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Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how regional differences related to slavery caused tension in the years leading up to the Civil War

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative alongside the Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin Narrative to explore the roles women played in the abolitionist movement.

In 1849, after living under the harsh conditions of slavery for 24 years and fearful of being separated from her family again, Harriet Tubman had a terrible choice to make. On one hand, she wanted her inalienable right to freedom, by which no one would rule over her arbitrarily. On the other hand, to gain it, she would have to leave her husband and family behind. Tubman made the choice for freedom and fled the bonds of slavery by running away to the North via the Underground Railroad, a network of people who helped enslaved persons safely escape from slavery.

Tubman was born Araminta Ross to enslaved parents in Dorchester County, Maryland, in about 1822 (many slaves, like Frederick Douglass, guessed at their birth year). She was six years old when her owner sent her to a neighbor’s house, where she was hired to be a house slave and nursemaid; eventually, she worked in the fields. In her twenties, she married a free black man named John Tubman and changed her first name to Harriet to honor her mother.

On the plantation, Tubman was exposed to the horrors of the institution of slavery. She experienced a harsh life of difficult labor and physical punishment, which left permanent scars from lashes and neurological damage from unrestrained beatings. When she was 12 years old, she was sent on an errand to a store, where a man insisted that she restrain an enslaved boy who was attempting to run away. When she refused, the man threw a two-pound weight and hit her in the head. She never received proper medical treatment for the injury and never fully recovered from the damage. She continued to live with seizures and headaches for the rest of her life. The scars and mistreatment reminded her of the horrid existence of a slave and were the catalyst for her run from bondage in 1849.

After Tubman made her own escape to Pennsylvania, she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and returned south multiple times to help others flee slavery. These undertakings were extremely dangerous because runaway slaves were whipped, and those who abetted them were subject to criminal prosecution after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Members of the Quaker religion, who opposed slavery, and many African Americans helped Tubman on her journeys.

Painting of three people on a running horse.

This early 1860s painting called A Ride for Liberty depicts runaway slaves attempting to escape.

Tubman decided to help others run away because she believed their freedom was more important than her own safety and that it was her responsibility to help those who could not rescue themselves. During the eight years before the Civil War, she traveled to the South about 12 times to lead to freedom approximately 70 of her family and friends who were slaves. She dressed in disguises to avoid being captured and overcame many obstacles to make the journeys. For each trip, for example, she walked for seven weeks, traveling by night to avoid detection by bloodhounds, and covered nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia, where she found work and saved money to return.

Adding to the danger, in 1850, Congress enacted a stricter Fugitive Slave Act that allowed slave catchers to go to the North and capture supposed runaway slaves and return them to their owners. Those northerners who helped enslaved persons escape were prosecuted. Newspapers ran ads from slaveholders that described the runaways and offered monetary rewards, but abolitionists formed massive mobs to protect runaways from slave catchers. Tubman feared for her own safety as well as the safety of the travelers with her. Strength, courage, determination, and her sense of responsibility enabled her to face the constant dangers, however. In 1865 she said, “I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight, and that’s what I’ve always prayed for ever since.” She knew every step forward put the nightmare of slavery behind those she helped.

Portrait of Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman, shown here in her later years, became an icon of courage and freedom.

“General” Tubman, as she was called, remained active during the Civil War, serving as a Union scout, spy, and nurse. In 1862, she was a teacher in Union-controlled territory in Beaufort, South Carolina, where she taught former enslaved persons. In 1863, she joined Union troops raiding the coastal rivers in U.S. Navy ships and participated in the Combahee River Raid that drove off Confederate defenders in the area. Enslaved persons witnessing the raid ran to the Union ships and thronged the river banks. The overcrowded ships helped 750 slaves escape, and many joined the Union Army to fight to expand freedom.

After the war and the end of slavery, Tubman continued to feel responsible for others. She sought support from her abolitionist friends like Fredrick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and she purchased land from William Seward, former Secretary of State under President Lincoln, to open the Home for the Aged in Auburn, New York. When she was too old and infirm to run the home, she deeded the property to the Church of Zion, which agreed to manage it. At the end of her life, she moved into the home herself to live out her final days.

Harriet Tubman never lost sight of her conviction that she was responsible for doing as much good as she could for as long as she could. She was never caught and never lost anyone she was leading to freedom. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed her “Moses” for leading her people out of slavery as the biblical Moses had done.

Review Questions

1. Why was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 considered stricter than ones it replaced?

  1. It prevented slaveholders from pursuing runaway enslaved persons.
  2. It provided for harsher punishment of those who helped runaway enslaved persons.
  3. It meant that Northerners who assisted runaways would no longer be prosecuted.
  4. Its provisions applied to the northern United States and Canada.


“When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go!
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go!


Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go!”

The words to this spiritual song apply most to the antebellum actions of

  1. Harriet Tubman
  2. Harriet Beecher Stowe
  3. William Lloyd Garrison
  4. John Calhoun

3. Which religious denomination was closely associated with the antislavery movement prior to the Civil War?

  1. Catholicism
  2. Anglicanism
  3. Quakerism
  4. Mormonism

4. Harriet Tubman acted as a conductor on the underground railroad in the lead-up to the

  1. War of 1812
  2. Mexican-American War
  3. Civil War
  4. Plains Wars

5. William Lloyd Garrison referred to Harriet Tubman as “Moses” because she

  1. led runaways out of slavery
  2. was born into slavery
  3. wrote a popular abolitionist book
  4. manumitted her own enslaved persons

6. The destination of the underground railroad changed with the passage of the Compromise of 1850 because

  1. Canada’s government guaranteed safe passage for runaway slaves
  2. completion of the Erie Canal made it quicker and cheaper to get to New York City
  3. many economic opportunities existed in the new western territories
  4. the new fugitive slave law increased the risks for escapees

7. Even after the Civil War, Harriet Tubman continued to demonstrate her conviction that she should do good for others by

  1. raising funds necessary to run a home for aged and poor blacks in Auburn, New York
  2. continuing to help enslaved persons escape from captivity by leading raids on southern plantations
  3. disguising herself to escape from a Confederate prison and serve as a teacher
  4. writing an inspiring autobiography detailing her heroic life

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain why Harriet Tubman decided to escape from slavery.
  2. Explain how Harriet Tubman earned the nickname “Moses.”
  3. Explain why Underground Railroad conductors, such as Harriet Tubman, had to alter their routes to include Canada after 1850.

AP Practice Questions

Map of the United States showing the area from Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri on the left to Tennessee and North Carolina at the bottom to New England. Red lines indicate the routes of the Underground Railroad. They are heavily concentrated in Ohio and around the Philadelphia area.

This map features the routes of the Underground Railroad in red.

Refer to the map provided.

1. The provided map most clearly depicts

  1. the impact of the transportation revolution of the Jacksonian Era
  2. the limits of westward expansion
  3. resistance to state and federal legislation
  4. the decline in cotton cultivation

2. What caused the pattern seen in the provided map?

  1. Free states in closest proximity to slave states saw the greatest activity.
  2. New England had only a modest connection to the abolitionist cause.
  3. The Erie Canal boats guaranteed safe passage to runaway enslaved persons.
  4. Communities of runaway enslaved persons settled along the southern shores of the Great Lakes.

Primary Sources

Horton, Lois E., ed. Harriet Tubman and the Fight for Freedom: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 2013.

Suggested Resources

Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. New York: Amistad, 2005.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. Boston: Little Brown, 2004.

Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2015.

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