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The Moses of Her People

1.

Surveys of freshmen at the State University of New York at Buffalo who registered for the introductory US history course in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that more of them knew of Harriet Tubman than any other woman who lived before 1900 except Betsy Ross. Tubman also ranked higher on this recognition scale than Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas, Patrick Henry, and a host of other prominent figures.1

Like Betsy Ross, Tubman had achieved mythical stature because of her conspicuous place in school textbooks and children’s stories about he-roic Americans. The legendary “Moses” of her people, who escaped from slavery in 1849 and returned to Maryland again and again to lead three hundred more slaves to freedom, she also served as a scout during the Civil War and led Union soldiers on raids into the South Carolina interior to liberate hundreds more slaves. For children black or white, Hispanic or Indian, immigrant or native-born, these stories of risk and adventure propelled Tubman ahead of Davy Crockett and Nathan Hale and put her right up there with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

It was not always that way. For decades after her death in 1913 at the probable age of ninety (her exact birth date is unknown), Tubman languished in obscurity. The only African-Americans who enjoyed historical fame in those years were George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. In the 1930s the labor activist Earl Conrad (Earl Cohen) decided to write a biography of Tubman. “I looked over the various Negro figures,” Conrad explained,

and I came to the conclusion that Harriet was the greatest and the one about whom, for her stature, the least was known. I believed that through presenting Harriet I could show also the contributions of the Negro people.

Conrad could not interest any mainstream publisher in his biography, however. The black-owned Associated Publishers in Washington finally published his General Harriet Tubman in 1943. The book had few reviews, not many more buyers, and soon went out of print.

Since 1960, however, the greater visibility of black activists and of women in American history has launched a veritable Tubman boom. At least fifty-four children’s and young people’s fiction and nonfiction titles about Tubman have been published: six in the 1960s, five in the next decade, six again in the 1980s, twenty-one in the 1990s, and sixteen since 2000. Millions of schoolchildren have watched the educational movie Freedom Train and other dramas based on Tubman’s life. Dozens of public schools around the country bear her name. She is enshrined in impressive monuments in Boston and Battle Creek, Michigan. In Canada (where Tubman lived for a time in the 1850s), York University recently opened a digitized Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora.

Tubman’s home in Auburn, New York, where she lived most of her life in freedom, has become a popular tourist site. An annual celebration takes place there on Memorial Day weekend, when high school girls compete for the title of “Miss Harriet Tubman”—an event that would have amused the real Tubman. She would also have been surprised to find herself at the center of a controversy over the National History Standards released in 1994. These standards were attacked as “revisionist” by Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, because—among other reasons—they gave equal attention to Harriet Tubman and George Washington. “Overnight, Tubman’s name became a ‘hotbutton’ for conservative critics,” Cath-erine Clinton writes in her biography, “and she became a symbolic ‘whipping girl’ for political correctness.”

Little wonder that Tubman had greater name recognition among students at SUNY Buffalo than Francis Scott Key, Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Yet until now the only adult biography of her during the past century was Earl Conrad’s. The publicists for each of the three biographies reviewed here, which have been published almost simultaneously, claim it to be the first “major biography” in sixty years. In any event, we now have three well-written, thoroughly researched, and impeccably professional studies that largely succeed in their efforts to present the real historical Harriet Tubman rather than the mythical folk hero.

Each of these books has particular strengths that complement the others and add up to a remarkable collective achievement. The most readable and the one that provides the clearest context of slavery and Civil War is Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. The most fully researched study of the details of Tubman’s life is Kate Clifford Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land. And the best account of how Tubman shaped her own image through the autobiographical stories she told her contemporaries is Jean M. Humez’s Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, which reprints much of the documentary evidence on which any biography must be based.

That evidence consists mainly of stories told by Harriet to her earliest biographers, who wrote the stories down in brief connected narratives published in 1863 and 1865 and a full-length book in 1869. The author of the last was Sarah Bradford, who also collected anecdotes and reminiscences from those who knew Tubman. Bradford’s Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman was twice updated and expanded by Bradford in 1886 and 1901, both editions with the title Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People.

Missing from sources for Tubman’s life are the letters, diaries, and other written accounts in her own words that form the usual core of evidence for a biography. She remained illiterate all her life, so anything reported as having been said by her was written and therefore mediated by others. Only four letters from Tubman are known to have survived, and those were dictated to and written by white friends. At the same time, many of the incidents of her life as a slave, as a fugitive escaping to freedom, and as the “Moses” who returned repeatedly to lead others out of bondage are derived from her own testimony and often impossible to corroborate from other sources. Problems of evidence present formidable obstacles to biographers intent on sifting reality from myth. All three biographies under review were written by careful scholars with high standards. Even so, there are puzzling anomalies in the story of Tubman’s life.

