GO DOWN MOSES:
The Story of Harriet Tubman: Runaway Slave,
Conductor on the Underground Railroad,
and Spy for the Union Army
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by Arline Chase
Eppie Finalist, 2004
After escaping to freedom herself, Harriet Tubman led more than 300 other slaves to freedom. She spied for the Union Army during the Civil War. A fictionalized biography, based on her published interviews with her biographer, and on other source records.
Why this book?
I wrote this book because Harriet Tubman and I share a home town. Her story has always fascinated me. She was a woman with great heart and great love for her family. If you think she led people to freedom only because she hated slavery, you are wrong.
Harriet did hate slavery, but she led more than 300 people to safety primarily because she loved her family.
After escaping to freedom, Harriet lived in Philadelphia, only across the line in Pennsylvania. She managed to "get word" about her loved ones from abolitionist friends and neighbors down on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Then she learned that the doctor who owned her sister had died and all his "goods and chattels" were to be sold at the courthouse door. It is certain that Harriet knew those "goods and chattels" included her sister and her sister's children.
Though Harriet's sister was a slave, she was fairly happy. She had married a free man and while her children were born into slavery, they had a pretty good life with the doctor. Harriet's sister was allowed to live at home with her husband and only come to work as a house slave every day. Her children, though not legally free, enjoyed a goodly amount of freedom and were not put to work at an early age. So by all accounts the sister was happy with her life and grateful that the doctor was a kindly man who gave her many liberties for a slave.
Then the doctor died.
As a country doctor who was often paid "in kind" with chickens, and eggs, etc. the doctor had run up debts that he left behind. Legally, everything he had owned must be sold at auction to discharge those debts. Anyone, from anywhere could buy Harriet's sister and her children at auction. Different people might buy her children separating the family for good. Certainly, there was every chance that she would be "sold South" and never see her husband again.
Harriet conferred with William Still, a representative of the Philadelphia Abolitionist Society, the man who had helped her find lodging and work when she first escaped. Still worked with the Underground Railroad, a secret network of people dedicated to helping end slavery and to helping slaves escape.
The two conferred and plotted and planned. It was Still who gave Harriet the code name "Moses," and sent her on the first of many journeys into danger as a "conductor" in the Underground Railroad.
On the day of the auction, Harriet (disguised as a man) wandered through the crowd on the courthouse lawn. Yes, the same courthouse that stands on High Street in Cambridge, today. She spied her sister and the children, in shackles, standing with the distraught husband. She knew he was a free man, but far too poor to be able to buy his family.
They took no notice of her, as she spoke with two young boys, slipping them coins in secret. A moment later, the boys began to fight, not just each other, but dashing madly around, knocking grown-ups to the ground, tipping over furniture, throwing dishes and pots at one another and scooting through startled members of the crowd.
While everyone was distracted by the fight, Harriet shephered her sister's family down High Street as fast as they could go, hurrying them toward LongWharf, where she had a boat waiting.
The boat, manned by abolitionists, pushed off as they all leapt aboard and sailed clean away up the Choptank River, into Chesapeake Bay, and on north to the port of Baltimore. On Pratt Street, more members of the Underground Railroad were waiting with false papers. Harriet left her disguise behind and they all boarded a train to Philadelphia, where Still met them with more help.
That was the first time Harriet returned to Dorchester County, but not the last time she came to the aid of the Ross family.
Harriet had 16 or 17 brothers and sisters and Ross was her maiden name. Whenever Harriet got word that someone needed help, she came down to get them. Her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, and later on, even her parents who were in their 80s, Harriet took them all to freedom. When people heard that she would be coming, they appeared in numbers and begged to go along. Harriet never turned anyone away.
It is a fine thing to note, in the pages of William Still's book, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: A RECORD OF FACTS, NARRATIVES, LETTERS, ETC, how often the accounts he kept for the Philadelphia Abolitionist Society mention the conductor "Moses" arriving with passengers from the South, sometimes as many as 27 at a time, and among them, always, was one or two named Ross.
At first, Harriet did not set out to be a great heroine and freedom fighter. She set out to help her family, so that they, too, should be free as she was. Later, she became an activist and spoke for the Abolitionist cause and for Women's Suffrage.
In modern times, the Episcopal Church has named her a Saint. While making her journeys, Harriet had a price on her head amounting to $10,000 a vast sum in 1857 and all the while whenever she was in danger, both when she was "conducting" people to freedom, and later during the Civil War, she looked to her God for protection with utter faith and never in vain.
In doing the research for my own book, I mainly used the two editions of HARRIET TUBMAN: THE MOSES OF HER PEOPLE, by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, because they contain the only original source material, that has Harriet Tubman's own words directly quoted from interviews with her. In writing the book everything that Harriet says in dialogue, is something that she had actually said to Ms. Bradford. I did clean up the dialect a bit, mostly in an effort to make it more easily understood by today's readers.
GO DOWN MOSES is free for February at www.writewordsinc.com. Just order it in the usual way, you will not be charged. For anyone interested, both Bradford's and Still's books are free downloads from www.guttenberg.com and www.amazon.com