Hal Roth - September 06
Old News from Delmarva:
A Reward for Harriet Tubman
With the exception of recent immigrants, there are few Delmarva residents who do not know the story of Harriet Tubman, the Dorchester County slave who fled to Pennsylvania in 1848 and returned to lead other slaves to freedom.
School children learn from their textbooks that Harriet conducted nineteen excursions on the Underground Railroad, leading nearly 400 souls out of the bonds of slavery. She became such a menace to plantation owners, we are informed, that a reward of $40,000 was collected and offered for her capture, One source cites a sum of $70,000.
It seems that I have known Harriet Tubman’s story all of my life, and I have also heard her detractors, the most extreme of whom claim the entire narrative is nothing more than a myth invented by the abolitionist movement.
Recently I decided to examine newspapers published during Harriet’s lifetime to see what contemporary journalists had said about this remarkable woman. To avoid dealing with anything like the 1,530,000 entries posted under her name on the Internet’s Google site, I limited my search to articles published prior to 1900, thirty-five years after the Civil War ended and thirteen years before Harriet’s death.
Imagine my surprise when, from the nearly thirty million pages preserved online by Newspaper Archive, I was rewarded with a single hit – containing a casual claim that she had died during the Civil War.
The article appears in The (Frederick, Maryland) News dated December 12, 1885 and is a follow-up to John Brown’s raid of October 16, 1859. It begins: “John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was directly participated in by twenty-three persons. There were several others who expected to be present. The fate is known of all but Francis Jackson Merriam, grandson of Francis Jackson, first and only president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.” Deep in the list of participants and their fortunes is this sentence: “Harriet Tubman, colored, died during the war.”
That’s it! Searching thirty million pages of newsprint, I found a single sentence – which happens to be erroneous. Harriet was not a participant in Brown’s raid but was privy to its planning, and she lived for forty-eight years after the Civil War ended.
It must be recognized that imperfections in newsprint, especially old newsprint, often make it difficult for scanning software to recognize a name, and while they are constantly adding to the library, Newspaper Archive offers far from a complete collection.
I did discover, elsewhere, an interesting article about Harriet published in the Brooklyn Eagle on October 23, 1865:
“Last evening an immense congregation, fully half consisting of whites, was present at the African M. E. Church in Bridge Street, to listen to the story of the experiences of Mrs. Harriet Tubman, known as the South Carolina Scout and Nurse, as related by herself.”
After offering details of Harriet’s introduction to the congregation, the reporter continues:
“Mrs. Tubman is a colored lady of 35 or 40 years of age. She appeared before those present with a wounded hand in a bandage, which wound she stated was caused by maltreatment received at the hands of a conductor on the Camden and Amboy Railroad on her trip from Philadelphia to New York, a few days since. Her words were in the peculiar plantation dialect and at times were not intelligible to the white portion of her audience. There was nothing particularly impressive in her remarks: She was born, she said, in the eastern part of the State of Maryland and wanted it to be distinctly understood that she was not educated, nor did she receive any ‘broughten up.’ She ‘came up.’ Therefore, she concluded, she was not fit to mix in political matters. John Brown was one of her particular friends. Her master was a good man, but she knew that God had directed her to perform other works in this world, and so she escaped from bondage. This was nearly 14 years ago. Since then she has assisted hundreds to do the same. Her narration of her sickness, previous to her escape, was filled with negro phrases and elicited shouts of laughter from the congregation, the whites entering most heartily into it.
“Mrs. Tubman stated that she was known as ‘Moses,’ having received that name from [abolitionist] Lloyd Garrison, and she went on to speak of her experience in the hospitals and of the sufferings of the soldiers.
“At this point an alarm was raised among those present by the report that the gallery was falling. The utmost excitement prevailed for five or ten minutes, during which women screamed, men shouted and children brawled, and few succeeded in escaping from the building. Order was at last restored, when it was discovered that the trouble originated by some person leaning against the stovepipe in one corner of the church, and a portion of the pipe gave way, causing considerable noise, which resulted in the alarm about the gallery.
“The lecturer closed her remarks soon after order had been restored.
“Rev. J. M. Williams, pastor of the church, then arose and, after a brief introduction, came down to the point by asking all to ‘come down’ with their greenbacks, which was done. He went on to praise Mrs. Tubman, spoke of her medicine, which was extensively used among the soldiers with vast benefits, and wound up by having his little fling at President Johnson, whom he considered a great lover of the rebels because he granted them so many pardons. Mr. Williams did not like this and expressed considerable indignation at the course of the executive.”
When I expanded my search from 1900 to 1913, the year of Harriet’s death, I uncovered a few more articles. Harriet lived her final years in Auburn, New York. It is interesting to note that during her lifetime, apparently little was published about her on her native Eastern Shore.
Syracuse Herald, November 10, 1906: “Harriet Tubman, the aged ex-slave and founder of the Tubman home for aged colored people, is suffering from a dislocated knee. She was feeding her pigs when one of them made an attack upon her. She started to run and fell, causing the injury.”
