Editor’s note: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and scholar Eric Foner has just published Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. With new research and documentation, Foner explores the courageous lives of those who helped slaves escape to freedom on the Eastern corridor of the U.S. and describes how their actions affected the Civil War. Here’s an excerpt.
In popular memory, the individual most closely associated with the underground railroad is Harriet Tubman. Born a slave in Maryland in 1822, this remarkable woman escaped in 1849 and during the following decade made at least thirteen forays to her native state, leading some seventy men, women, and children, including a number of her relatives, out of bondage.
Tubman’s first rescue took place in 1850, when she received word that a niece, Kessiah Bowley, and her two children were about to be sold. Bowley’s free husband purchased the family at auction, even though he lacked the money to pay the seller. He then spirited them by boat to Baltimore, where Tubman met the family and brought them to Philadelphia and then to Canada. On a later trip, in 1857, Tubman rescued her elderly parents, who had become free but were in danger of being arrested for their own efforts to help slaves escape. Her exploits were not confined to the South. In 1860, she led a crowd that rescued Charles Nalle, a fugitive slave from Virginia who had been seized by a slave catcher in Troy, New York.
Tubman’s fame spread quickly in abolitionist circles. She made the acquaintance of such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and Lewis Tappan. By the late 1850s, she had become known as the slaves’ “Moses.” After the Civil War, Douglass would write of Tubman, “Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people.” Nonetheless, Tubman struggled to raise money for her undertakings. She worked in Philadelphia, New York, and Canada as a laundress, housekeeper, and cook, and solicited funds from abolitionists. On one occasion, she camped out in the antislavery office in New York City, asking visitors for donations.
Source: The Root | ERIC FONER