At a Glance

  • Historian Tiya Miles asks what we really know about abolitionist Harriet Tubman. She questions Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, her 1869 biography. The author, Sarah H. Bradford, claims that the book is based on Tubman's own narration. But how did Bradford interpret Tubman's life? Was she true to Tubman's words? Who was the intended audience?

About the Author

Tiya Miles is a professor at the University of Michigan. She received her AB from Harvard University, her MA from Emory University, and her PhD from the University of Minnesota. She was awarded the 2011 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her work in African American and Native American history.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman

Who Was Harriet Tubman? Context: Tubman and the Autobiography Slavery and Escape The Importance of the Autobiography

Video Transcription

  • Who Was Harriet Tubman?
  • Context: Tubman and the Autobiography
  • Slavery and Escape
  • The Importance of the Autobiography

  • 5:08
  • 6:34
  • 7:15
  • 4:20
  • The source is a biography of Harriet Tubman and it was written by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, who knew Tubman's family from Auburn, NY, and knew Tubman herself. [She] wrote the story of Tubman's life to try to raise money in Tubman's older age when she was quite poor. It gives us a very close account of Harriet Tubman's life, which is valuable in part because Tubman wasn't literate—she didn't read or write English. So the fact that she actually sat down with Sarah Bradford and told her story to Bradford means we can come very close to what it was that Harriet Tubman experienced.

    Bradford ended up writing two different versions of this biography. The first one was written in 1868, published in 1869, and it was written really for a clearly intended purpose. Harriet Tubman was poor, she was struggling to get a pension from the U.S. government for her work during the Civil War as a nurse and also as a spy and she hadn't been successful. So she really needed money just to live on and to take care of her household. Her community members in Auburn, NY, thought that telling her life story could be a way to earn money for her. This creates a limitation on the source—it was written so that it would get an audience who would pay money to hear the story. That means that there could be some aspects of the story of Tubman's life that would be told for this audience and some that could be held back because the audience might not want to pay to hear about it.

    Harriet Tubman is a mythic figure in African American history, African American women’s history—American women's history—and American history. She has an incredible life story. I think that has been a wonderful thing, but also it has been limiting because she has become a larger-than-life almost stereotype in the ways that we think about the history of slavery. She's often talked about during Black History Month, for example, but only with a sentence or two about her life. Part of the challenge in studying Harriet Tubman's life is to get beyond this picture of a super-human person who had incredible strength and did all of these things that seem impossible. It's very difficult to get at the sense that Harriet Tubman was a real person, she was born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, she had a very, very difficult childhood. She was hired out by her master at a very young age. When she was only five, she was sent to work for another family and she had charge of an infant—a five year old was a babysitter for an infant. She was expected to know how to care for this child and keep it quiet through the night, and of course she couldn't. So she would be whipped by her mistress for not taking proper care of this baby. Tubman was a real person and she suffered real trials, real hardships, under slavery. I think that that aspect of her life gets covered over when we think of her as the woman who went back to the South to save scores of slaves.

    Well, she was born around 1820—it's not exactly clear when she was born because records about slaves are often limited—and when she was a young woman she decided to escape. She had already lost sisters who had been sold, and she thought that her best chance at having any kind of future was to secure her own freedom. She organized her own escape in 1849, she made it to Philadelphia, and she then spent the next decade dedicating her life to freeing other people who were enslaved: her family, other people she knew, and then also strangers. It's mind-blowing to think about the incredible dedication that Harriet Tubman had to liberty. When she wasn't going on trips to the South to free people, she was working in the North to earn money to pay for her trips. She did this for about 10 years. Around 1858 she went into maybe "semi-retirement" and she wasn't going back into the South herself, but she was using her home in New York as a place where fugitives who were continuing to head North could stop and have safe haven. When the Civil War came, she was very active working for the Union troops. She had an incredible set of skills and talents. In addition to being someone who knew the landscape well enough to be able to help slaves escape, she was really smart. She organized this spy ring to bring information to the South Carolina interior from the federal troops. She was also very caring, she was a nurse who used her knowledge of native plants to try to help the soldiers.

