Harriet Tubman


1820 - March 10, 1913

Runaway-slave Harriet Tubman was famous in the North before the Civil War for her work on the Underground Railroad, and there was a $40,000 price on her head in the South. About the only people who had not heard of her were the thousands of slaves isolated on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina. These slaves had been abandoned by fleeing plantation owners and were under the care and supervision of the U.S. Army when Tubman arrived at Beaufort, S.C., in May 1862. Tubman, a short muscular, 42 year old illiterate black woman, had come to work with the freed slaves and the Union forces in scouting operations.

For generations the sea island slaves had little contact with the outside would, and they had developed their own language, a mixture of English and African tongues called Gullah that caught Tubman by surprise. "Why, der language down dar in de far South is jus' as different from our in Maryland, as you can think. Dey laughed when dey heard me talk, an' I could not understand dem, no how," she said. This unknown black woman who "talked so funny" found she had to gain the freed slaves confidence and establish herself in the community before she could expect their help. She went to work nursing hundreds of blacks who suffered from a smallpox epidemic and others who were ill from the many coastal fevers and thereby gained a reputation as a "healer." She joined in their religious services and singing and dancing sessions, built a washhouse where some of the women earned money doing laundry for soldiers, and gradually gained the people's confidence and support.

During her 14 months working in Beaufort, Tubman "made many a raid inside the enemy's lines, displaying remarkable courage, zeal and fidelity," said the commanding general of the Union forces. In one gunboat excursion, more than 700 slaves were brought out and several plantations were left in flames. Tubman returned home to Auburn, N.Y., in the summer of 1864 and lived there for the rest of her life.

Fascinating Fact: Recently freed blacks had many adjustments to make. They often resented other blacks who had been given some authority.