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Slavery in America for Kids, American Civil War - Who was Harriet Tubman and what was The Underground Railroad? Illustration

Slavery in America for Kids - Who was Harriet Tubman?

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Harriet Tubman was an escaped slave herself. She was helped to freedom by the Underground Railroad. By then, it was no longer necessary to reach Canada. If a slave could reach Philadelphia, they would be free. After working for about a year in Philadelphia, saving money, Harriet Tubman managed to return to her former home in Maryland, where she had been a slave. She went there to help her husband escape and to bring him back with her to Philadelphia. But her husband had married someone else in her absence and did not wish to leave. She returned to Philadelphia, and decided to devote her life to helping other slaves escape.

She served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad for the next 10 years. Her route was moving fugitive slaves from Wilmington, Delaware to Philadelphia. It was the most dangerous route as it was the last leg on the Underground Railroad. By the time runaways reached Harriet, they were exhausted. They were easy prey for slave catchers. Harriet gave them hope. She shoved and pushed and carried them to freedom. Since slavers were out and about, seeking fugitive slaves between Wilmington and Philadelphia, Harriet knew she had to keep her runaways hidden from sight and sound. She carried opium with her to give to babies to keep them quiet. She carried a pistol and was not afraid to use it. Harriet Tubman helped more than 300 slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Thanks to the abolitionist press, and their frequent stories about Harriet Tubman and the dangers she faced to help the plight of slaves, many people knew her name. By 1860, the South had put a bounty on her head of $40,000! Many slave catchers tried to earn that bounty, but no one ever caught her!

Harriet Tubman did more than lend her support to the Underground Railroad. In 1862, during the Civil War, she traveled to an island off the shore of South Carolina. The island and its residents were under the protection, by then, of the U.S. Army. The residents were slaves abandoned by their owner. They spoke their own language. They knew nothing about life on the mainland or in the rest of the country. They were very alarmed at all the Union soldiers who had descended on their island. Harriet had her hands full trying to gain their trust.

The first thing she did was build a wash house. She set up a business with the island women washing Army uniforms. She was paid by soldiers in both cash and goods. The island woman had no use for the cash, but they loved the goods. Harriet split up their earnings equally, taking only her share. She took her share in cash. She also went along with the Army on raids to the mainland, seeking slaves to rescue. One time, traveling with a gunboat, she brought back over 700 slaves and left several mainland plantations on fire. She was an amazing woman. No Union soldier ever tried to turn her in for the bounty, in part because Confederate money could not be used in the North and was losing value rapidly even in the South. But having someone wash their clothes until they were truly clean, free of lice and filth, that was worth buying!

By 1864, the year before the Civil War ended, Harriet Tubman decided to retire. She had saved enough money on the island, washing soldiers clothes, to pay for her needs for many years to come. She returned to her home in Auburn, New York. She lived there for the rest of her life.

What was the Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad Games and Activities for Kids

Frederick Douglass - the story of another escaped slave

See Also:

The Civil War for Kids, Index

Civil War Interactive Games & Activities for Kids

Civil War Presentations in PowerPoint format

Civil War Video Clips

Civil War Clip Art for Kids and Teachers

Civil War, Free iPad & iPhone apps

American Civil War Lesson Plans for Teachers