Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, has been the subject of many biographies, but the few in which she was a direct participant were written during her time in Auburn. Tubman never learned to read or write, so her story has always been transcribed by white biographers.
The earliest biography of her life was written by Sarah Hopkins Bradford in 1868. The Hopkins family was one of Harriet Tubman’s biggest supporters when she settled in Auburn. Rev. Samuel Miles Hopkins D.D. (1813-1901), a professor at the Auburn Theological Seminary, had long supported the abolition movement.
In 1861, when the Second Presbyterian Church of Auburn split over abolition, Dr. Hopkins helped form the new Central Presbyterian Church, which supported emancipation. The Hopkins family admired Tubman’s courage in helping enslaved people escape to the north and they made sure she was provided for in Auburn. She was a frequent guest at the Hopkins house, becoming an honorary member of the family. Samuel Hopkins Adams, a Hopkins grandchild, later wrote about Harriet Tubman in an article for the New Yorker, saying she was often at the Hopkins house and would regale the children with songs and stories.
In 1868 Harriet Tubman was having trouble paying her mortgage and a plan was developed that a book should be written about her life, with the proceeds going to Tubman. Dr. Hopkins recommended his sister, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, as the author, and Hopkins himself wrote the forward. Bradford came to Auburn to interview Tubman and hastily published Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman before leaving for Europe. This was the first published account of Tubman’s experiences escaping slavery and working on the Underground Railroad. Bradford re-published a revised version of the story titled Harriet Tubman; Moses of her People in 1886 when Tubman wanted to establish a home for elderly African Americans in Auburn.
Bradford’s book employed heavy use of dialect for Tubman. In several descriptions of Harriet Tubman, she is reported to have had a thick accent, which led her early biographers to record her speech using extremely heavy dialect.
An 1896 article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle recording events of the 28th annual convention of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association describes Harriet Tubman speaking saying; “it is impossible to tell in the woman’s own words her pathetic recital of heroism and endurance during the slavery days, for her recital was colored with the picturesque southern dialect.”
This quote, and Bradford’s use of heavy dialect, reflect the tendency at the time to romanticize stories of enslaved people and to play up their speech patterns in exaggerated dialect.
In Bradford’s 1886 revised edition of her Tubman biography, she attempts to erase some of the dialect from Tubman’s speech, albeit inconsistently.
For example, a verse from a song recorded in both versions’ changes from:
“No grief nor sorrow, pain nor anger, shall no more distress you there. Around him are ten thousan’ angels, Always read to ‘bey comman’.”
“Grief nor sorrow, pain nor anguish. Shall no more distress you dere. Around Him are ten thousand angels, always ready to obey command.”
While Bradford edits her earlier version to contain more Standard English, she confusingly changes some Standard English to dialect at the same time (such as there to dere in the example above).