  • The biography that Bradford produced in 1869 is a very sketchy work. Bradford produced it in haste before she herself was heading off on a trip to Europe and the purpose was to earn money. The title, which is Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, really does capture what the book is; it's bits and pieces, little snippets, aspects of Harriet Tubman's life . . . of moments in her life. And it's rather disjointed. So we might desire a narrative that kind of goes all the way through connecting different parts of her life, but that's not what this source is. One thing that it does do well though is that—probably in part because Bradford was so rushed—she includes all kinds of additional information about Tubman. Letters that were written to or about Tubman, quotations from newspaper articles that were about Tubman, also appear in the book. So it is a collage in many ways of Tubman's life that allows the reader to get beyond Bradford's narrative and to look at some other primary sources from the time also.

    There are many moving stories in the book. One of the most moving aspects of the source is that we get these stories more or less in Harriet Tubman's voice. Now, I say more or less because this is an "as told to" account—we have to trust Sarah Bradford to relate this to us faithfully and we weren't there, so we don't know if she did. Sarah Bradford also renders Harriet Tubman's stories in Bradford's approximation of a black dialect. Which is problematic I think for us because looking back at the source we try to imagine how Harriet Tubman might have really sounded. But, that being said, there are some really moving moments in the narrative that help to fill in the picture of Tubman's life and to put flesh on the bones of the myth of her life.

    This is the moment where Tubman first escapes, and Bradford describes this as Tubman passing the "magic 'line'" from slavery to freedom. This is what Tubman says about that moment: "I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that 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."

    This to me is such a powerful representation of Tubman's feeling, of her emotional life, at this incredible turn of her life story. This is something we don't often get access to when we're trying to think about historical figures: how they actually felt about certain moments in their life. I think with Harriet Tubman, we think about her after this moment. We think about her as the Moses of her people, who's got that pistol and who's going through the swamps with her long skirts to take 10, 20, 30, 60—and Bradford actually says 300, that’s been debated—but to take all of those slaves to freedom. We don't see her as the young woman who was first escaping and who felt this incredible sense of joy and relief in the promise of a new kind of life. But, even though we get this sense of incredible joy from Tubman at this moment, immediately we see that she's going to face a complicated future.

    Three paragraphs after she talks about feeling so happy that she is free, she talks about her extreme loneliness in this new state. She says, "I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land." So in this moment we get a real sense of a dual emotional response that Tubman is feeling. The joy at freedom, and also the despair of loneliness and the despair of knowing that people that she loves are still enslaved.

    We look at Harriet Tubman as an example of someone who has been described as this sort of heroic, mythic figure; but who was a real woman who had all kinds of struggles in her emotional life. With her first husband, for example, with poverty later on in life, for example. I think that's one thing the students are surprised about. To think of Harriet Tubman as a real person who had a host of vulnerabilities. But another thing that surprises students about this book, and I think that's troublesome about this book, is that Harriet Tubman was living and working in a particular context. When she first escaped, she was not yet hooked into the Underground Railroad network, but within a couple of years she was. She was working with white abolitionists and black abolitionists to free other slaves. There were a number of relational issues that came into her movement into this new community. I think one of the things that students feel frustrated about is the way that Harriet Tubman talks about white people.

    The prime audience would have been people who had been involved in the abolitionist movement—especially in Auburn, NY, where Harriet Tubman was really beloved and also in the northeast. Bradford says that with the first edition of this book that she does not have hopes for a wide readership, that she really just wants to sell enough copies so that Tubman can raise money to live on.

