Harriet Tubman: Biography, Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and accomplishments of the Civil War humanitarian and spy Harriet Tubman and test your understanding about the history of African Americans in the Civil War.


Slavery is bad. We know that now, but sadly this wasn't always true. Slavery was an American institution for many years before it was abolished forever during the Civil War. There were many courageous heroes who helped defeat slavery, and not all of them wore the Union grey.

Harriet Tubman (c.1822-1913) was one of those heroes. An African American woman who was born into slavery in the pre-war South, she escaped and became one of the most successful smugglers of enslaved Americans into the North of the era. She was a talented woman who fought slavery by herself and with others, even serving as a spy for the Union army during the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

Born into Slavery

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland, under the name Araminta Ross. As with most slaves, the exact year and place of her birth are unknown. When she was around five years old, Harriet was assigned work as a nanny. Every time the baby she was watching cried, Harriet was whipped. She worked in several positions for different masters and was often brutally beaten. As a child she suffered a serious head injury and suffered from seizures and headaches throughout her life. In 1844, she married a free black man named John Tubman, and changed her name to Harriet, her mother's name.

Slave scene on a Confederate 100-dollar note

Harriet's Escape

In 1849, the man who owned Harriet's family died, and the family was about to be sold off to different people. Harriet and two brothers escaped, but they soon returned for unknown reasons. Likely, they were simply afraid of being hunted down and murdered. Harriet escaped again, without her brothers, using a network of activists called the Underground Railroad. Free black and white abolitionists, those against slavery, organized networks of escape routes and safe houses to help slaves escape to the North. Harriet's guides hid her in carts or treated her like a slave during the day to prevent suspicion, and travelled at night. The journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania was almost 90 miles, up to a three-week journey by foot.

Harriet the Abolitionist

After reaching freedom, Harriet slowly began smuggling relatives to safety. This was made more dangerous by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which increased penalties for runaway slaves and efforts to find them in the North. With each trip back to Maryland she became more skilled at helping people escape, and earned the name 'Moses' for the people she lead to safety. Harriet also began transporting slaves out of the United States completely and sending them to Canada where fugitive slave laws, which had made life more dangerous in the North, could not reach them.

Routes on the Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad

Over 11 years, Harriet personally rescued around 70 slaves and provided another 60 with means to escape through her role as a 'conductor' on the Underground Railroad. She learned to begin an escape on Saturday evenings because there was no newspaper on Sunday and the 'escaped slaves' notice wouldn't appear until Monday. Her religious devotion guided her, and she often attributed visions from seizures as divine premonitions. Any slave who travelled with Harriet lost the option to give up and return back to slavery; there are even accounts of her threatening to shoot any deserters who could give away their route. Despite rewards for her capture, neither Harriet nor a single one of her escaped slaves were ever caught.

Harriet the Spy

Harriet Tubman also provided valuable information about slave networks and other systems at work in the South to fellow conductors, as well as to a militant white abolitionist named John Brown, who used the information to plan violent raids against white slavers. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet and other abolitionists joined the Union army to provide assistance to escaped slaves.

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