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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.*
- Harriet Tubman: A Resource Guide
- Slavery in America: A Resource Guide
- Runaway! Fugitive Slave Ads in Newspapers, a Headlines and Heroes blog
- Fugitive Slave Ads: Topics in Chronicling America
* 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.