Harriet Tubman was the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. In 1849, she ran away from the plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she was enslaved. When Harriet reached the free state of Pennsylvania, she said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. 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.”
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she found many people who had escaped from slavery. Even so, she was lonely. She decided to bring the people she loved to freedom. When Harriet heard that her niece Kessiah and her two little children were to be sold, she planned their rescue, and sent a secret message to the Maryland plantation. For her own protection, Harriet did not return there, but met Kessiah and her children in Baltimore, Maryland, and they travelled together to Philadelphia. The next group Harriet led to liberty included her brother Moses.
In 1850, a new American law (the Fugitive Slave Law) made it dangerous for “fugitives from slavery” to remain anywhere in the United States. Philadelphia was no longer safe. Harriet gathered a group of people she had rescued, and headed further north. “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer,” she said, “But I brought 'em all clear off to Canada.” They went to St. Catharines, Ontario, about 20 kilometres from the Niagara River and the American border. There was already a community of freedom-seekers there.
For Harriet and her companions, that first winter in Canada was hard. Many of them chopped wood to earn money for food, shelter and warm clothing. Harriet rented a house on North Street in St. Catharines, near the Methodist church. This was the safe “terminus” at the end of her secret Underground Railroad.
In the summer, Harriet worked at the seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, to be closer to her Maryland relatives. When she heard that her brothers were to be sold at auction, she helped Ben, Henry, Robert, and Ben’s fiancée, Jane (disguised as a man), to escape. They decided to leave their slave names behind, and renamed themselves James, William Henry, John and Catherine. Harriet guided them to St. Catharines. Then, she rescued William Henry’s wife. One of Harriet’s dreams was taking shape: many of her family and friends from Maryland now lived in her neighbourhood in St. Catharines. Her house was always full, and she would give shelter to anyone who needed it. She even took in homeless children from the streets of St. Catharines.
As the Black population grew, so did the congregation of the log church where Harriet worshipped. A larger Salem Methodist Episcopal Church opened in 1855, near Harriet’s house. It was an important community centre for newcomers.
Harriet had rescued her brothers, but she continued to worry about her sister, Rachel, and her elderly parents, Ben and Rit, who were still in Maryland. Local slaveholders were suspicious that Ben was involved in Harriet’s rescue schemes, and her parents’ situation had become dangerous. Ben and Rit were reluctant to go on a long journey. To make things easier for them, Harriet fashioned a cart from discarded items – a pair of wheels and some boards. Then, she acquired an old horse. In 1857, she took her parents to Wilmington, Delaware, then on to St. Catharines. In St. Catharines, Harriet helped with relief activities, raising funds and helping newcomers settle in their new country.
In 1858, Harriet met the fiery abolitionist John Brown. He had a grand plan to end slavery by leading a slave uprising in West Virginia. Harriet invited him to her home to meet others who would support his ideas. After this meeting, John Brown always called her “General Tubman.” To others, she was “Moses,” the biblical character who led his people from slavery in Egypt.
Harriet’s parents were not happy in Canada, so in 1859, she moved them and her brother John to Auburn, New York, about 250 kilometres from St. Catharines. (Several freedom-seekers from Maryland had settled there.) A few months later, John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, failed. Great efforts were made to arrest his associates, and the US became a very dangerous place for anyone who had met with him. Quickly, Harriet took her parents back to St. Catharines.
Harriet’s activities had become known in Maryland, and rewards were posted for her capture. Although venturing south was risky, Harriet returned once more to try to rescue her sister. Sadly, Rachel died before Harriet could reach her.
With her parents back in Auburn, N.Y., and many of her family and friends still living in St. Catharines, Harriet divided her time between the two towns. She was a powerful speaker, and described her experiences to raise awareness of the horrors of slavery. In 1861, supported by her brother William Henry, she founded the Fugitive Aid Society of St. Catharines.
When the US Civil War broke out, Harriet offered her services to the Northern forces. As she always had, she did whatever was needed, and worked as a cook, laundress, nurse, guide and spy. She even led Union troops on campaigns, the only Black woman to do so.
After the war, Harriet returned to Auburn, New York, and continued to fight injustice and assist those in need. She established a nursing home for elderly African Americans, and lived there until her death in 1913.