Lesser-Known Facts About Harriet Tubman, An American Hero

A legendary abolitionist, political activist, and freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman was an escaped slave who dedicated and risked her life to help others gain their freedom as well. Utilizing the Underground Railroad, a network of anti-slavery safe houses, she led dozens of slaves to freedom, becoming a legend in her own right. However, this only scratches the surface of Tubman’s actions. Take a deeper look into the heroic life of Harriet Tubman, such as her service in the Union Army, and see how her actions went far beyond what’s commonly known.

Her Exact Age Is Unknown

Portrait of Harriet Tubman
Library of Congress/Getty Images
Library of Congress/Getty Images

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland. However, because she was born into slavery, her exact age is unclear. Some believe that she was born in the early 1820s, although the National Parks Conservation Association claims she was born in 1822.

She passed away in 1913 from pneumonia, which would have made her 91 years old according to the National Park Association’s estimate. She was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

A Head Injury Affected Her Entire Life

Painting of slaves in the fields
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

As a child, Tubman was subjected to beatings and whippings from several slave masters. On one occasion, she suffered a severe head wound when an enraged owner threw a heavy object at another slave but ended up hitting her instead.

The injury resulted in frequent dizziness, pain, and bouts of hypersomnia during her entire life. Following her injury, she also began experiencing visions and vivid dreams, which she interpreted as premonitions from God. This, along with being raised Methodist, led to her becoming extremely devout in her faith.

She Had An Issue With Abraham Lincoln

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

After the onset of the Civil War, it became nearly impossible for Harriet Tubman to continue her mission of rescuing slaves. So, she settled down in Port Royal, South Carolina helping abolitionists and the Union as a nurse to freed slaves. It was during this time that Tubman came into indirect conflict with Abraham Lincoln.

Tubman was working under General David Hunter, who was assembling a regiment of freed slaves. Lincoln believed that Hunter was moving too quickly and didn’t have the right to emancipate Southern slaves. This led Tubman to write a not-so-nice letter to Lincoln, although she later regretted not meeting him.

She Escaped By Herself

Underground Railroad
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

In 1849, Tubman’s master had died, and it was assumed that she and her family were going to be split up and sold off. On September 17, Harriet and her two brothers escaped but they ended up having second thoughts and returned, forcing Harriet to come with them. However, Harriet was determined, and escaped again — on her own this time.

Although her exact route is unknown, she utilized the Underground Railroad made up of freed slaves and abolitionists. Following the North Star, Harriet traveled over 90 miles on foot until she finally made it to freedom in Pennsylvania.

She Used All Kinds Of Methods To Keep A Low Profile

Painting of escaped slaves
Pinterest/Shannon Burton
Pinterest/Shannon Burton

Due to the Fugitive Slave Act and her growing renown, Tubman’s missions of helping slaves escape north became increasingly dangerous. She used a variety of different methods to avoid detection such as disguises and props like wearing a bonnet and reading, even though she was known to be illiterate.

At times, she would even carry around live chickens to make it look as though she was running errands, and it’s rumored that she would dose frightened children with opium to calm them down. She also carried a revolver, just in case.

She Rescued Her Family Members First

Escaped slaves running
Pinterest/Angela Kelly
Pinterest/Angela Kelly

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 declared that slaves were to be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. It also made the federal government responsible for apprehending and returning escaped slaves. Yet, despite this danger, Tubman made her way back to Maryland.

She first went to Baltimore where she freed her niece and her two children who were about to be sold, returning a few months later for her brother Moses and two others. Then, in 1851, she went back to recover her husband. However, it turned out he had married another woman and was happy where he was, so she left him and took some other slaves instead.

The Myth About Her Bounty

Drawing of Harriet Tubman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although she had a lot of notoriety, legend says that the slave owners in Maryland were so distraught by Tubman’s freeing the slaves that they offered $40,000 for her capture, dead or alive. While this makes for a good story, it’s only a myth. The only known bounty put on Tubman was just $100.

It’s assumed that the larger dollar amount came from a letter written by an anti-slavery activist declaring that Tubman should be awarded $40,000 as a pension for her work in the Union Army during the Civil War.

She Rescued Over 70 Slaves In 13 Trips

Escaped slaves with Harriet Tubman
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although the exact number of slaves that she helped remains unknown, it’s estimated that Tubman helped at least 70 slaves escape the South through the use of the Underground Railroad.

She did this by either leading them directly or providing them with the information necessary to get out on their own. These trips ended at the beginning of the Civil War, although she noted to Frederick Douglass that nobody in her care ever died along the way.

Her Nickname Was Moses

Exodus from Egypt
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Over the 11 years and numerous trips that Tubman returned to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to help escaped slaves, she made quite a name for herself both among the slaves and the slave owners.

Because of her bravery, skill, and determination, she was nicknamed “Moses” by those who she saved in her numerous trips. This is a reference to the prophet in the Bible, who led the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

She Was The First Woman To Lead An Armed Assault

Combahee river
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1863, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. While under the command of Colonel James Montgomery, she led 150 black Union troops in steamboats across the Combahee River in South Carolina. She helped guide the boats around Confederate mines and traps in the water until finally reaching the shore.

