Secrets of Harriet Tubman’s life are being revealed 100 years later

Courageous work on the Underground Railroad—and activism afterward—made Tubman one of America’s best-known historic figures. Here’s how to mark her 200th birthday.

We all think we know the Harriet Tubman story. The “Moses of her people,” Tubman née Araminta “Minty” Ross was born enslaved on Maryland’s Eastern Shore around 1822. From a young age her enslavers rented her out to neighbors as a domestic servant. She later escaped to Philadelphia and then returned to her birthplace at least 13 times to lead 70 of her family and friends along the Underground Railroad to freedom.

That’s usually where the story of one of America’s most inspirational heroes ends, and all I knew—until I took a road trip to honor the 200th anniversary of her birth, celebrated this month. But in her nine decades (she died in 1913), Tubman did so much more. 

She was the first U.S. woman to lead an armed military raid and was a spy and nurse for the Union during the U.S. Civil War. She joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in their quest for women’s voting rights. She was an outdoorswoman, cared for battered women and children, raised money to build schools for newly freed people, and established the Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes, a first-of-its-kind nursing home for African Americans who had nowhere else to go.

“She doesn’t get enough credit for being a humanitarian,” says Ellen Mousin, a volunteer at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge, Maryland. “People, especially in the North, often don’t realize that African Americans were not usually able to go to nursing homes or healthcare facilities. She made it possible.”

More than a century after her death, historians are still unraveling the secrets of her life. This month the nation celebrates Harriet Tubman’s bicentennial and the fifth anniversary of the two national parks named after her: one in Auburn, New York, and another in Dorchester County, Maryland. Tubman is the only African American and woman to have two named national parks. From film screenings and historical lectures to art exhibits and monument installations, here’s how travelers can uncover the mystery that shrouds Tubman’s life and honor the legacy of a woman who inspired generations.

Nevertheless, she persisted

Stepping onto the vast, open fields of Dorchester County, it’s hard to imagine what gave young Tubman the courage to escape—alone. It is harder to comprehend the ingenuity and resolve it took for her to achieve what others thought impossible, all the while helping heal a world that would rather have seen her broken.

In 1849, her enslaver, Edward Brodess, attempted to sell her, but there were no buyers due to a brain injury she suffered after helping an enslaved man run away. The overseer aimed a two-pound metal weight at the man in an attempt to make him return to work, but it fell short, striking Tubman, only 13 at the time. She would later endure frequent migraines, narcolepsy, and vivid dreams she would interpret as divine visions.

After her enslaver died later that year, Tubman knew her family would be separated, so she and her brothers took a leap of faith and fled. The attempt failed, but she tried again soon after, using the Underground Railroad—a network of safe houses and routes established by Black and white abolitionists that guided enslaved people in the South to freedom in the North—to Philadelphia, and then later Ontario, Canada, after the Fugitive Slave Act became U.S. law in 1850. The act threatened imprisonment for anyone caught assisting a fugitive and allowed headhunters to drag escaped slaves back into bondage. Her husband John Tubman, a free Black man, refused to flee with her and remarried the following year.

Tubman, of course, would go on to be a lauded leader. Yet, more than a century after her death, historians are still searching for answers about who she was. 

“There’s just so much we don’t know about Tubman’s life. In a way she became an American folk hero,” says Meghan Martinez, a professor of history at Florida State University. She believes Tubman’s legendary status may be one of the reasons why we don’t know more about her. “Americans don’t like when a story doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s easier to end her story at the Underground Railroad because it ruins our image of her being the hero when we find out she died sick and nearly destitute,” she says.

(Why Harriet Tubman risked it all for enslaved Americans.)

Marisa J. Fuentes, a professor of African American history at Rutgers University, adds that until almost two decades ago, there wasn’t much scholarly work on Harriet Tubman. “Much of what was written about Harriet until about early 2000s was for school children, leaning more into her extraordinary feats as conductor and less on the accuracy of her history,” she says. “It wasn’t until Black women opened the field of Black women’s history in the 1980s, that historians started asking the right questions.”