Syracuse Post Standard, March 6, 1911: “A small barn fire on the Harriet Tubman home farm in South Street burned yesterday afternoon, together with its contents. The damage was not heavy.”
Syracuse Herald, June 4, 1911: “Harriet Tubman, the aged negress known as the ‘Moses of her people,’ was last Thursday taken to the Harriet Tubman home, penniless, to end her days. Her age is past 90 years. She was born in slavery but ran away from her Maryland home about the year 1848, and between that time and the outbreak of the civil war piloted nearly 400 escaped slaves to the Northern States and Canada. She was befriended by William H. Seward, Gerrit Smith, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison and other distinguished abolitionists and was an aid and admirer of John Brown. Harriet Beecher Stowe planned to write a story of Harriet Tubman’s life. Since the civil war she has resided in a small house on the outskirts of Auburn and devoted her interests to the work of establishing an institution for aged colored men and women, and upon this home she is now dependent. The trustees have asked for funds to pay for a nurse to care for Harriet in her declining days. Harriet’s name was originally Arimenia [Other sources say it was Araminta] Ross. At the age of 24 she married a free Maryland colored man named Tubman. When Harriet escaped from slavery, she lost track of Tubman, but learned afterward that he had married again. Harriet also married. Her second husband was an Auburn colored man named Nelson Davis. She is known as Harriet Tubman Davis, but more familiarly as Harriet Tubman, the name she bore during the time of her activity in the South.
“She was born about 1820 in Dorchester county, on the eastern shore of Maryland, near Cambridge. She has all the characteristics of the pure African race strongly marked upon her and is believed to be directly descended from a tribe of [the word appears to be Felietas or Fellitas] on the Guinea coast. She is naturally shrewd and blunt of speech, but her simplicity and ignorance have caused her in many cases to be imposed upon. For years her household has consisted of several old black people and some forlorn and wandering women. From the effects of a blow upon her head received in childhood, she has a stupid, half-witted look, but she also has a pair of sharp black eyes and a ready wit that have carried her through many trying places.
“Her flight from slavery was occasioned by the belief that she was about to be sold and separated from her mother and father and ten brothers and sisters. After undergoing severe privations, she reached the free states, obtained work and saved her wages with the idea of going back South eventually to lead more of her people out of bondage. She became acquainted with many white people interested in the ‘underground railroad,’ as the system of passing escaped slaves from house to house on the way North was called, and up to the time the war broke out she had made nineteen trips across the Mason and Dixon line and escorted between 300 and 400 slaves to freedom. A high price was set upon the head of the mysterious colored woman who appeared occasionally on the plantations and always managed to disappear in company with a band of valuable slaves.
“Among these people she led away were her mother and father and nine of their children. One of her sisters died in the South. During the war she was sent South by Governor Andrews of Massachusetts as a spy and scout for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts colored infantry. During this time she received no pay and drew but twenty rations from the government in four years, yet a plan to secure a pension for her was rejected as coming under no recognized law. She worked in the army hospitals as an attendant by day and at night....[Several mostly illegible sentences refer to collecting information behind Confederate lines.] Harriet is deeply religious and is a firm believer that the Lord will provide for the deserving. When in deepest distress she said she never lost hope, ‘but just got down an’ prayed hard, an’ something was boun’ to turn up.’ She is an interesting storyteller and relates many thrilling tales in her matter of fact way of slavery days and the times of John Brown and the great war which followed.
“The Tubman ‘home’ consists of one brick and two frame cottages on twenty-five acres of ground on South street, on the outskirts of Auburn. The matron is Mrs. Charles Smith and her husband, a retired minister who served in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts colored infantry as chaplain. There are now three other aged colored women at the home with Aunt Harriet. Aunt Harriet is cared for by a nurse, Frances Richardson, a graduate of the Douglas hospital at Philadelphia, whose services are paid for by funds raised by the trustees of the home.”
Gettysburg (Pennsylvania) Times, March 11, 1913: FRIEND OF LINCOLN’S DYING – Auburn, N.Y. – Harriet Tubman, a colored woman, ninety-five years old, who is said to have been a friend of Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward, and who was associated with John Brown in anti-slavery work, is dying here of pneumonia.”
The (Frederick, Maryland) News, March 18, 1913: “HARRIET TUBMAN-DAVIS DEAD – Harriet Tubman-Davis, a negress, and regarded as one of the most noted negro women in the nation and a native of Maryland died at her home at Auburn, N.Y. on March 10. This woman was aged from 90 to 95 years, was born in slavery. During her long life she played a most important part in the affairs of the nation and conducted the Underground Railroad. It is said that she personally conducted 300 slaves to Canada and freedom and assisted in sending 3,000 through to the North.
“So many slaves did this woman spirit away from the South that at one time the Maryland legislature offered a reward of $12,000 for her capture, and private planters raised a sum of $40,000. Harriet Tubman was probably the only woman who served through the war as scout, army nurse and spy, taking her life in her hands many times in the last capacity. She was proud of the fact that she had worn ‘pants’ and carried a musket, canteen, haversack and accoutrements. Her services were subsequently recognized by Congress, which issued her a pension.”