Among these are the accounts of young Harriet’s physical strength and endurance and of the serious injury she suffered at age thirteen or fourteen. Born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Harriet was hired out by her owner as early as age five for household chores and child-tending in the homes of other whites. Rebellious even then, she was sometimes starved, abused, or beaten for minor infractions. When she was twelve or thirteen she was sent to work in the fields. A year or two later she sustained a life-threatening head wound when an enraged overseer threw a heavy iron object at an escaping male slave and hit Harriet instead. She recovered, but for the rest of her days she suffered from what her biographers variously term “temporal lobe epilepsy” or “narcolepsy” or possibly “cataplexy.” No physician was available to diagnose her malady, and even if one was available, he might not have known what to call it.

Whatever the medical term for her condition, all observers agreed on its symptoms: for the rest of her life Harriet would periodically lose consciousness and appear to fall asleep, sometimes for only a few seconds, some-times for several minutes, and then awaken to carry on as if nothing had happened. Thirty years after the incident had occurred, a friend reported that the injury

still makes her very lethargic. She cannot remain quiet fifteen minutes without appearing to fall asleep. It is not a refreshing slumber, but a heavy, weary condition which exhausts her.

During these seizures she often experienced dreams or visions, even hallucinations, sometimes with powerful religious overtones—more than once she said that God had spoken to her.

This injury and the seizures, as well as Harriet’s small stature, sometimes seem inconsistent with the portrayal by all biographers of her strength and “awesome stamina.” She was only five feet tall and probably weighed no more than one hundred pounds. Yet in her later teens and early twenties she worked in a logging camp, in the fields, in a grist mill loading “huge barrels” of flour onto boats or carts, “drove oxen, carted, and plowed and did all the work of a man,” and “would often exhibit her feats of strength” to her master’s friends. Somehow these accounts of Tubman’s physical activities do not seem to add up. Perhaps the inconsistencies can be reconciled, but her biographers do not try to reconcile them or even to recognize that they exist.

Similar questions can be raised about Tubman’s remarkable exploits as Moses. Her own escape in 1849 was aided by what became known as the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses and sympathetic whites and free blacks (the former mostly Quakers) in Maryland and Delaware. Traveling at night either on foot or hidden in a wagon driven by one of the “conductors” of this metaphorical railroad, hiding during the day in the woods or in one of the “stations,” Harriet made her way to Wilmington and then on to free soil in Philadelphia, as hundreds of slaves had done before and hundreds more would do after her—some of them with her help. This trip of more than a hundred miles, usually in winter when the nights were long and hostile whites were less likely to be abroad, required strength, courage, endurance, and adroitness.

But what about her narcoleptic seizures or sudden lapses into unconsciousness? Clinton acknowledges that these “chronic and deep intermittent spells…horrified those entrusted to her” during her repeated returns south to bring out more fugitives. Neither Clinton nor the other biographers resolve the seeming paradox of a small woman subject to seizures accomplishing such daring and dangerous feats except to state that the seizures “enhanced her reputation as mystical.” Perhaps so, but that seems inadequate as an explanation.

2.

There is no question that Tubman had striking results. The testimony and the records kept by Thomas Garrett, a Quaker merchant in Wilmington who was one of the most prominent “agents” of the Underground Railroad, and by William Still, a black businessman in Philadelphia, who had charge of that first station of the Liberty Line, leave no doubt of Tubman’s achievements. But the claim that she led three hundred slaves to freedom is a considerable exaggeration—the number was apparently plucked out of thin air by Sarah Bradford, who included it in her 1869 biography, and it has been cited ever since. The actual number fell somewhere between the fifty-seven documented by Humez, who collated Tubman’s own accounts with the few available corroborating sources, and the seventy estimated by Larson from a more expansive reading of the same sources. Tubman made either ten (Humez) or thirteen (Larson) return trips to Maryland for this purpose.

