm!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Tysm2u2! Great to know.

  4. this article is very helpful I will defiantly get an A+ on my S.S

    • Thanks for letting us know!

  5. I like it.

  6. I have a Social studies project about Harriet Tubman and this helps a lot. Thank you for making this

  7. Thank you for this

  8. Thank you for this!

  9. Thank you very much for this kind of information! God bless you!

  10. good

  11. This helped a lot! I was doing a project about Harriet Tubman and this helped me a lot Thanks!

  12. can you list who she worked with

  13. Wow this is great. As a history nerd this helped me learn more about American history (I’m European.)

  14. Greetings Arlene Balkansky,

    I know this is a long short for me, being that you posted this article two years ago, I don’t know if you check back to comments, but I felt the need to ask, as I am looking for clarity.

    I have a question that is quite puzzling to me. I have been seeing others post that April 20, 1853 is “the day” that Harriet Tubman began freeing slaves via the underground railroad.
    They do not cite where they got this information from.

    I have only found information that states that she began freeing slave via the underground railroad around 1950. As she freed herself around 1849.

    Do you have any documents, or writings that say she began April 20, 1853?

    Thank you for your time and help.

    • This is an interesting question. I have not yet been able to find any articles that can cite to a source for that date. Should I find something, I will follow up with you!

  15. I have not checked in here for some time since I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are great quality so I guess I’ll add you back to my daily bloglist. You deserve it my friend :)

  16. It is really really helpful article on Harriet Tubman and her efforts and achievements which she did for Black Americans. It made the history for the Black Activists and for their liberty. For more information about Harriet Tubman’s life achievements read the article to get more historical insights.

  17. Helped me with my project

  18. Ummm This made the time pass by in my reading class for my book report it gave me all the information going for that A so thanks.

  19. Thank you! I’m using this article as a source for my school project, I knew I had to use this one due to the photos and the stuff to know about Harriet Tubman.

  20. TYSM this is gonna make me ace my test (not copying)

  21. This helped me a lot for explaining how Minty became a conductor and her uprise tysm!

  22. Thank you for this awsome and very impactful article. Harriet Tubman. Oops sorry I got to go the new episode of my anime is out!!!!!!!!!

  23. why did slavery stop!?

  24. This article helped me a lot. I had to write five-six paragraphs, 5-7 sentences each, for African American History II to explain if each unit we learned about was successful or failed by arguing whether or not it demonstrates continuity or change over time.

  25. Interesting….

  26. A question–since this article was first published, have any copies of Harriet Tubman’s public speeches come to light? If so, her speeches–the ultimate primary source document in her instance–will prove more than worth their weight in gold!

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