    Now with the second edition of the book that was published in 1886, Bradford sort of enlarges her intention for the narrative. I think you can see that in the changes she makes to the book itself—it's much more organized, she collects many more letters attesting to the importance of Tubman's story. And by the second version in 1886, Bradford seems to be really committed to the idea that she wants to set Harriet Tubman's story into the memory of the nation. Letter writers whose words are also published in the second edition say the same thing, that they are worried that this woman might actually fall out of memory and that this book is important to keep her in people's minds.

  • I think that went we look back at some of the details that Bradford includes in the account we can sort of broaden our understanding of what might have been the possible reasons for Tubman's success. First of all, she was a remarkable person, that much is clear. She was brilliant, and she was brave. I think that those two aspects of her character combined to make her formidable to all the people who had a bounty on her head, which was said to be as much as $12,000. I think that she was a unique individual. But in addition to that, she was someone who had had lots of different kinds of experiences as a girl. When she was a girl . . . her name was Minty then, Araminta. She changed her name to Harriet, which was her mother's first name, after she escaped to protect her identity. But when she was a girl she was hired out to a number of different families, so she wasn't just working at one plantation. So she got to see a wide variety of contexts, different kinds of households; she got to hear different slaveholders talking about things that they observed, or information that they might have been bringing to their dining room tables. I think she was able to build this broad kind of file of facts, of bits of information and names of people. And I think that that helped her to be able to escape for herself, and then to aid others in escaping later on.

    There's an interesting tidbit to follow up on regarding her success, which has to do with information about Tubman that comes from the Civil War period when she was a nurse to the Union soldiers and also to the black "contraband"—as they were called—black slaves who ran away and went to the Union camps. Tubman was said to have been an incredible healer by the soldiers; she was said to have understood how to use native plants. That to me is very interesting. There's only a tidbit of this in Bradford, but it suggests that Tubman knew the environment in which she lived, that she understood something about native plants in her own home of Maryland and that she applied that knowledge to other locations, [like] when she was stationed in South Carolina for instance. So she knew the landscape. She understood how plants grew, she knew the waterways, and she was very observant; this also I think contributed to her success.

    Well, the relationship between oppression and agency in the history of slavery is one that is central. It's one that I think is really apparent in Harriet Tubman's life. But it can be lost if we only focus on her as a heroic figure. That's why I think the early picture of her life is so important. Trying to imagine her as a child who did not have the benefit of protection of her parents from being sent out to various people who wanted to hire her. Tubman was actually described as a sickly child: she was a small girl and very weak, and she was often ill. When she came back to her home plantation after these stints working for other people, her mother would have to nurse her back to health because of the whippings and beatings and terrible things that she had to do, such as catching rats in the rivers.

    Thinking about everything that she faced as a child—her vulnerability, her realness as a person—I think helps us to remember that slavery was an incredibly oppressive system that sought to render some people out of the category of humanity. Nevertheless, people resisted this because they were human beings. We see the necessity of defining oneself as a person, a person deserving of liberty in Harriet Tubman's life. She says—and this is recounted in Bradford's biography—that she feels that she has two rights on this earth: liberty and death. That's a familiar saying. But she is saying in that line that she feels that she is a person, with the same human rights as any other person, one of those being liberty. Regardless of the fact that she was born into a circumstance that was deeply humiliating and thoroughly violent, she determined that she was not going to accept that circumstance. But, I think it's really important to say here that most enslaved blacks were not able to escape. It took a really unusual set of circumstances that allowed some people to have the opportunity to escape. Harriet Tubman is one of those people, she stands out as the sole figure who had the kind of life that she had.

    Even though we can see her life as an example of resistance and agency, we always have to remember the thousands, hundred thousands, and then millions of people who did not share the life experience that she had. But we do have the lyrics to sorrow songs that Tubman told to Bradford, and that Tubman explained the use of to Bradford. The first of these songs is not titled in the source, but I'll just read a few lines from it.

    Hail, oh hail ye happy spirits, Death no more shall make you fear, Grief nor sorry, pain nor (anguish) Shall no more distress you dear.