Many of the fugitives she conducted north were her relatives. Tubman had a strong sense of family. During her childhood two sisters were sold to buyers in states farther south. The trauma of that separation affected her deeply. When her owner died in 1849 and rumors spread that the family might be broken up and sold in pieces to various destinations, Harriet decided to escape. She initially persuaded two brothers to go with her, but they got cold feet and backed out, leaving her to go alone. Harriet had married a free black man in 1844; in 1851 she returned a third time to Maryland in an attempt to convince him to come north with her, but discovered that he had taken another wife. Nevertheless, she returned to the same neighborhood several times to bring out more relatives (including her elderly parents, who by then were free), some of them infants who had to be drugged with laudanum to keep them quiet.

How could she have got away with it? The slave owners in Dorchester County, Maryland, were not complete dunces; they must have noticed a suspicious pattern. Tubman made nearly all of her return trips to Maryland after the passage of the tough new Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which was intended to facilitate the recapture of fugitives in the free states, never mind the slave states. Thousands of black people in the North fled to Canada after 1850 for fear of recapture or kidnapping. The capture of several fugitives in the North and their return to slavery were heavily publicized. The Underground Railroad now stretched all the way to Canada, where Tubman conducted several of the fugitives she had brought out of Maryland. She herself settled in St. Catharines, Ontario (near Niagara Falls), for a time. But she returned frequently to the United States and traveled through the Northeast raising money from abolitionists to finance her trips to Maryland. In 1858 the prominent Republican politician William H. Seward sold her a small house and seven acres of land in Auburn, New York, and she lived there most of the rest of her life.

Somehow Tubman was never caught, in either the North or the South. Rumors of a reward for her capture circulated through antislavery circles. The abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson reported in 1859 that a reward of $12,000 had been posted in Maryland for her capture. Harriet herself mentioned a $10,000 reward on one occasion. By 1867 a white abolitionist inflated this figure in retrospect to $40,000, which also came to be accepted. That amount would be equivalent to almost a million dollars today. Even the smaller reported rewards would be equivalent to a quarter of a million current dollars. The bounty hunters who pursued fugitives through the North for a reward of a few hundred dollars would almost surely have run down the well-known Tubman if there had been any such reward for capturing her. After careful research, Kate Larson concludes that “a reward notice for Tubman’s capture has yet to be found.”

Whatever the truth about a reward, Tubman’s ability to travel in the North of the 1850s, not to mention the slave states of Maryland and Delaware, cries out for explanation—or at least speculation. On this matter it is instructive to turn to the biography of another Har- riet—Harriet Jacobs. If Tubman’s experience illustrates the physical abuse of slaves and the cruelties of family separation, Jacobs’s story illustrates the sexual exploitation of bondswomen. A mulatto slave born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813, Jacobs had an easier childhood than Tubman. Her indulgent mistress taught her to read, but when Harriet was twelve the mistress died. Willed to a child niece, whose father was a local physician and a notorious lecher, Harriet became the resisting victim of his sexual appetites when she reached puberty. In desperation she threw herself into the white arms of a prominent local bachelor lawyer (later a congressman) of whom she may have been genuinely fond and by whom she had two children. They of course became the legal property of the hated father of her owner, who once again threatened to make Harriet his concubine.

This time she fled, and hid out for almost seven years in the attic of her grandmother, a free Negro, before escaping to the North. Her former lover bought his children but did not immediately free them. They too eventually came north, where all three lived a precarious existence and Harriet was constantly threatened with recapture by her former owner, now an adult, and her owner’s still-vengeful father, the lecherous physician. Jacobs and her children were forced to move from place to place in the North and sometimes to go into hiding. Jacobs worked as a seamstress, governess, and maid for a well-to-do New York family, which purchased her freedom in 1853. Her almost-white children had finally been emancipated by their father, so the family could thenceforth live a life free from the fear of reenslavement.

Jacobs decided to follow the example of several other fugitive slaves (nearly all of them men) and write her autobiography. It was published in January 1861 under the pseudonym of Linda Brent with the title Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Some contemporaries considered it a novel; others believed it to have been ghostwritten by the white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, an opinion shared by a number of historians until now. Through years of research and historical detective work, however, Jean Fagan Yellin has demonstrated not only that Jacobs wrote it herself—with editorial assistance from Child, to be sure—but also that all of the events described by Jacobs are corroborated by other evidence. Unlike Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs left a substantial trail of letters and other documents that enabled Yellin to reconstruct the life of an extraordinary woman.2

Jacobs’s vulnerability to recapture until her Northern employer bought her freedom again raises the question of how Harriet Tubman, who was more prominent than Jacobs and traveled in the North more openly, was able to escape the bounty hunters. And how could she have returned to the same neighborhood in Maryland so many times? According to Tubman herself, on three occasions she narrowly avoided identification in Maryland by her master or other whites who knew her. One time she happened to be carrying a newspaper, which she pretended to read. Since her master knew her to be illiterate, he did not look more closely. Another time she was carrying live chickens when she spotted someone who knew her. She dropped the birds and made a big fuss over chasing them down, thereby hiding her face. She said that on another occasion she remained unidentified because, having lived in the North and no longer working in the fields, she had become a shade or two lighter in color. Since several Northern acquaintances described her as “coal black,” however, this story seems dubious—and the others not much less so.

