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Sarah H. Bradford (Sarah Hopkins), b. 1818
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
Auburn [N.Y.]: W.J. Moses, printer, 1869.


Araminta "Harriet" Ross Tubman Davis (1822-1913), best known as Harriet Tubman, was a fugitive slave whose work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad made her a legend. Born in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 and supported herself by working in Philadelphia hotels before relocating in Canada and, later, New York. Tubman first returned to Maryland in 1850, when she helped a niece escape from Baltimore, and over the next ten years, she frequently risked her life to liberate family members and other slaves in the area. During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse and a spy for the Union army in South Carolina, where she was known as General Tubman. After the war, Tubman established a retirement home for indigent African Americans and spoke at women's suffrage meetings.

Sarah Hopkins Bradford (1818-1912) met Tubman's parents in a Sunday School class while visiting her brother in Auburn, New York, during the Civil War. When Tubman and her friends decided to publish Tubman's life story, Bradford was a logical choice to author the volume: she lived in nearby Geneva, New York and had already written biographies of Peter the Great and Columbus. But Bradford moved to Germany in 1868—before she had finished writing the book—leaving her printer, William J. Moses, to compile and edit Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869). As a result, Scenes is disjointed, skipping from anecdote to anecdote with little regard for chronology. Moreover, fewer than half of Scenes' pages were written by Bradford; the book republishes a variety of newspaper articles, letters and documents related to Tubman's life, including the earliest substantive biographical sketch of Tubman by Boston abolitionist Franklin Sanborn. Bradford later revised Scenes and published a more cohesive version of the biography as Harriet, the Moses of Her People (1886).

Bradford presents Tubman's biography as a "plain and unvarnished account of some scenes in the life of a woman," but her narrative makes Tubman into a mythic figure, a woman with the courage of Joan of Arc, the compassion of Florence Nightingale and the spiritual insight of Moses (p. 1). Tubman repeatedly risks torture by returning to slave states, volunteers as a nurse during the Civil War, and also receives spiritual guidance in dreams and visions, when "her 'spirit' leaves her body, and visits other scenes and places, not only in this world, but in the world of spirits" (p. 56).

While Bradford describes Tubman as a woman of exceptional ingenuity, many of the masters for whom she works think Tubman is mentally incapacitated. When, as a teenager, Tubman refuses to help an overseer tie up a fugitive slave and stands in a doorway to frustrate pursuit, the overseer takes "a two-pound weight from the counter and threw it at the fugitive, but it fell short and struck Harriet a stunning blow on the head" (p. 74). This injury leaves Tubman "subject to a sort of stupor or lethargy at times; coming upon her in the midst of conversation, or whatever she may be doing, and throwing her into a deep slumber" (p. 75). Throughout her life, strangers mistake Tubman's injury-induced narcolepsy for a sign of mental deficiency.

The head injury leaves Tubman "[d]isabled and sick," and her owner tries to sell her, but no one will buy her. When Tubman recovers, she works "as I could, and I prayed through all the long nights" for her master's conversion and her own salvation (p. 14). But when Tubman learns "dat some of us was gwine to be sole to go wid de chain-gang down to de cotton an' rice fields" by her master, however, she changes her prayer and asks instead, "Oh Lord, if you ant nebber gwine to change dat man's heart, kill him, Lord" (pp. 14-15).

Almost as soon as Tubman finishes her prayer, she learns of that master is deceased and regrets praying for his death, but, still afraid of being sold to the south, she decides to escape from slavery. She walks away from her home without incident to the state line, where she realizes "I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land" (p. 20). Determined to make her surroundings more familiar, Tubman resolves to emancipate her family and friends so that she can "make a home in the North" with them (p. 20).

As Tubman assists former slaves to freedom, her passengers on the Underground Railroad sometimes quail in the face of danger and "think a voluntary return to slavery better than being overtaken and carried back" (p. 24). On such occasions, Tubman reminds her fellow escapees that "[d]ead niggers tell no tales," and, pointing a revolver at their heads, commands them to "Go on or die"; Tubman would rather die than return to slavery, and she forces those she takes north to adopt her values (p. 25). Even more than her impressive physique, Tubman's forceful personality makes her daring forays into slave territory possible and successful.

In Scenes, Tubman's forceful manner and feats of bravery obscure, at times, the fact that she regularly risks her life for other people, often strangers. In 1859, while passing through Troy, New York, Tubman sees a fugitive slave, Charles Nalle, being arrested by two officers and "seized one officer and pulled him down, then another, and tore him away from [Nalle]" (p. 90). Tubman risks both their lives for Nalle's freedom and is subsequently "repeatedly beaten over the head with policemen's clubs, but never for a moment released her hold" on Nalle until he is safe (p. 102).

Bradford documents Nalle's rescue with newspaper accounts but makes other assertions about Tubman's work that modern historians question. Bradford estimates that Tubman made more than nineteen journeys into slave territory, rescuing "somewhere near three hundred" slaves from bondage. However, abolitionist Thomas Garrett estimates that Tubman "must have brought from the neighborhood where she had been held as a slave, from 60 to 80 persons" in no more than thirteen trips; today, Garrett's estimate is generally considered more accurate (pp. 50, 53).

Bradford may exaggerate the extent of Tubman's work on the Underground Railroad, but she does so to make the larger point that Tubman's life transcends numbers. Even if Tubman rescued only eighty slaves, her work impacted the lives of many others who hoped to escape the "[n]ext time Moses comes" and followed her footsteps north (p. 29).

Works Consulted: Humez, Jean M., Harriet Tubman, Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003; Larson, Kate Clifford, Bound for the Promised Land, New York: Ballantine, 2004; Sernett, Milton C., Harriet Tubman, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

Zachary Hutchins

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