Excerpt: New Book Documents Courage of Harriet Tubman and Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman (circa 1820-1913) with family and neighbors circa 1887 at her home in Auburn, N.Y. From left: Harriet Tubman; Gertie Davis (Watson); Nelson Davis, Gertie’s husband; Lee Chaney, a neighbor’s child; “Pop” John Alexander, an elderly boarder in Tubman’s home; Walter Green, a neighbor’s child; Blind “Aunty” Sarah Parker, an elderly boarder; and Dora Stewart, great-niece and granddaughter of Tubman’s brother Robert.
Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and scholar Eric Foner has just published Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. With new research and documentation, Foner explores the courageous lives of those who helped slaves escape to freedom on the Eastern corridor of the U.S. and describes how their actions affected the Civil War. Here’s an excerpt.

In popular memory, the individual most closely associated with the underground railroad is Harriet Tubman. Born a slave in Maryland in 1822, this remarkable woman escaped in 1849 and during the following decade made at least thirteen forays to her native state, leading some seventy men, women, and children, including a number of her relatives, out of bondage.


Tubman’s first rescue took place in 1850, when she received word that a niece, Kessiah Bowley, and her two children were about to be sold. Bowley’s free husband purchased the family at auction, even though he lacked the money to pay the seller. He then spirited them by boat to Baltimore, where Tubman met the family and brought them to Philadelphia and then to Canada. On a later trip, in 1857, Tubman rescued her elderly parents, who had become free but were in danger of being arrested for their own efforts to help slaves escape. Her exploits were not confined to the South. In 1860, she led a crowd that rescued Charles Nalle, a fugitive slave from Virginia who had been seized by a slave catcher in Troy, New York.

Tubman’s fame spread quickly in abolitionist circles. She made the acquaintance of such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and Lewis Tappan. By the late 1850s, she had become known as the slaves’ “Moses.” After the Civil War, Douglass would write of Tubman, “Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people.” Nonetheless, Tubman struggled to raise money for her undertakings. She worked in Philadelphia, New York, and Canada as a laundress, housekeeper, and cook, and solicited funds from abolitionists. On one occasion, she camped out in the antislavery office in New York City, asking visitors for donations.

Tubman exhibited extraordinary courage. She “seemed wholly devoid of personal fear,” wrote William Still. When Tappan asked how she would feel if she were captured and condemned to “perpetual slavery,” Tubman replied, “I shall have the consolation to know that I had done some good to my people.” But Tubman did not act entirely on her own. Her rescues relied on connections with slaves and free blacks in Maryland and with underground railroad networks in the mid-Atlantic states. Thomas Garrett offered assistance to Tubman as she passed through Wilmington on what he called “her very perilous adventures.” He described her accomplishments at length to correspondents in Britain and passed along money they forwarded for her use.


Twice in 1856, Tubman brought fugitive slaves through Sydney Howard Gay’s office in New York City. In May, Gay recorded, “Captain Harriet Tubman” arrived with four fugitive slaves—Ben Jackson, James Coleman, William Connoway, and Henry Hopkins—from Dorchester County on Maryland’s eastern shore, the center of slavery in the state. As young men in their twenties, the four had an “aggregate market value,” Gay estimated, of $6,000. Gay took the opportunity to interview Tubman about her past deeds and the details of this escape.

The group started out on foot from Maryland on May 3, 1856. When they reached New Castle, Delaware, having learned that the owners had raised a “hue and cry” and posted a substantial reward for their capture, the fugitives hid for a week in a “potato hole” (presumably a kind of root cellar) at the home of a black woman. At great risk, Tubman traveled back and forth to Wilmington by train seeking assistance; eventually she persuaded “a friend” to bring the slaves to Garrett’s house in that city, where they arrived on May 11. They appeared at William Still’s office in Philadelphia two days later and and then continued on by rail, reaching Gay’s on May 14. Gay dispatched them all to Syracuse, from where they headed to Canada. Three of the four men appear in the Canadian census of 1861, living in or near Toronto.


