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April 27, 2016

9 Myths and Facts About Harriet Tubman, the Woman Who Will Replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 Bill

Harriet Tubman and President Andrew Jackson lived on opposite sides of the American experience.

Tubman, a black woman, escaped slavery to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, risking her life to lead slaves to freedom. Jackson, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants and owner of slaves, was elected president as a war hero and became known for policies that led to the deaths of countless Native Americans.

Soon, though, the two will share prominent placement on a new $20 bill — with Tubman, the former slave, getting top billing.

Concept art of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. (via Women on 20s)

To help preserve the memory of this fearless crusader, here are 9 myths and facts about her life and work.

1. Myth: Harriet Tubman rescued 300 people in 19 trips.

Fact: According to Tubman’s own words, and extensive documentation on her rescue missions, we know that she rescued about 70 people – family and friends – during approximately 13 trips to Maryland. During public and private meetings during 1858 and 1859, Tubman repeatedly told people that she had rescued 50 to 60 people in 8 or 9 trips. This was before her very last mission, in December 1860, when she brought away 7 people. Sarah Bradford exaggerated the numbers in her 1868 biography. Bradford never said that Tubman gave her those numbers, but rather, Bradford estimated that was the number. Other friends who were close to Tubman specifically contradicted those numbers. We can name practically every person Tubman helped. In addition to the family and friends, Tubman also gave instruction to another 70 or so freedom seekers from the Eastern Shore who found their way to freedom on their own.

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, African-American abolitionist and a Union spy during the American Civil War, circa 1870.

2. Myth: Harriet Tubman was born around 1820 in Bucktown, Dorchester County, Maryland on the farm of Edward Brodess.

Fact: According to the most recent research and oral traditions, Tubman was born in early 1822 on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, Brodess’s stepfather, located south of Madison in an area called Peter’s Neck in Dorchester County. Tubman was later brought to Bucktown, with her mother and siblings, to live on Brodess’s small farm.

Harriet Tubman portrait. date unknown. Courtesy of Library of Congress

3. Myth: Harriet Tubman had a $40,000 "dead or alive" bounty on her head.

Fact: The only reward for Tubman’s capture is in the October 3, 1849 advertisement for the return of “Minty” and her brothers “Ben” and “Harry,” in which their mistress, Eliza Brodess, offered $100 for each of them if caught outside of Maryland. Slaveholders on the Eastern Shore of Maryland had no idea it was Harriet Tubman (or, Minty Ross, as they knew her) who was helping and inspiring people to run away. The $40,000 bounty figure was made up by Sallie Holley, a former anti-slavery activist in New York, who wrote a letter to a newspaper in 1867, arguing for support for Tubman in her pursuit of back pay and pension from the Union Army. To put this in perspective, the US government offered $50,000 for the capture of John Wilkes Booth, who murdered President Lincoln in 1865. $40,000 is equivalent to several million today, and for that, she would have been captured, and every newspaper in the nation would have posted that advertisement.

A drawing of Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Harriet Ross, a former slave and abolitionist and humanitarian preaching to a crowd from a lectern on a stage, 1940.

4. Myth: Harriet Tubman rescued people from all over the south.

Fact: Tubman returned only to Maryland to bring away loved ones – family and friends she could not live without and whom she could trust. It was too dangerous for her to go places where she did not know people or the landscape.

Harriet Tubman (c. 1820 รข€“ March 10, 1913), far left, with slaves she helped rescue, during the American Civil War. Left to right: Harriet Tubman; Gertie Davis {Watson} (adopted daughter of Tubman} behind Tubman; Nelson Davis (husband and 8th USCT veteran); Lee Cheney (great-great-niece); "Pop" {John} Alexander; Walter Green; Blind "Aunty" Sarah Parker; Dora Stewart (great-niece and granddaughter of Tubman's brother Robert Ross aka John Stewart). Courtesy of Library of Congress

5. Myth: Jacob Jackson operated an UGRR "safehouse" at his home in Madison, Maryland

Fact: Jacob Jackson, a free black farmer and veterinarian, was Harriet Tubman’s confidante. Tubman had a coded letter written for her in Philadelphia and sent to Jackson in December 1854, instructing him to tell her brothers that she was coming to rescue them and that they needed to be ready to “step aboard” the “Ol’Ship of Zion.” There is no documentation that he actually sheltered runaways in his home. Jackson would be referred to as an agent.

Harriet Tubman c.1885

6. Myth: Harriet Tubman helped build Stewart's Canal

Fact: Harriet Tubman did not help build the canal, which was built between 1810 and 1830 when she was still a child. She probably used it to transport timber and agricultural products when she worked in the area as a young adult during the late 1830s and early 1840s. We do not know if her father Ben Ross helped build the canal, but he certainly would have used it for transporting timber.

Harriet and her first husband John Tubman

7. Myth: Harriet Tubman used the quilt code to follow the Underground Railroad.

Fact: Harriet Tubman never used the quilt code because the quilt code is a myth. Tubman used various methods and paths to escape slavery and to go back and rescue others. She relied on trustworthy people, black and white, who hid her, told her which way to go, and told her who else she could trust. She used disguises; she walked, rode horses and wagons; sailed on boats; and rode on real trains. She used certain songs to indicate danger or safety. She used letters, written for her by someone else, to trusted individuals like Jacob Jackson, and she used direct communication with people. She bribed people. She followed rivers that snaked northward. She used the stars and other natural phenomenon to lead her north. She also trusted her instincts and faith in God to guide and comfort her during difficult and unfamiliar territory and times.

The underground railroad , Chas. T. Webber. Created c1893., African Americans in wagon and on foot, escaping from slavery. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

8. Myth: Harriet Tubman carried a rifle on her UGRR rescue missions

Fact: Harriet Tubman carried a small pistol with her on her rescue missions, mostly for protection from slave catchers, but also to encourage weak-hearted runaways from turning back and risking the safety of the rest of the group. Tubman carried a sharp-shooters rifle during the Civil War.

Seated portrait of Harriet Tubman, c.1900s

9. Myth: Harriet Tubman sang ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ and ‘Wade in the Water’ and ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ as signals on the UGRR.

Fact: Tubman sang two songs while operating her rescue missions. Both are listed in Sarah Bradford’s biography Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman: ‘Go Down Moses,’ and, ‘Bound For the Promised Land.’ Tubman said she changed the tempo of the songs to indicate whether it was safe to come out or not. Follow the Drinking Gourd was first written and performed by the Weavers, a white folk group, in 1947, nearly 100 years after Tubman’s days on the UGRR. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was written and composed after the Civil War by a Cherokee Indian living in Oklahoma and therefore would have unknown to Tubman before the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman c.1900


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