WASHINGTON – Harriet Tubman founded the Underground Railroad, brought hundreds of slaves to freedom and avoided a $40,000 bounty placed on her head by angry plantation owners.
These facts are standard fare for children’s books about Tubman, but they are not true, according to Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson.
As Maryland celebrates the sixth annual Harriet Tubman Day today, parts of the abolitionist leader’s life have been permeated by myth, Larson said, endangering efforts to recognize her near her birthplace in Dorchester County.
“There are a tremendous number of things that are different in her life from what we learn growing up,” Larson said. “It really depends on how old you are and when you grew up.”
Larson, a history professor at Simmons College in Boston and author of “Bound For The Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,” has spent the past decade studying interviews with Tubman, abolitionists’ private letters and newspaper stories, she said.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, there is no documentation,'” Larson said. “Well, there is a ton of documentation. For some reason, it wasn’t used all these years. I don’t know why.”
Exaggerations about Tubman’s life began with her first biography, which she dictated to Sarah Bradford in 1869, Larson said. Bradford was overwhelmed and “made things up as she went,” Larson said, and the stories were accepted as fact.
“A lot of people won’t let go of the myth,” Larson said. “They think it would denigrate her. The fact she rescued anybody is amazing. I don’t know why they take it so personally.”
One of the most common exaggerations about Tubman is that she rescued 300 slaves during about 20 trips to the North, Larson said. The Harriet Tubman Historical Society makes this claim on its Web site, www.harriettubman.com.
In fact, Tubman made about 13 trips and saved between 60 and 70 people — most of whom were friends and family, Larson said.
The historical society declined to comment, saying it was busy getting ready for Tubman Day.
Another fable concerns fictitious bounties issued for Tubman’s capture or death, Larson said. The society claims plantation owners chipped in for a $40,000 bounty — equivalent to nearly $1 million today — while the state of Maryland offered a $12,000 dead-or-alive reward.
Larson traced the bounty tales to an abolitionist who said a $40,000 bounty would not be enough for Tubman.
“If that were true, someone would have turned her in,” Larson said.
Even Tubman’s birthplace has been twisted by legend, Larson said. Tubman was not born in Bucktown — as is generally believed today — but about 10 miles away near Madison, where her parents worked on a plantation.
In the 1960s, a commemorative Civil War sign was built on the former Brodess farm in Bucktown, where Tubman spent part of her childhood, Larson said. Over time, the town became synonymous with Tubman’s birth due to the sign — though tenants recently posted a new sign reading, “Go away — Harriet Tubman wasn’t born here.”
Larson said her findings have not been received well in Dorchester County, where locals don’t want Tubman’s story to change. When Larson helped establish the 105-mile “Finding a Way to Freedom” driving tour that honors Tubman’s path, she tried to put a sign near the property where Tubman was born. Residents forced the sign to be placed five miles away.
“In Dorchester, they have to push into parts of the county that haven’t been associated with Tubman,” Larson said. “There’s resistance from the white community not wanting to have tourism expanded to that part of the county.”
Ceres Bainbridge, a project manager with the county’s tourism department, said the county is waiting for further research before recognizing an official birthplace.
“I’ve sat at meetings where I’ve heard the arguments be made,” Bainbridge said. “We do acknowledge that oral tradition and word-of-mouth has the birthplace in a different place.”
Larson discovered a trove of other truths about Tubman as well. For example, Tubman escaped to the North from Caroline or Dorchester counties, not Bucktown, and her second husband didn’t flee to Liberia, but was killed in Dorchester County.
But there is one thing Larson hasn’t discovered: why the tales about Tubman remain so deeply rooted in the public’s perception.
“When I first started on Tubman, I thought I’d find the answers, but I’m not sure,” