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The Legendary Harriet Tubman

For the week of Monday March 8, 2010

On March 10, 1913, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia at the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indigent Colored People in Auburn, New York, which she had established five years earlier. Disadvantaged by race, gender and status, Harriet overcame great odds and became a legendary symbol of the Underground Railroad in British North America for her efforts to free African-Americans from slavery in the southern United States.

Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church National Historic Site of Canada, St. Catharines, Ontario
© Parks Canada / S. Ricketts / 1998
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery between 1820 and 1823 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Due to her preference for outdoor work, Harriet worked in the fields, driving carts and ploughing. This work as a field hand allowed Harriet to familiarize herself with the landscape, learn how to survive outdoors, and become strong; all of which helped her through her journeys on the Underground Railroad.

After escaping her owner in 1849, Harriet became determined to rescue others. Harriet settled in Philadelphia where she learned about the Underground Railroad and gained valuable connections to other “conductors,” anti-slavery activists and safe-houses. In 1850, she began returning to the South and, over the years, is credited with having brought back about 300 persons escaping slavery. Initially, Harriet brought the refugees back with her to Philadelphia and worked to support them and save money for more rescue trips south; however, after the passage of the American Fugitive Slave Law (1850), which threatened the freedom of Black people in the North, Harriet began to transport the refugee slaves to St. Catherines, Ontario, where she lived from 1851 until 1857.

Harriet Tubman (left), with slaves she helped rescue
© Bettmann Archives Inc.

While in St. Catherines, Harriet became involved in various anti-slavery groups, including the Refugee Slaves’ Friends Society and the Fugitive Aid Society, and brought many refugee slaves to settle there. She rented a house behind Salem’s Chapel for refugee slaves and was active in the fugitive slave community.

Since maintaining secrecy was key to Harriet’s survival, there is a period of eight years during her Underground Railroad activities that remain cloaked in mystery. Known as the most successful “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, Harriet carried a gun in order to protect herself and her group from slave catchers – she also used the gun to prevent refugees from turning back. These stories, along with anecdotes spread by Harriet and her supporters, lend themselves to her mythical status.

As a symbol of the Underground Railroad, for her role in the Abolition Movement in British North America national historic event, and for leading refugee slaves to freedom in St. Catherines, Ontario, Harriet Tubman was designated a National Historic Person in 2005.

For more information on the Underground Railroad, please see A place of their own, A Voice for Freedom, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Test the Fugitive Offenders Act, Shadrach Minkins, and Mary and Henry Bibb, Committed Couple.

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