In November 1856, Tubman returned to Maryland, hoping to bring out her sister Rachel. Rachel, however, was not ready to leave, so instead Tubman led William Bailey, his brother Josiah, and another slave, Peter Pennington, out of Talbot County, on the eastern shore. The Bailey brothers worked in the timber business of William Hughlett, who owned thousands of acres of land and forty slaves, among them Josiah Bailey. Hughlett rented other slaves, including William Bailey, from nearby owners. He treated all of them with great cruelty.

“He left his master on account of ill-treatment,” Gay wrote of William Bailey, “of which lately he has received more than he could or would bear.” Three weeks before the escape, Josiah Bailey had been “stripped naked” and “flogged severely” because he engaged in a dispute with another slave. Both brothers were married; they left behind their wives and a total of seven children. Tubman and the slaves embarked for the North on November 15, 1856. With the owners in hot pursuit, Tubman led them on a circuitous journey by foot to Wilmington, ninety miles to the north.


Along the way they were joined by another slave, Eliza Manokey, a forty-two-year-old woman who had escaped the previous January and hidden in the woods and then in the homes of free black families. Like the Baileys, she had experienced some of the worst horrors of slavery. “Often suffered for want of food and clothing, and often flogged,” Gay recorded. Her owner had presented Manokey’s four-year-old son as a gift to a nephew, who then departed for Missouri with the child; “the boy clung frantically to his mother … but in vain.” Manokey left behind a husband, their seventeen-year-old daughter, and four grandchildren.

By the time the group reached Wilmington, the owners had preceded them, posting placards offering unusually generous rewards for their return—$1,500 for Josiah Bailey, $800 for Pennington, and $300 for William Bailey. Even though local blacks tore down the notices, many persons, including the Wilmington police, were on the lookout for the fugitives. Thomas Garrett, however, managed to get black bricklayers to convey them, concealed in a wagon, to William Still’s office in Philadelphia on the night of November 24. Still immediately sent them, separately, to New York, where they arrived on November 26 and 27. Gay then dispatched them to Troy and Syracuse.


In Syracuse they encountered an unexpected obstacle. William E. Abbott, treasurer of the local Fugitive Aid Society, who was well acquainted with Tubman, normally forwarded runaway slaves directly to Canada via the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge. But now, he wrote, “our funds fail us and we are obligated to send them forward to the different half way houses that are on the route.” Nonetheless, Tubman got the group to Canada.

These exploits of Harriet Tubman are related in the Record of Fugitives, a document compiled by Gay in 1855 and 1856, as well as in scattered notes on runaway slaves that he also penned. In these two years, Gay meticulously recorded the arrival of well over 200 fugitives in New York City: 137 men, 44 women, 4 adults whose sex he failed to mention, and 29 children. Gay set down information about their owners, motives for leaving, mode of escape, who assisted them, where he sent them, and how much money he expended.


Gay’s Record is the most detailed account in existence of how the underground railroad operated in New York City, and of the fugitives who passed through the city. He chronicled the experiences of slaves who escaped individually and in groups, by rail, by sea, on foot, and in carriages appropriated from the owners. Some reached the free states within a day or two of their departure; others hid out for weeks or months in swamps or woods before moving on. Most of those whose tales Gay transcribed then disappeared from the historical record. But when supplemented with information compiled about many of the same individuals by William Still in Philadelphia, Gay’s Record is a treasure trove of riveting stories and a repository of insights into both slavery and the underground railroad.

Gay’s account of Tubman’s passage through the city in May 1856 is the longest entry in his journal, a reflection of the high regard in which he held her. Gay also seems to have been the only person at that time who referred to her as “Captain” Tubman, which suggests that he knew her, or of her activities, before 1856. In many ways, Tubman’s activities were unique. But in others, the escapes she engineered were typical of many in these years.