    This song goes on for four more stanzas, and Bradford recounts that Tubman sang the song to her—"sweetly" is a descriptor that Bradford uses. Tubman says that this song was a song that she would use as a signal to escaping slaves. If they heard her sing that song the first time, they should pay attention. If they heard her sing it a second time, they knew that it was safe for them to leave.

    There’s another song that is recounted right near the same place in the book. This is the familiar song that many of us have heard of "Go Down Moses." Tubman recounts to Bradford the lyrics in the book, saying "Oh go down Moses/Way down into Egypt's land/Tell old Pharaoh let my people go/Old Pharaoh said that we would go cross/Let my people go/And don't get lost in the wilderness/Let my people go." Now what Tubman says to Bradford about the use of this song is that if slaves who wanted to escape heard it, they should know this was a warning that they should actually stay because there was danger on the trail. These are examples of African American cultural history—lyrics to songs and their uses preserved for us right here in this account.

  • She was a biographer before she wrote this, and perhaps that's why Harriet Tubman's family went to her and asked her to write this book. She uses her sort of literary license to set up scenes before she moves into Harriet Tubman's voice, which she denotes with quotations marks. I think that it would be very clear to students where Bradford begins and where Tubman begins. However, again we have to rely on Bradford for the faithful rendition of Tubman's words. Those quotation marks are a good signal to us that this is what Tubman said, but we have to trust that Bradford wrote that down accurately. We also have to work our way through Bradford's attempt to render what she viewed as an African American dialect. That creates a problem I think in terms of . . . even with the quoted material, what did Bradford think she heard, what did Bradford write down, and what did Tubman actually say? Beside that sticking point, I think that it is very clear where Bradford comes in and where her voice is in this text.

    Now Bradford is writing this first edition in 1868. This is a really raw moment in American history. The Civil War has just concluded and relations between blacks and whites, North and South, are by no means clear to anyone. Bradford is writing out of an understanding of black and white relations that places black people on a lower level of civilization, of intelligence, of attainment. This comes out in the way that she writes about Harriet Tubman. She talks about Harriet Tubman's story as "a little story" and she writes that she knows that some of the readers of this book will find it unbelievable that a black woman could be considered a heroine. So Bradford's position as the writer of this book is one that we need to question as we read the text, even though there are clear demarcations between her voice and the quoted material from Tubman.

    Another way that Bradford's account of Harriet Tubman's life can be very useful in the classroom is as a window into the Underground Railroad and how it functioned. Harriet Tubman after she freed herself got involved with this network of people—an informal network of people—who were committed to helping black slaves escape. These were white people, black people, women, men, who sort of banded together in this common mission. Bradford's account gives us a little window into the different techniques that they would have used, which is very valuable because of course everything they did was supposed to have been secret to protect the escaped slaves from their former owners and from slave catchers.

    Another way in which this text can really be interesting I think in terms of thinking about Harriet Tubman's history and black women's history, is that it shows Harriet Tubman as an intellectual. It places her within a rubric of black women's intellectual history. The history of black women's thinking as it has changed over time. I don’t think Tubman is often thought about as an intellectual, but she was as I said earlier a brilliant woman, she had to be to accomplish all that she did over the many years that she went back to the South to help so many slaves escape. We get an inkling of her thoughts in Bradford's account—we wish for more of course, we wish Harriet Tubman had written her own account—but we do get a bit in Bradford's account. One example of that is that when Tubman is living in Philadelphia, where she works to try to earn money to fund her rescue missions, a group of people invite her to come see a stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She says that she will not go, she has no need to go, because Uncle Tom's Cabin can in no way capture the reality of the experience of slavery, which she herself already knows. So this is a form of cultural criticism. She is saying that as popular as this novel was, even though it was taking the country by storm, that as a former slave that she had a more accurate version of slavery than Harriet Beecher Stowe.