Celebrated for her courageous exploits as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman has entered history as one of nineteenth-century America's most enduring and important figures. But just who was this remarkable woman? To John Brown, leader of the Harpers Ferry slave uprising, she was General Tubman. For the many slaves she led north to freedom, she was Moses. To the slaveholders who hunted her down, she was a thief and a trickster. To abolitionists, she was a prophet. Now, in a biography widely praised for its impeccable research and its compelling narrative, Harriet Tubman is revealed for the first time as a singular and complex character, a woman who defied simple categorization.
Clinton has an extraordinary knack of compressing complex history into an informing brief paragraph or a single sentence, making this "first full-scale biography" of Tubman (18251913) a revelation. To the task of illuminating the "difficult to document" life of the woman known as "Moses," Clinton brings her deep immersion in Southern history, women's history and African-American history. Succinctly, she sets the stage upon which Tubman moves, offering just enough biographical detail to give less well-known figures vitality (Mary Shadd Cary gets more space than Frederick Douglass; Union general David Hunter more than William Lloyd Garrison) and just enough historical detail to render Tubman's milieu meaningful (unfamiliar Canadian history gets more space than the familiar Fugitive Slave Acts). Although she often posed as an old woman, Tubman was in her 20s when she began her rescues, and in her mid-30s as the Civil War broke out. Clinton is meticulous (without being annoying) in distinguishing the speculative from the known in Tubman's private life. Of far greater consequence is Clinton's revelation of Tubman's public (though usually clandestine) work. In distinguishing between "runaways" and "fugitives," between "conductors" and "abductors... those who ventured into the South to extract slaves" ("all of them white men" before Tubman), in detailing the extent to which she "never wavered in her support" of John Brown, in chronicling her role in the Combahee River raid, Clinton turns sobriquets into meaningful descriptors of a unique person. In her hands, a familiar legend acquires human dimension with no diminution of its majesty and power.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Little, Brown and Company
January 04, 2005
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Excerpt from Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton
Born into Bondage
AT THE TURN of the nineteenth century, the Eastern Shore of Maryland was in many ways a world apart - the rich, rolling fields semicircling Chesapeake Bay, abutting Delaware to the east and grazing Pennsylvania to the north. Fields dappled with sun and lush with grain were crisscrossed by dozens of waterways throughout the peninsula, joining rivers flowing from marshes out to the beckoning salt water. Waterfowl and wildlife were abundant, offering hunters as rich a harvest as that gathered by those who cultivated the land. The Eastern Shore was separated from its sister slave counties by the oyster beds that spread underneath the water to Maryland's other, western, shore, where the bustling ports of Annapolis and Baltimore dominated the regional economy.
Beaver traders originally populated the Eastern Shore, but by the 1660s the pelt trade was depleted and planters began to settle the region. Commercial rather than domestic agriculture flourished, as tobacco farms dominated at first. By the 1750s, fields of tobacco were replaced by fields of corn, as planters found it less labor intensive and more profitable to plant food for export to the West Indies. Philadelphia merchants moved south along Indian trails, scouting for grain, finding eager suppliers along the Choptank River.
In early America, the planters who settled the marshes of the Eastern Shore, the African Americans who struggled within the bonds of slavery there, and the clusters of emancipated blacks who formed pockets of liberty within the countryside created a complex tangle of competing agendas. Black and white, slave and free, acquisitive and hardscrabble crowded together within this narrow strip of Maryland.
This was the world into which Harriet Tubman was born and came of age, a time and place gnarled by slavery's contradictions. She was born near Bucktown in Dorchester County, Maryland, to parents who named her Araminta and cared for her deeply. Yet because she was born a slave, the exact year of her birth remains unknown, unrecorded in an owner's ledger - lost even to the parents and child themselves.
Most accounts offer her birth year as 1820, 1822, or circa 1820, roughly two hundred years after the first boatload of Africans was sold off a Dutch slave ship in 1619 at Jamestown, Virginia. "Circa" affixed before a birth year is one of the most common legacies of slavery. "Like sources of the Nile," the antebellum black leader Samuel R. Ward confessed, "my ancestry, I am free to admit, is rather difficult of tracing." Harriet believed that she was born in 1825, and testified to this fact on more than one occasion.
When she died, her death certificate indicated her birth year was 1815. Her gravestone listed her year of birth at 1820. Whatever the year affixed, details of the earliest years of Araminta Ross are equally obscure. And so is her place of birth. Educated guesses place her mother at several different locations during the period 1815-1825, but the Brodess plantation near Bucktown, Maryland, is most likely her place of birth and is certainly where she spent her earliest years, with her mother. Family lore claimed she was one of eleven children, but no family Bible with names inscribed survived, and family records present conflicting accounts about the names and the number of Tubman's brothers and sisters.
There is no firm evidence of Araminta's place in the birth order. However, she later recalled that she was left in charge of both a baby and another younger brother while her mother went to cook up in "the Big House." Tubman also indicated that she had older siblings, so clearly she was born somewhere in the middle of a string of children, perhaps nearly a dozen. She might have arrived near the end, as her mother was in her forties when she was born.
Araminta was born to Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross, a slave couple who spent a good deal of their married life in close proximity to one another. They struggled, like most enslaved spouses, to create conditions that would allow them to live together, or at least near each other. They negotiated with their owners - and they had different owners throughout their time in slavery - to create a more stable family life.
With each new child, hope might spring anew for slave parents, and Tubman was no exception. She recalled that her cradle was carved from a gum tree - most likely by her father, who was a skilled woodsman. She remembered being the center of attention when young white women from the Big House visited the slave cabins. They playfully tossed her in the air when she was just a toddler. These two hazy memories - the cradle and being tossed in the air - are Tubman's only recorded recollections from her youngest years.