Newspaper articles often contain inconsistencies and errors, and we never have the time to track down and verify all the “facts,” but I became especially interested in the hundreds of claims on the Internet and in modern books and news reports about posters offering large rewards for Harriet’s capture. Typical of these are the following two statements:
“By 1856 a reward of $40,000 was being offered for Tubman’s capture. Wanted posters dotted the landscape of hundreds of small southern towns, making Tubman’s dangerous missions even more dangerous. These posters included portraits, a description of Tubman’s ‘crimes’ against society, and reward information.”
The following anecdote is repeatedly told with several variations:
“Once slave catchers were close to catching Harriet. She was at a railroad station where a wanted poster of her was displayed. Not being able to read, she overheard men talking about the poster and wondering if Harriet was the woman they could capture for a reward. She quickly opened a book she had been carrying – hoping she was not holding it upside down since she couldn’t read the words – and the slave catchers walked by. One of the men said she couldn’t be Tubman because the poster said she couldn’t read or write.”
The many narrators of this tale fail to explain why an illiterate woman on a dangerous mission would be carrying a book and, more importantly, ignore the fact that she would surely have been taken into custody under such circumstances until her identity could be verified.
Forty thousand dollars was an enormous sum of money in the middle years of the nineteenth century. I have not attempted, myself, to translate the figure into today’s currency, but one individual has informed me that the amount would exceed $2,000,000.
It was hard for me to imagine that the owners of Delmarva’s small farms and plantations had been financially capable of offering such a figure or how they could have known about Harriet and her connection to the disappearance of any slaves. I became determined to find some concrete evidence. If posters had been scattered across hundreds of Southern towns, some must have survived.
Michael B. Chesson is a Civil War historian, author, editor and a professor at the University of Massachusetts. His scholarship has been called “impeccable” by The Journal of Military History. In The Textbook League’s Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 1, Chesson writes:
“Among all the American legends that are touted as history in schoolbooks, none is promoted more extravagantly than the story of the Underground Railroad. In textbook after textbook, students read that, in the time before the Civil War, abolitionists established an extensive network of secret routes and hideouts for conducting fugitive slaves to freedom; and in text after text, students find elaborate descriptions of this network and of some of the people who allegedly were associated with it. Unfortunately for the students, very few of the ‘facts’ that appear in schoolbook accounts of the Underground Railroad have any historical foundation, and most of the ‘facts’ are demonstrably false.”
About Harriet he says: “The salient points that occur again and again in the textbooks’ accounts of Tubman – such as the claim that she made nineteen trips to liberate slaves, and the claim that slave-owners put a huge price on her head – are not historical facts.
“To believe that slave-holders offered an extravagant rewards for Tubman, one must believe that they knew of her, knew that she was taking slaves, and attributed their losses specifically to her. There is no evidence to support any of those notions, and the notions don’t even make sense. How would slave-owners know whether their slaves were being spirited away by Tubman, or were being taken by some other individual or individuals, or were simply fleeing by themselves?”
Although research has been exhaustive, no one has ever found a poster, a newspaper advertisement or any other document offering a large amount of money for Harriet’s capture. The only posted reward is contained in an ad purchased by Eliza Ann Brodess in the Cambridge (Maryland) Democrat on October 3, 1849, in which a total of $300 was offered for the return of Harriet and two of her brothers, Ben and Harry Ross. It asks The Delaware Gazette to copy the text for a period of three weeks and charge the Cambridge office.
“THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS REWARD.
“RAN AWAY from the subscriber on Monday the 17th ult., three negroes, named as follows: HARRY, aged about 19 years, has on one side of his neck a wen [tumor], just under the ear, he is of a dark chestnut color, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches hight [sic]; BEN, aged about 25 years, is very quick to speak when spoken to, he is of a chestnut color, about six feet high; MINTY [Harriet’s given name was Araminta], aged about 27 years, is of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about 5 feet high. One hundred dollars reward will be given for each of the above named negroes, if taken out of the State, and $50 each if taken in the State. They must be lodged in Baltimore, Easton or Cambridge Jail, in Maryland.
“ELIZA ANN BRODESS, Near Bucktown, Dorchester county, Maryland.
“Oct. 3d, 1849.”
For those seeking reliable information about Harriet, I recommend two recent books: Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero is Kate Clifford Larson’s doctoral dissertation at the University of New Hampshire, published in 2004 by Ballantine Books, and Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories by Jean M. Humez, professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts, published in 2003 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Both conclude that the number of trips made by Tubman and the number of slaves she escorted to freedom can never be known with certainty. Larson estimates that Tubman made about thirteen trips, assisting perhaps seventy slaves. Humez believes that Tubman completed eight or nine trips by the summer of 1860, making her final journey in December of that year.
When researching historical personalities who operated largely in the shadows, one is always faced with a frustrating intermingling of fact and fiction. It is simply not within our power to throw light into all the corners, but we need to be as honest as we are capable of being. Harriet Tubman was a powerful figure, and she led a remarkable life. There is no need to fabricate events to make her place in history secure. We only weaken our history and our credibility when we choose to do that.
You can get in touch with Hal Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org.