Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Sarah H. Bradford (Sarah Hopkins), b. 1818
Harriet, the Moses of Her People
New York: Published for the author by Geo. R. Lockwood and Son, 1886.


Araminta "Harriet" Ross Tubman (1822-1913) 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 to 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 returned to Auburn, New York, where she spoke at women's suffrage meetings with other prominent figures such as Susan B. Anthony.

Sarah Hopkins Bradford (1818-1912) visited her brother in Auburn, New York, during the Civil War and met Tubman's parents in a Sunday school class. 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 often disjointed, skipping from anecdote to anecdote with little regard for chronology. In 1886, Bradford substantially rewrote the biography at the request of Tubman, who hoped to raise enough funds for "the building of a hospital for old and disabled colored people" (p. 78). This second edition, Harriet, the Moses of Her People, provided little new information but did arrange the jumbled narrative of Scenes in chronological order, providing a clearer account of Tubman's life.

Unfortunately, Bradford's interest in producing streamlined prose leads her to take poetic license in Harriet. In order to provide a continuous narrative, Bradford introduces hypothetical scenarios from her own imagined idea of Tubman's childhood that may not accurately reflect the past. For example, Bradford begins Harriet by asking readers to imagine "a hot summer's day, perhaps sixty years ago," when "a group of merry little darkies were rolling and tumbling in the sand in front of the large house of a Southern planter," while Tubman, "darker than any of the others, and with a more decided wooliness in the hair" sits "[a]part from the rest of the children, on the top rail of a fence, holding tight on to the tall gate post" (p. 13). This detailed description characterizes Harriet and improves stylistically on the disjointed prose of Scenes, but Bradford often includes such detail at the expense of the direct quotes from Tubman and reliable descriptions of real events that give her first biography an aura of authenticity.

In Harriet, the already remarkable Tubman from Scenes assumes superhuman capabilities: she does the "labor of the horse and the ox, the lifting of barrels of flour and other heavy weights," leaving "powerful men . . . astonished to see this woman perform feats of strength from which they shrunk incapable" (p. 22). Tubman seems invincible, single-handedly ripping a fugitive slave out of the arms of "the officers who had him in charge, and while numbers were pursuing her, and the shot was flying like hail about her head, to bear him in her own strong arms beyond the reach of danger" (p. 21).

Tubman overpowers her adversaries when necessary, but she also outwits them. During one trip on the Underground Railroad, she travels with "a daring almost heedless" to the "very village where she would be most likely to meet one of the masters to whom she had been hired" (p. 34). There she buys a pair of live chickens and walks "along the street with her sun-bonnet well over her face, and with the bent and decrepit air of an aged woman" (p. 34). When her old master appears, Tubman pulls "the string which tied the legs of the chickens" and busies herself "attending to the fluttering fowls" while her master walks by, "little thinking that he was brushing the very garments of the woman who had dared to steal herself" from him (pp. 34-35). Tubman's exploits disrupt Maryland plantations so much that a "reward of $40,000 was offered by the slave-holders of the region . . . for the head of the woman who appeared so mysteriously, and enticed away their property, from under the very eyes of its owners" (pp. 33-34).

Tubman's elusive abilities prove equally effective in South Carolina, where she joins the Union army as a spy and brings back "valuable information as to the position of armies and batteries" without being injured, though "the bodies of dead and wounded men were dropping around her like leaves in autumn" (p. 102). Tubman leads "our forces through the jungle and the swamp," frequently "under fire from both armies" but always escapes unscathed (p. 94). She also serves as the army's public relations specialist; many slaves initially "feared the 'Yankee Buckra' more than they did their own masters," so Tubman "was needed to assure them that these white Northern men were friends" (p. 93). To allay their fears, Tubman sings to the slaves, urging them to "Come along! Come along! don't be alarmed, / Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm" (p. 102).

Though Tubman dangles the promise of economic prosperity as an enticement, she herself serves "without one cent of recompense" and returns home to find "a scene of desolation," her home "about to be sold to satisfy a mortgage and herself without the means to redeem it" (p. 95). Her application for a soldier's pension is "rejected, because it did not come under any recognized law," but the publication of Scenes provides her with "twelve hundred dollars given her by Mrs. Bradford from the proceeds" (pp. 6, 9). Tubman remains indigent, though, "old and feeble" in 1886 and "suffering from the effects of her life of unusual labor and hardship," but she publishes Harriet in order to benefit others even poorer than herself (p. 129). Tubman, Bradford suggests, is nothing less than a saint, and even without "claiming any of my dear old Harriet's prophetic vision," Bradford can see her standing "in her modest way just within the celestial gate" of heaven with "a gentle voice saying in her ear, 'Friend, come up higher!'" (pp. 130-31).

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.

Zach Hutchins

Document menu