They then set fire to the surrounding plantations as the slaves scrambled to the boats. In total, over 750 slaves were rescued during the raid, with Tubman being hailed for her “patriotism, sagacity, energy, [and] ability.”

She Admired Frederick Douglass

Picture of Frederick Douglas
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In December 1851, Tubman was leading a group of 11 fugitive slaves in the hopes of getting them to Canada. it’s believed that she ended up stopping at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass to see refuge.

In his third autobiography, he wrote: “On one occasion I had eleven fugitives at the same time under my roof, and it was necessary for them to remain with me until I could collect sufficient money to get them on to Canada.” Because of the timing and number of people, this is believed to have been Tubman’s group. The two admired each other greatly, with Douglass writing a letter when her biography was being composed.

She Was Still Mistreated After The War

Old Harriet Tubman
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Even though Tubman spent years in the Union military as a nurse, fighter, and a liaison to black Union units, she was still disrespected when the war finally ended. When she decided to settle down in Auburn, New York, it was clear the country was not grateful for her service.

On a train to Auburn, she was ordered to sit in the smoking car with the other black passengers. When she mentioned her service, the conductor grabbed her and a physical altercation ensued, resulting in Tubman getting injured. She was also denied compensation or a pension for her service for decades.

She Was Almost A Part Of The Raid On Harper’s Ferry

Photo of John Brown
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1858, Harriet Tubman met John Brown, a white abolitionist who believed that he had been called by God to bring an end to slavery. Although Brown was much quicker to resort to violence than Tubman, the two worked together for a year.

Tubman is credited with assembling a fighting force of freed slaves that Brown would use to overrun the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. When the time of the raid had come, Brown asked “General Tubman” to join him in battle, but she was not available. The raid was a complete disaster, and Brown was hanged for treason.

She Worked As A Scout For The Union Army

Photo of Harriet Tubman
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, Tubman was further inspired and became a scout. She was a leader through the lands around Port Royal, and her knowledge of navigating bogs and rivers in stealth was put to use against the Confederacy.

She worked under the orders of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, mapping the unfamiliar terrain and observing its inhabitants. She also worked with Colonel James Montgomery, providing him with crucial information that resulted in the capture of Jacksonville, Florida.

She Had Brain Surgery Without Anesthesia

Photograph of Harriet Tubman
HB Lindsey/Underwood Archives/Getty Images
HB Lindsey/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Even in her advancing age, her headaches and seizures from her early head injury continued to plague her. Finally, in the 1890s, she underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. At that point, she was unable to sleep from the constant “buzzing” in her head and requested to have an operation.

According to Tubman, “[the surgeon] sawed open my skull and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable.” She did not receive anesthesia for the procedure and instead bit down on a bullet as she had seen Civil War soldiers do when they had their limbs amputated.

She Married A Younger Man

Tubman's family
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

After settling in Auburn, New York, without a pension, Tubman struggled to make ends meet and was forced to make a living performing odd jobs and taking in boarders. One of these people living with her was a former Union soldier named Nelson Davis.

The two fell in love and were married, although Davis was more than 20 years younger. Together, they adopted a baby girl named Gertie in 1874 and lived together as a family. Unfortunately, Davis passed away on October 14, 1888, of tuberculosis.

She Was Scammed For Gold

Confederate Money
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Even though she received some money for a two-volume biography written by an admirer, she was still in desperate need of money. In 1873, two men approached Tubman about handling a gold transfer worth around $5,000, for $2,000 in cash.

In need of money and assuming the men were innocent, Tubman agreed to make the transfer. After borrowing the cash from a wealthy friend, she went to make the transfer. It was there that the men attacked her, rendered her unconscious with chloroform, and took the money.

She Became An Advocate For Women’s Suffrage

Women with signs
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

After the Civil War and her time working as an abolitionist had ended, Tubman became involved with the women’s suffrage movement. She toured around the east coast, telling her story and working alongside others such as Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland.

When the National Federation of Afro-American Women was founded in 1896, she was the keynote speaker at the group’s first meeting. Although she had made a name for herself in an entirely new cause, her poverty still forced her to sell a cow in order to attend a reception in Boston honoring her actions in the movement.

She Became Heavily Involved in The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Tapestry of Harriet Tubman
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

In the early 1900s, Tubman became deeply involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn, New York. In 1903, she even donated a piece of real estate that she owned to the church, to be used as a home for “aged and indigent colored people.”

The home opened five years later, although it charged a $100 entrance fee for each resident. Tubman was disgusted by this, commenting, “they make a rule that nobody should come in without they have a hundred dollars. Now I wanted to make a rule that nobody should come in unless they didn’t have no money at all.”

She Was An Impressive Nurse

Photo of elderly Harriet Tubman
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

While serving as a nurse in Port Royal, Harriet Tubman used the local fauna to help heal soldiers who were suffering and dying from dysentery. She also risked the chance of getting smallpox while tending to others, although she never contracted the disease.

This led some people to believe that she was protected by God. As a nurse, she received government rations, but when other freed slaves saw this as special treatment, she quickly gave them up and started selling pies instead.