From Women in History:
BIRTH DATE: c.1820. Because she was a slave, and owners did not record their slaves’ birthdates, the exact date of Harriet’s birth is unknown — different accounts list 1820 or 1821.
BIRTH PLACE: Edward Brodas plantation near Bucktown, Dorchester County, Maryland.
EDUCATION: Because of her indentured status, Harriet was denied the opportunity for education — leaving her illiterate her entire life. Slaveowners did not want their slaves to know how to read or write.
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Harriet’s ancestors had been brought to America in shackles from Africa during the first half of the 18th Century. Harriet was the 11th child born to Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene (slaves of Edward Brodas), her given name was Araminta and she was often called “Minty” as a child. But by the time she was an adult, she was calling herself Harriet.
As was the custom for many slaves, Harriet began working at an early age. When five years old, she was first sent away from home, “loaned out” to another plantation, checking muskrat traps in icy cold rivers. She quickly became too sick to work and was returned, malnourished and suffering from the cold exposure. Once she recovered, she was loaned out to another plantation, working as a nurse to the planter’s infant child. By the age of 12, she was working as a field hand, plowing and hauling wood. At 13, while defending a fellow slave who tried to run away, her overseer struck her in the head with a two-pound weight. This resulted in recurring narcoleptic seizures, or sleeping spells, that plagued her the rest of her life.
In 1844, at about the age of 25, Harriet married John Tubman, a freeman. She gained permission to marry him from her owners and lived with him in his cabin, but she was required to continue working for her master. When Harriet told John of her dreams of one day gaining her freedom, he told her that she would never be free and, if she tried running away, he would turn her in. On one of her first return visits to Maryland, Harriet went to John’s cabin in hopes of getting him to go north with her. She found that he had taken another wife. Later in 1869, she married Nelson Davis. She never had any children.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: The Biblical story of Exodus in which Moses freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel, saw repetition in the years before the Civil War when Harriet Tubman freed over 300 blacks from slavery in the South to freedom in the North. For her commendable work she herself was nicknamed “Moses.”
Despite the hardships inflicted upon her and the unfairness of them, Harriet used her labors for self discipline and set for herself the goal of escaping to the North. She accomplished this goal in 1849, when alone and on foot she ran away from the plantation in the middle of the night and followed the north star to free land in Pennsylvania. It came about after her master died and she heard rumors that she and two of her brothers were to be sold to a chain gang. Her brothers left with her, but became scared, deciding not to take the risk, and so returned to the plantation. She traveled only at night, until she knew she had crossed the border between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states. She later said:
“I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything … and I felt like I was in heaven.”