Harriet Tubman is a figure that almost everyone knows, but most know little about outside of her work helping slaves escape. The most striking to me initially is that Harriet Tubman lived until March 1913. Like many slaves Tubman was not sure when she was born, but most estimate that it was sometime in 1822. The length of her life was long, although her mother lived about the same length of time and her father not much less.
My grandfather, was born the year before Harriet Tubman died. I intellectually know that slavery legally ended in 1865, but the personal connection to my grandfather, who passed away in 2005, means that as someone in the middle of my life, I really only have to go back two lives to be connected to slavery.
Harriet Tubman is fascinating. A small woman, and one that suffered a serious head wound from abuse of a slave owner early in her life that caused life long problems, Tubman lived a life of service. Through her work with the Underground Railroad, she helped about 70 slaves to escape directly and assisted with the escape of another 50-60. This is not as many as her legend suggests, but her courage to return at least 13 times to assist slaves to escape is important. However, her story does not stop there.
Part of what is interesting about Bound for the Promise Land is that while many parts of Tubman’s story lack detail, Larson has documented about everything that likely can be documented. But just as important, she placed Tubman and her life in clear context. Tubman as an Black woman, was freer to travel than Black men. Not that she was not in danger, she was, but there were things that she could get away with that others could not. Larson has an interesting discussion about Women Preachers during slavery. There were many slave or Free Black male preachers in the south prior to the Civil War, but women preachers were less likely to be arrested or restricted because they were not seen as threatening. Because of this bias, Tubman and a number of others women were able to preach and gather people together in ways that men were not able to.
Tubman was a serious Christian. Her head injury has been connected to visions, but Tubman took many of those visions seriously as words from God. There are at least a few of them there whether real or intuition, seem to have resulted in people’s lives being saved.
Tubman escaped slavery in 1849, 12 years before the start of the Civil War, when she was about 27 or 28 years old. Her husband did not go with her and when she returned for him, he had married again and did not agree to leave with her. (He was a Free Black man, but any children that they may have had together would have been slaves.)
In the years before the Civil War, Tubman built her reputation in abolitionist circles. Many of the trips she took were to bring back family members. White Abolitionists did provide some support for her financially, but much of her work was financed through her own labor. The continuing story of her life was that while many White supporters gave her money, she in turn gave it away to others quickly and supported a number of people through her own work. Finances were always a problem.
During the Civil War Tubman worked as a nurse in Union hospitals, worked as spy and supported herself through her own labor. She received cash payments for some of her spy work, but much of that went to expenses. Tubman also set up small businesses for freed slaves, but mostly labored herself to cover her expenses. Despite her direct work for the army, Tubman was not directly paid during the war. Tubman was the first woman, but not the only, to lead armed assaults during the Civil War, which made her nickname not just Moses, but also as General Tubman. (Although it was John Brown that seems to have been the first to call her that. She assisted in the planning for Brown’s raid, but did not participate.)
On the way home after the Civil War, a train conductor in New York refused to recognize her government pass and tried to eject her from the normal cars to the smoking car. The result of the assault by the conductor and others was a broken arm and a number of other injuries.
After the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was a tireless advocate of freed slaves, women’s rights and women’s suffrage and the support of poor. She raised a number of orphaned children and supported the elderly. She was significantly involved in efforts for women’s suffrage, even though toward the end of her life, the involvement of Black women in the suffrage movement was explicitly denied in part because White suffragists were trying to link women in both the North and South and Southern women resisted the inclusion of Black women in voting.
Bound for the Promise Land documents through Tubman’s life and legacy the rise of the Lost Cause mythology and how it impacted day to day life for Blacks at the time. In 1869, Sarah Hopkins Bradford published the first real biography of Tubman (with the intention of raising money to support Tubman’s work). In 1886 it was re-written and republished, again to support Tubman. But the re-writing significantly changed the tone and style of the book to minimize the horrors of slavery and to characterize Tubman according to the racists feelings about Black women that was common during the era.
Bound for the Promise Land was not the most literary biographies I have read, although certainly not badly written. But it did not feel as literary as some biographies have. The historical quality was excellent. I really do have a hard time thinking that many other details about Tubman’s life and context could be found that were not included here. Tax records, bills of sale, letters, government records, newspapers, etc., were well mined for information. Explorations of various theories and timeline options that could explain what there is clear documentation to prove (and where there is not enough documentation to prove) are exhaustively recounted.
Harriet Tubman is by no means an unimportant figure, she was knew many of the powerful abolitionists, suffragists and humanitarians of the era. Although she never learned to read or write, her speaking ability served her well. While her fame waned and waxed throughout her life and after, the actual work she did, often under-appreciated at the time, with Frederick Douglass, John Brown, William Seward, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B Anthony was important. All of these listed viewed her as a close friend.
After that first biography in 1869, there was not another biography until 1943, written by Earl Conrad. And except for children or young adult biographies, not another biography of Harriet Tubman was published until after 2000. Bound for the Promise Land was published in 2004 and about that time and since there have been several other biographies. (Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom is currently $1.99 on kindle.) It is unlikely to me that other biographies will have much additional information that is not present here, but I am glad that Harriet Tubman is getting some of the recognition that she deserves and that there are competing biographies after so little academic attention.