Last year historians uncovered the location of Harriet Tubman’s childhood home, adding another piece to the puzzle. Buried artifacts, including broken pottery, glass, and an 1808 Lady Liberty coin, helped pinpoint the site owned by her father Ben Ross. Here Tubman learned to navigate and survive in the wetlands and woods she would later use to escape to freedom. Archeologists plan to do another dig this spring, says Cierra Maszkiewicz, a park ranger at the 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Maryland.

“Most of everything that Tubman grew up with is still here today. What was farmland back then is still farmland today,” Maszkiewicz says. “I’ve done a couple of kayak tours right on the Black Water River. That’s where Tubman was out trapping muskrats. We’ve led guided hikes as well. You can walk through the forest just as Tubman would have done.”

(Here’s how Tubman’s birthplace is being threatened by climate change.)

The 480-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park—carved out of the larger Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and shares a border with the state park—follows Tubman’s early life. It features an expansive visitor center with informative exhibits that don’t shy away from the struggles Tubman had to endure, says Maszkiewicz. It is also the site of the Brodess Farm, where Tubman was enslaved as a girl, and the Bucktown General Store where she suffered her traumatic head injury.

In Harriet’s steps

For travelers, there is no better way to experience Tubman’s history than along the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Spanning three states and more than 30 sites, the self-guided driving route immerses people in the places where Tubman worked, lived, and later found freedom.

“I think it really puts you into her shoes a little bit to see how far she traveled,” says Maszkiewicz. “It took me three days to drive it, so you can only imagine how long it took her to walk it.”

Linda Harris, the director of events and planning at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, did more than just imagine Tubman’s journey. She retraced it herself on foot, walking for eight days from Dorchester County to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

“We had COVID, the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and I felt like my freedom had been taken away. I realized the only way to earn my freedom was to walk in Harriet Tubman’s footsteps,” says Harris, who leads several Harriet Tubman walking tours each year. “I walked on the ground where the blood of my ancestors lay. I could feel as if I were being lifted by the ancestors.”

Soon after her journey, Harris started working at the community-led museum. Throughout the year the center offers guided tours of sites associated with Tubman, educational programming for children, and jazz concerts. In 2019, a powerful mural of Harriet reaching out her hand was added to the exterior of the museum.

(Explore the Underground Railroad’s great central depot.)

Just a few blocks from the Tubman Museum sits the Dorchester County Courthouse, a former slave auction site and the place where Tubman engineered her first escape. In September 2022, it will become the permanent home of a new 12,000-pound, bronze sculpture of Tubman.

Life after the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman’s story may have started in Maryland, but it didn’t end there. She dedicated her life to helping Black Americans not only survive but thrive.

“She couldn’t read or write, but she had an emotional intelligence that made people trust her,” says Millicent Sparks, a historical interpreter who portrays Tubman around the country.

Harriet’s achievements are astonishing. During the Civil War, she led an armed expedition into Confederate territory—freeing more than 700 enslaved people—and served in the Union Army as a nurse, scout, and spy. It would take her another 34 years to be recognized for her service and be paid a pension from the U.S. government. After the war, she remained an active abolitionist, befriending intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass and politicians like Secretary of State William Henry Seward. She also campaigned for women’s rights with Lucretia Coffin Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, and Susan B. Anthony.

In 2017, her New York estate, including the nursing home and the Thompson Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church where she worshipped—and raised money to build—became the 32-acre Harriet Tubman National Historical Park. It tells the story of her life as a free woman and preserves her humanitarian legacy.

“When you step onto the property you know instantly that you are in a hallowed space,” says Karen Hill, president and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York. The home is an independent nonprofit established by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to co-manage Harriet’s homestead with the National Park Service (NPS).

The visitor center, which features dozens of artifacts found on various archeological digs, is closed due to COVID-19 until summer. However, travelers can explore the landscape on guided and self-guided tours to see where Tubman farmed, created bricks in her kiln, and spent the last 54 years of her life, says Hill. She adds that the NPS is spearheading the restoration of Tubman’s church, with work set to begin in April. Visitors can see her grave at the nearby Fort Hill Cemetery, which is unaffiliated with the historical park.

“People learning about Tubman should feel encouraged about their own lives,” says Hill. “She took freedom and [weaved] into every aspect of life in America, and America is better for it.”

Starlight Williams is an associate editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Twitter.

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