In 1831 a Kentucky slave named Tice Davids made a break for the free state of Ohio by swimming across the Ohio River. His master trailed close behind and watched Davids wade ashore. When he looked again, Davids was nowhere to be found. Davids’s master returned to Kentucky in a rage, exclaiming to his friends that Davids “must have gone off on an underground road.” The name stuck, and the legend of the underground railroad was born.
It was another two decades before the underground railroad became a part of the national consciousness, mostly because of the heroic exploits of the underground railroad’s most celebrated “conductor.”
Black Moses Harriet Tubman was raised in slavery in eastern Maryland but escaped in 1849. When she first reached the North, she said later, “I looked at my hands to see if I was de same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory ober eberything, de sun came like gold through de trees and ober de fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Tubman was not satisfied with her own freedom, however. She made 19 return trips to the South and helped deliver at least 300 fellow slaves, boasting “I never lost a passenger.” Her guidance of so many to freedom earned her the nickname “Moses.”
Tubman’s friends and fellow abolitionists claimed that the source of her strength came from her faith in God as deliverer and protector of the weak. “I always tole God,” she said, “‘I’m gwine [going] to hole stiddy on you, an’ you’ve got to see me through.'”
Though infuriated slaveholders posted a $40,000 reward for her capture, she was never apprehended. “I can’t die but once” became her motto, and with that philosophy she went about her mission of deliverance.
She always made her rescue attempts in winter but avoided actually going into plantations. Instead she waited for escaping slaves (to whom she had sent messages) to meet her eight or ten miles away. Slaves would leave plantations on Saturday nights so they wouldn’t be missed until Monday morning, after the Sabbath. It would thus often be late on Monday afternoon before their owners would discover them missing. Only then did they post their reward signs, which men hired by Tubman would take down.
Because her rescue missions were fraught with danger, Tubman demanded strict obedience from her fugitives. A slave who returned to his master would likely be forced to reveal information that would compromise her mission. If a slave wanted to quit in the midst of a rescue, Tubman would hold a revolver to his head and ask him to reconsider.
Asked whether she would actually kill a reluctant escapee, she replied, “Yes, if he was weak enough to give out, he’d be weak enough to betray us all and all who had helped us, and do you think I’d let so many die just for one coward man?”
She never had to shoot any slave she helped, but she did come close with one: “I told the boys to get their guns ready, and shoot him. They’d have done it in a minute; but when he heard that, he jumped right up and went on as well as anybody.”
Tubman said she would listen carefully to the voice of God as she led slaves north, and she would only go where she felt God was leading her. Fellow abolitionist Thomas Garrett said of her, “I never met any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God.”
Tubman became a friend of many of the best-known abolitionists and their sympathizers. John Brown referred to her in his letters as “one of the best and bravest persons on this continent—General Tubman as we call her.”
During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse, laundress, and spy with Union forces along the coast of South Carolina. After the war, she made her home in Auburn, New York, and, despite numerous honors, spent her last years in poverty. Not until 30 years after the war was she granted a government pension in recognition of her work for the Federal Army.