Like Tubman’s charges, nearly half the slaves who appear in Gay’s Record originated in Maryland and Delaware, the eastern slave states closest to free soil. The Maryland fugitives mostly came from Baltimore, with its rail and sea connections with the North; the northern counties of the eastern shore; or the region of the state farther west that bordered on Pennsylvania. Ten of the eleven from Delaware hailed from New Castle, the county closest to Pennsylvania. Here, slavery was all but extinct; on the eve of the Civil War, 97 percent of its black population was free.

Perhaps more surprising is the number of fugitives who arrived in New York City from Virginia and North Carolina, states considerably more distant (although most of those who escaped over land, rather than by boat, from Virginia originated in the northernmost part of the state, closer to free soil than Washington, D.C.). Slaves of every age absconded, but most were in their twenties (the average age of the adults was 25.5), their prime working years, when their economic value to their owners was at its peak. Only a handful were above the age of forty. Three-fourths of the adult fugitives were men, a figure in line with previous studies of runaway slaves. In occupation, the fugitives who passed through New York City reflected how slavery permeated every corner of the southern economy.


They ran the gamut from plantation hands and laborers on small farms to household domestics, hotel porters and cooks, and skilled urban craftsman—carpenters, blacksmiths, and William Bailey himself, who operated a steam engine. Among one group of fugitives, William Still commented, “were some good mechanics—one excellent dress-maker, some ‘prime’ waiters and chambermaids—men and women with brains, some of them evincing remarkable intelligence and decided bravery, just the kind of passengers that gave the greatest satisfaction to the Vigilance Committee.”

Many of the slaves had “hired their own time,” living apart from their owners in urban centers and passing along their earnings, while usually being able to keep some money for themselves. This was a growing practice in the Upper South. Such slaves clearly had greater opportunities to learn of possibilities for escape than those on isolated farms and plantations. Many were able to pay for assistance in departing.


The owners of these fugitives also illustrated how every kind of enterprise in the South employed slave labor. A few were men of considerable prominence and wealth, notably John Branch, the son of a revolutionary war hero and a former governor of North Carolina and Florida who owned large plantations in both states and more than 100 slaves. Other well-to-do owners included Freeman Woodland of Chestertown, Maryland, who possessed $40,000 worth of real estate and nineteen slaves; Joshua Pusey of Leesburg, Virginia, a farmer with nine slaves and land valued at over $100,000; William Brisbane, a South Carolina planter with thirty-one slaves; and Thomas Warren, a physician and farmer in Edenton, North Carolina, whose holdings included fifty slaves and $162,000 in real estate.

A larger number of owners were small farmers with only a handful of slaves, for whom the escape of even one would be a significant financial loss. And many had nonagricultural occupations, including the proprietors of Haxall and Company (one of Richmond’s two flour mills), the president of the Chestertown Bank, merchants, ministers, lawyers, an employee of the U.S. Treasury Department, a U.S. naval officer, a tailor, and a tavern keeper. Even slave traders suffered the loss of absconding slaves. George Sperryman, who escaped from Richmond, had been owned by H.N. Templeman, whose account book notes handsome profits derived from slaves, including children, “taken South” for sale.


To a Glasgow audience in 1853, the abolitionist James Miller McKim described the fugitives who arrived at the antislavery office in Philadelphia, many of them headed for New York: “These were not ill-treated slaves who had braved death and suffered so much to get their liberty. … It is those which have indulgent masters … that escape from slavery.” McKim’s point was that the desire for freedom, not the brutality of individual owners, led to escapes. “He wanted to be free, he says,” Gay recorded of one fugitive, “and has wished to be for years.” Several runaways mentioned to Gay that they had tried unsuccessfully to escape and were severely punished, but nonetheless they tried again and managed to reach the North.

Excerpted from Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner. Copyright © 2015 by Eric Foner. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. All rights reserved.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter