Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous of all American women, was illiterate. Everything we know about her life and times comes to us through other voices. She had been born into slavery in Maryland around 1820 and escaped north into Pennsylvania in 1849. Over the next ten years, she returned South over and over again, risking her own life and freedom to lead others to freedom in the North. She became the best known “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and became, in her own lifetime, a powerful symbol of the anti-slavery movement. She knew personally many of the leading abolitionists, including the ill-fated John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, William H. Seward, and many more. She worked for the Union during the Civil War, serving as a nurse and a spy.
Among the escaping slaves she led to freedom in Canada were her parents and brothers. In 1857, the Sewards provided a house to Tubman for her parents, who had found it too cold in Canada. In 1859, William Seward sold Tubman the property. At the time, Seward was a U. S. Senator and this transaction was illegal. The Tubman home in Auburn became a refuge for freedom seekers and other former slaves, both before and after the Civil War. Funds were always an issue, and Harriet was constantly trying to raise money to support the many people who depended on her.
In 1869, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a children’s book author and the sister of a professor at the Auburn Theological Seminary, decided to write a book about Harriet as a way to raise money for her. Bradford herself had not been noted as an abolitionist and she did not know Harriet well at the time she started the book. Bradford interviewed Tubman several times, but she said she did not include any events from Harriet’s life that could not be verified by another person. Bradford’s biography also includes a 13-page “Essay on Women-Whipping,” a harsh and mocking exposé of the difference between the South’s imagined code of chivalry and the way female slaves were treated.
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman achieved world-wide fame, making Tubman one of the most famous women of her era. In 1886, again to raise funds for Harriet’s work, Bradford wrote a second Tubman biography. Harriet, the Moses of Her People was named by the Library of Congress as one of the Books that Shaped America in 2012.