Encyclopedia Womannica

Best Of: Harriet Tubman

Episode Summary

Harriet Tubman (c. 1820-1913) helped more than 70 people escape to the North along the Underground Railroad, then became a Union army spy and recruiter -- a hero of the Civil War.

Episode Notes

All month, we're revisiting our favorite episodes.  Tune in to hear the highlights of Womannicans past!

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Local Legends, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Grace Lynch, Maddy Foley, Brittany Martinez, Edie Allard and Lindsey Kratochwill. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Carmen Borca-Carrillo, Taylor Williamson, Ale Tejeda, and Sundus Hassan.

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Episode Transcription

Hello, from Wonder Media Network I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s Womannican is well known, but not necessarily for her days as a cover spy. She was called “Moses” for the cold nights she spent quietly and urgently leading enslaved people to freedom. Over the course of 11 years, she helped more than 70 people escape to the North along the Underground Railroad. Then she became a Union army spy and recruiter -- a hero of the Civil War. We’re diving into the story of Harriet Tubman. 

As with many enslaved people in the United States, neither the exact year nor place of Harriet’s birth is known. Born Araminta “Minty” Ross, around 1820, Harriet was the child of enslaved parents, Harriet Green and Ben Ross. Minty’s mother was enslaved by Mary Pattison Brodess, and later her son, Edward. Mary and her husband held Minty’s parents at a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. 

When Minty was 12 or 13 years old, she suffered a blow to the head when a white man threw an iron weight at a Black boy. Minty suffered from seizures and bouts of narcolepsy the rest of her life. 

In 1844, Minty married John Tubman, a free Black man. She changed her first name to Harriet and took her husband’s last name. 

Five years later, worried that she and others might be sold, Harriet plotted her freedom. She couldn’t persuade her husband to leave with her so she escaped without him and made her way to freedom in Philadelphia.

Harriet risked capture and death by returning to Maryland some 13 times over the course of the next decade. She guided her family to freedom, among many others. She was so persistent, skilled, and courageous that she never got caught. The reward for her capture eventually reached $40,000, or what would be over $1.2 million dollars today. 

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet went to South Carolina to nurse Black Union soldiers. There, she was recruited by Major General David Hunter for a covert operation -- to become a spy for the Union and venture into Confederate territory. Formerly enslaved people were thought effective as spies because white Confederates underestimated their intelligence.

These spies were exceptionally courageous, given they were not legally free and were still considered fugitives. 

Though Harriet couldn’t read, she memorized the land and routes of the Confederate soldiers. Spies like Harriet often gathered intelligence from enslaved people behind Confederate lines. One such piece of intelligence was the locations of Confederate-planted barrels of gunpowder along a river where the Confederates planned to attack Union boats.

On the night of June 1,1863, Harriet led Union troops from the Sea Islands up the black waters of South Carolina’s Combahee River. Under the cover of night, they took up the planted gunpowder barrels in the river, sabotaged supply lines, burned bridges, and raided plantations to free the enslaved. 

At the time, Harriet was the only woman in U.S. history to have led a military mission. That raid freed hundreds of enslaved people, ended Confederate control of the Combahee River, and destroyed millions of dollars of Confederate property.

Despite this enormous success, Harriet wasn’t recognized. At first, her name wasn’t used in the story published by a Wisconsin paper that lauded the event. She petitioned the government multiple times to get paid for service as a soldier and was denied. 

She went to live in Auburn, NY, and married a veteran named Nelson Davis. Under the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Nelson was eligible to receive a pension for this service. But there was still no recognition for Black women.

Only when Nelson died a few years later did Harriet receive a pension. Not for her courageous acts, but as her husband’s widow. 

Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913, in her 90’s. Many mourned her passing and celebrated her extraordinary life and courage. It is said that her last words were “I go to prepare a place for you.”

All month, we’re talking about spies.

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!