Most often, when asked how she could lead frightened fugitives through a hundred miles of slave territory, overcoming fatigue and her own physical in- firmity, eluding pursuers and battling inclement weather, she simply answered: “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord! I always told him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me,’ and he always did.” It is as good an answer as any.

3.

Tubman lived for half a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, and Jacobs died in her eighty-fourth year, in 1897. These postwar decades seemed anticlimactic for both women. During the Civil War, Jacobs and her daughter worked at a relief center and founded a school for freed slaves in Alexandria, Virginia. Tubman spent part of the war on the South Carolina sea islands (between Charleston and Savannah) liberated by Union forces in November 1861. She worked as a nurse for black soldiers and as a scout behind enemy lines. Using the skills she acquired in her days as the Moses of fugitive slaves, in June 1863 she guided a raid by three hundred black soldiers up the Combahee River on the South Carolina mainland that destroyed Confederate resources and brought out 750 slaves. A month later, Tubman helped care for wounded men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry under Colonel Robert Shaw after their assault on Fort Wagner. Although she did not make it into the movie Glory about that event, she provided perhaps the most poetic description of it:

And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and then we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

Tubman never received regular payments or a pension for her wartime services, despite the support of several army officers and of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who testified to the valuable contributions she had made to the Union war effort. Her quest was tangled in the War Department bureaucracy, which had no record of her employment by the army. After the war a black Union army veteran named Nelson Davis boarded at Tubman’s house in Auburn. Although he was more than twenty years younger than Harriet, they married in 1869. Davis died of tuberculosis in 1888; the same bureaucracy delayed Harriet’s efforts to obtain a widow’s pension because Davis had enlisted under the name of Nelson Charles. With help, Harriet finally obtained a pension of $8 per month starting in 1892. Her congressman got it increased in 1897 to $20 per month (about $500 in today’s money), all the recognition she ever received for her wartime services.

During these years, Tubman took many aged and infirm black people into her Auburn home, supporting them with contributions from numerous white and black friends. In 1908, with financial aid from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, she was able to realize her dream of building a Harriet Tubman Home on adjoining property that she had acquired. Tubman lived out her remaining days in the very institution she had founded.

After the Civil War, Harriet Jacobs kept boarding houses in Cambridge (where several Harvard professors lived) and later in Washington. She never married. Although her actions were less dramatic than Tubman’s, and Jacobs will probably never be among the leading ten names recognized by freshman students of American history, her contributions to the struggle for black freedom were also important. With the publication of these four biographies, perhaps even Lynne Cheney will be compelled to acknowledge that importance.

  1. 1

    Michael Frisch, “American History and the Structures of Collective Memory: A Modest Exercise in Empirical Iconography,” Journal of American History, Vol. 75, No. 4 (March 1989), pp. 1130–1155.

  2. 2

    In contrast to “Hannah Crafts,” a pseudonym of the author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, a manuscript novel probably written in the late 1850s that gathered dust in someone’s attic for nearly a century. It came to light in 1948 and became part of a collection of African-American writings owned by the librarian and bibliophile Dorothy Porter Wesley, who died in 1995. Henry Louis Gates Jr. purchased the manuscript at auction in 2001 and published it with great fanfare the following year.

    Despite tireless efforts by Gates and other scholars to discover the author’s real name, her identity remains unknown. Unlike Harriet Jacobs, she left no paper trail except the manuscript itself. Internal evidence suggests that the author was probably black, perhaps a fugitive slave who escaped to freedom in 1857. If so, The Bondwoman’s Narrative would be the earliest novel written by a female ex-slave. The novel combines the sentimental and Gothic genres of nineteenth-century fiction, with Dickensian overtones, which have convinced some scholars that the author was one of the white abolitionist ghostwriters typical of the era. In any event, The Bondwoman’s Narrative carries less credibility as a portrait of slavery than Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. See Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Warner, 2002); and In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins (Basic Civitas, 2004).

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