9 Surprising Facts About Harriet Tubman
The day after the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would soon grace the $20 bill, millions of people went online to question: “Who is Harriet Tubman?” It was one of the week’s most Googled queries, the search engine announced, with interest spiking 4250 percent.
Reverend Paul Carter, who has led tours of Harriet Tubman’s longtime home in Auburn, New York, for the past 25 years, is often startled by how little people know of this escaped slave turned Underground Railroad guide and Civil War spy. Now he and the property’s president and CEO, Karen Hill, hope Tubman’s face on paper currency will help people appreciate her impressive achievements despite long odds.
The legacy-keepers are happy to educate people about Tubman’s remarkable life. With a gentle Southern drawl and an enthusiasm undimmed by the years, Carter leads visitors through part of the property Tubman owned for five decades, now held by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and soon to become part of the National Park system. “We absolutely think she is one of the all-time great Americans,” Hill says. Here are nine facts Carter and Hill share that tend to stun visitors.
1. She wasn’t born Harriet Tubman—not even close. Her birth name was Araminta Ross, and her family called her Minty as a child. She changed her name to Harriet, in honor of her mother, when she was a teenager.
2. An iron thrown at another slave hit Tubman in the head when she was young. She nearly died, and for the rest of her life she suffered from headaches, seizures, and visions. In modern terms, she would be considered a disabled activist, Hill says, since she undertook journeys of hundreds and thousands of miles despite deep physical limitations.
3. After making her own escape from slavery, Tubman began her work as Underground Railroad guide by going back to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for her siblings. Ultimately she led around 70 people to safety, many to St. Catharines, Ontario.
4. Though she had a reputation for being forceful—she was said to threaten people who balked along the route to freedom with a gun—Tubman was tiny, standing just under 5 feet.
5. While she was gone conducting along the Underground Railroad, her husband, John Tubman, took another wife. After he died, she also remarried. Her second husband, Nelson Davis, was much younger—at least 24 years—but he, too, predeceased her by many years.
6. Tubman was given $200 for three years as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Her service included leading a raid that freed 700 slaves in South Carolina—making her the first woman to lead an armed raid in enemy territory in the United States, according to Hill.
7. She developed an unlikely friendship with one of the most powerful men of the time, William Seward, who served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State. He loaned her $1200 for her property at the edge of Auburn.
8. When the war was over, her giving didn’t stop. Tubman pushed tirelessly for women’s suffrage. And though she always struggled financially, she was a woman of deep faith who shared what little she had, donating a piece of her property as a Home for the Aged serving elderly African-Americans. She wound up living there during her own later years, too. It's this home visitors can tour today.
9. She died when she was around 93 years old (she is believed to have been born in about 1820), which means she lived an astonishingly long life for the time period, especially considering the physical strains she’d endured.