Unlike enslaved men and women in the Deep South, Tubman knew many free blacks. She married John Tubman, a free black man living in Maryland, around 1844. Whether or how long they lived together is unknown.
Five years later, when Tubman heard she might be sold off, she walked away to freedom, passing through woods and marshes, some 90 miles to the Delaware state line, and then on to Philadelphia.
“I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” Tubman later told Bradford. “Now I was free. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Abolitionists claimed there was once a $40,000 bounty on Tubman’s head. But records of wanted ads show that a reward of $50 was offered for her return if she was found in the state of Maryland and $100 outside the state. And Tubman is often depicted as old and stooped, but she was in her late 20s and early 30s while helping others, largely family and friends, escape bondage. Her husband, John, refused to leave with her. He had taken up with another woman.
Tubman told Bradford about having to pull out the revolver she carried to persuade some who followed her north to press on, despite their exhaustion. While pointing it at their heads she would say, “Dead [men] tell no tales; you go on or die!”
True story or exaggeration? Hard to know.
“Serious attention to her life was lacking for a long time,” says Larson, the Tubman biographer, “especially because she could not read or write. When academics are looking for projects, they look for papers.”
The facts of the latter part of her life are sparse. She joined the Union army as a spy, nurse and laundress. She adopted a daughter and married Nelson Davis, a Union soldier, close to 24 years her junior. With the help of her church, Tubman opened a charity home for the elderly in Auburn, N.Y. It was there that she died.
By that time, Bradford’s telling was already the dominant narrative. In 1886, Bradford had published an extended biography claiming that Tubman had “succeeded in piloting” 300 or 400 people to the North in 19 trips to slave states “after her almost superhuman efforts in making her own escape from slavery.”
Larson believes Bradford “made up those numbers because she thought she had to embellish what Tubman did.” Larson’s research found Tubman personally rescued between 70 and 80 people in 13 trips to slave territory, documented through letters from her friends, oral histories and land records.