When looking at a list of the most influential women in history, Harriet Tubman has to be near the top.
Given where she started in life, and the eventual impact she would make on hundreds, if not thousands of people, it is without a doubt that she belongs in the conversation.
From slave to Underground Railroad conductor to Civil War Nurse & Spy, Harriet Tubman did it all and created a life that revolved around helping others.
An incredibly selfless woman, she sacrificed everything to help make the lives around her better, at personal cost to herself.
Here is her story:
Name: Harriet Tubman
Nickname(s): Minty (birth name was Araminta Ross), Moses, General Tubman
Birth: 1820-1823 (Unknown) (Dorchester County, MD) (about 2 hours southeast of Washington DC)
Death: March 10, 1913 (Age 90-93)
Height/Weight: 5’0” Unknown
Claim to Fame: Escaping enslavement, personally leading over 300 slaves to freedom
Other Professions: Women’s rights activist, Civil War Nurse and Scout
Strengths: Courage, Cunning, Resolve
Weaknesses: Illiterate for her entire life
Birth to Freedom
Araminta Ross, aka Harriet Tubman, was born into a slave family somewhere in the 1820-1823 range.
As slaves were considered property at the time, records of some of their births were not kept, so it is unknown the exact date of her birth.
How sad is that?
One of the most influential women of the 19th – 20th century and we don’t even know her birthday??
(I suppose I could make points like this the entire post as it surrounds the institution of slavery, so I will spare you all and say it just this once.)
Growing up as a slave, Harriet was “rented out” out by her owners to other families in the area.
At the age of 5-6 she worked as a nursemaid where she would watch a baby all night and needed to rock it to sleep and keep it quiet.
If it woke up and cried, she would be whipped by the owners.
Harriet carried scars from this work at her young age for her entire life.
As she grew up and got stronger, she was transitioned to work in the fields and surrounding forests.
When she was in her early 20’s, Harriet married a local free black man named John Tubman.
In Maryland at this time, the black population was split about 50/50 between free and enslaved, so a marriage like this was not uncommon.
It’s here where she took her husband’s last name, and started going by Harriet, her mother’s name.
By her late 20’s, Harriet’s owner had died, and his widow was looking to sell their slaves.
Not wanting to be sold, this was her time to make an escape.
After an earlier attempt to flee with her brothers failed, in 1849 she finally escaped to Pennsylvania and at long last: FREEDOM.
Here’s what she had to say about it (referring to crossing into Pennsylvania):
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
When she finally got to freedom, she was nearly 30 years old and had nothing.
No money, no family and totally on her own. (Can anyone relate?)
In addition, in 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act which made life for escaped slaves, even in the Free Northern states, particularly dangerous.
Despite this, she worked some odd jobs to save up money and immediately thought of going back to help free the rest of her family and others.
A year later, she made her first successful freedom run by leading her niece’s family from Baltimore to Philadelphia to escape being sold.
Afterwards, she went right back down to bring her husband up with her, but found that he had remarried and was content with his life.
Not being one to waste a trip, she moved on with her life and found several other slaves to lead north.
Throughout the rest of her life, Harriet continued leading these expeditions, at great personal risk.
All told, as an operator on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman directly led 19 trips and aided over 300 slaves to Freedom.
300! All on her own!
Not once in 10 years did any of her “passengers” get captured.
The only reason she stopped was due to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
She then joined the Union army and helped out the war effort as a field nurse, cook, scout and spy.
After the war, Tubman retired to her Upstate New York home to look after her parents and help those in need.
She remarried a Union War veteran 22 years her junior, and remained active in promoting the cause of women’s suffrage.
In 1913, Harriet Tubman passed away after a bout with pneumonia, and her legacy has remained untainted ever since.
When Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in her late 20’s, she had nothing to her name.
However, she was probably in a much better spot than many modern day late 20’s people can say!
Without any debt, she was starting from scratch.
The difference was, Harriet was never interested in building wealth.
She took all the money earned from working odd jobs and self-funded many of her early trips to help slaves escape.
As she became more prominent within the abolitionist movement, she would give speeches to help raise money for her to take more trips to free slaves.
This was an extremely selfless woman who put the needs of others, much before her own.
Working for the Union Army during the Civil War she was only paid $200 for her 3 years of service.
Nearly half of what was owed!
In addition, because her services to the Union were not properly documented, she was not given a veterans pension that was rightly deserved.
In 1899, the government finally gave her the pension that she was owed.
34 years it took!
The unjustness of this is awful and is something that women largely still have to deal with today (ie. wage gap between men and women).
What’s more is that after the Civil War, Harriet largely lived out the rest of her life in poverty.
All she made went to the care of her family and for those looking to her for refuge.
She never turned anyone away, even when she went into debt because of it.
A biography was written about her that helped earn her some money, yet by the end of her life she was relying on donations to keep things running.
Estimated Net Worth
Harriet Tubman was never a wealthy person.
When you start with nothing, and then give all that you earn to charity that tends to happen!
Now don’t get me wrong, there are some very generous people in the Financial Independence community.
There is just no way you can compare to essentially giving nearly 100% of your income in the service of others.
It’s this fact that puts Harriet Tubman in a league of her own.
Other Interesting Facts
When she was young, a slave overseer threw a heavy metal object that hit her in the head.
- Because of this injury she suffered from sleeping spells and migraines the rest of her life.
Tubman brought a handgun with her on all ventures into the South
- This was not only for protection, but also to ensure that slaves thinking of turning back did not betray her and the others. Fortunately she never had to use it.
She would lead escaped slaves in the winter months and leave on Saturday nights
- This way, slaveowners would be less likely to pursue them in the cold. They’d leave on Saturday nights as escaped slave notices wouldn’t be printed until Monday morning, thus giving them a head start.
She helped raise supporters for John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry.
- Brown nicknamed her “General Tubman”
Tubman was the first woman to lead a military assault during the Civil War
- She conducted the Combahee River Raid and guided Union ships through Confederate mine fields to free over 700 slaves.
Financial Independence isn’t meant for everyone
Given her late start and propensity for giving all her money to the service of others, you can say that Harriet Tubman was not destined to become financially independent.
Keep this is mind that many people in modern times are not interested in becoming financially independent early either.
Some people are happy and satisfied as they are now and don’t want or need to change anything.
It’s best to respect people for their choices, even though you may have a different opinion 🙂
Make connections to help in your goals
As Tubman became more prominent within the abolitionist movement, she was able to make key connections within the community.
These connections led to wealthy members providing money to fund her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Don’t forget to give back to the community
Harriet was always giving back to her community, even when she was retired and had no money to do so.
This is something that’s very important and is often forgotten in the pursuit of financial independence.
Whether it be through your time or donations, giving to a cause you believe in should be part of everyone’s plans.
Care of Family could factor into your Financial Independence plans
After the Civil War, Harriet had to care for her parents and many family members. This surely did not help her financial situation.
If you have elderly parents or family members that may not have saved properly for retirement, consider that you may need to help them out as they get older.
This should somehow be factored into your estimated retirement expenses if need be.
After all, majority of people would like to make sure that their parents are being properly taken care of as they get older.
I hope you all enjoyed your brief history lesson. Don’t forget that February is Black History Month so be sure to celebrate and spread the word!
Passionate about history too? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear feedback!
Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom; by Catherine Clinton
Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero; by Kate Clifford Larson