The Early Life of Harriet Tubman

Dan Bryan, February 7 2015

Harriet Tubman, as she would someday be known, was born a slave around 1821 in Dorchester County, Maryland. At birth her name was Araminta Ross. It was only in her adolescence that she came to be called Harriet. By the time of the Civil War she would be one of the most illustrious conductors on the entire Underground Railroad. Before that happened, she had to escape herself. What were Harriet Tubman's formative experiences? What was the society like that she grew up in? And how did she escape from her lot in life?

The Early Life of Harriet Tubman

The part of Maryland where Harriet Tubman was born is known as the Eastern Shore. It was and is a very rural, agricultural region of the state. Her master was a man named Edward Brodas.

One of the great divides in slave society was that between field slave and house slave. In general, house slaves avoided the worst of the hard work and ill treatment which most other slaves were subject to. Of course, this often led to their being ostracized and despised by the majority of field slaves. The legacy and rhetoric of this divide survived for a long time.

Harriet did some field work as a child until her master took to hiring her out. This was a system whereby a slaveowner could gain extra revenue from a slave who they couldn't personally make use of on a continuous basis.

In the first instance, she was hired to be a house slave to the wife of a local man -- known as "Miss Susan" in one biography. Having never seen the inside of a proper house, Harriet was ill-prepared for this work and was given little sympathy when she bungled the tasks assigned to her. On her first day she was whipped more than once because she left dust behind as she cleaned the parlor. It was finally through a sympathetic relative of her mistress that she was taught how to clean and dust a room to the standards expected of her. Eventually "Miss Susan" grew tired of Harriet and sent her back to her master.

At a subsequent stop, Harriet received an injury which remained with her for life. On this occasion, while she was but twelve years old, she was hit in a head by a two-pound weight as she attempted to interfere in the pursuit of a slave by a plantation overseer. This blow nearly killed her and caused episodes of narcolepsy and hallucination for the remainder of her life.

After these episodes Harriet returned to the life of a field hand, where she became quite strong and adept at plowing, as well as cutting and hauling timber. This work left her in outstanding physical shape by the time she was a young woman, which prepared her for her eventual escape.

Harriet Tubman's Escape to the North

Harriet married a free black named John Tubman in 1844. Maryland was somewhat unique compared to other southern states in that it contained a large free black population. Such "mixed" marriages were common in that region and era, but any children born would inherit their status from the mother, Harriet, and thus be slaves. However, Harriet was permitted to stay in John's house during the night.

In 1849, Harriet's master Edward Brodas died suddenly. This represented a real danger to the future of Harriet Tubman and her family. By the 1840s, Maryland was no longer a center of the slave economy. Therefore, in the ensuing estate sale it was highly likely that Brodas's slaves would be sold to locations further to the South. On top of separating Harriet from her family and husband, this would also likely place her in a much more brutal situation so far as her daily work would be concerned. One of the most grueling places for a slave to be was on a cotton plantation in the deep south. The phrase "sold down the river" came into being to describe this fear of being sold into the heart of the cotton region. Such a thing had already happened to two of Harriet's sisters.

For the time being, though, Harriet was fortunate in the sense that her plantation was located ninety miles from the Mason-Dixon line. Naturally, her thoughts turned to making use of a potential escape route. One day as she was working in a field, an unknown Quaker woman provided her with a "ticket" to the Underground Railroad -- in this case a slip of paper informing her where her first destination would be, should she decide to flee.

Knowledge of the North Star was essential for making good on an escape. This stationary star, Polaris, always indicates true north, and Harriet learned how to track it in her upbringing. In an age with few other aids to navigation, this knowledge was essential.

However, to make it out of the slave states, one had to dodge both professional bounty hunters and white slave patrols. In Harriet's case, a bounty of $100 was placed on her head for safe return. Anybody with the wherewithal to retrieve her could have collected this reward, and some men made their living by tracking escaped slaves. At $100 a head (prices varied based on the slave in question), even a few retrievals per year would have provided a good living in the 1840s.

Harriet Tubman's bounty, as printed when she escaped.

As for the slave patrols, these operated in a good many jurisdictions and were considered a civic obligation, similar to jury duty. In the case of Georgia, there is a good online resource explaining some particulars of this practice. These patrols were generally also rewarded for any runaways they apprehended.

Harriet fled her plantation on September 17, 1849. Initially her two brothers also planned to escape, but they had a change of heart and turned back. Harriet proceeded alone, therefore, traveling off road and doing her utmost to elude detection. This involved traveling at night and sleeping deep in the woods by day. On October 3, 1849, a notice of her escape along with a bounty was published in the Cambridge Democrat.

It is unclear exactly how long it took Harriet to travel the ninety miles to Pennsylvania. However, she was able to cross the Mason-Dixon line without incident. In her own recollection she said:

"When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven" -- from Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman

Harriet's next objectives were to seek paid employment in Philadelphia, save money, and plan for her first attempt to free other slaves from the South.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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