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How Harriet Tubman’s story was saved

By — Kem Knapp Sawyer,

March 10, 2013, will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, a fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad. She is greatly admired for her bravery in guiding slaves to freedom and for her generous spirit. But for many years, her story was in danger of being forgotten.

When Harriet was a slave in Maryland, her owner hired her out at 7 years old to do housework. She later worked on a farm plowing fields and chopping wood. But she was determined to be free. One night, when she was 27, she escaped — traveling north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, mostly by walking at night. During the day, she would sleep in the woods on a bed of pine needles.

Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet helped other slaves, including family and friends, escape north to freedom. She had to disguise her identity and take enormous risks, but she was never captured.

During the Civil War, Harriet joined the Union Army in South Carolina and worked as a scout, nurse and spy. She once baked 50 pies in a day to feed the soldiers.

When the war ended, she rented rooms to boarders to raise money for things she cared about, including building schools for black children and a home and hospital for old people. She was a magnificent storyteller who spoke out for the rights of blacks. She counted many famous activists among her friends: Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, John Brown, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Although Harriet was well known during her life, for much of the 20th century little was said or written about her. Only a few children’s book authors kept her story alive. And much of what was said was incorrect or exaggerated. For example, a historic road marker in Bucktown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Harriet grew up, claims that she led more than 300 from slavery to freedom, but there is no evidence to support this.

Historians recently have paid more attention to Harriet Tubman and brought to light new evidence about her life. By examining diaries, documents, old newspapers and letters, they discovered that Harriet led between 70 and 80 enslaved people to freedom. Harriet made between 10 and 13 rescue missions, not the 19 that some have thought.

Like many slaves, Harriet knew very little about her birth. She assumed she was born in Bucktown, but she didn’t know her birthday; if she had to guess, she would have said she was born in 1825. Historians have solved that mystery: They found a record of a $2 payment made in 1822 to a midwife who was present at Harriet’s birth. She was not born in Bucktown, but 10 miles away in Harrisville, Maryland.

Today we know much more about the real Harriet Tubman. And she always will be a hero, someone who took great risks to help others.

— Kem Knapp Sawyer

Sawyer is the author of several biographies for young readers, including “Harriet Tubman” and “Lucretia Mott: Friend of Justice.” She also has written “The Amazing Underground Railroad.”

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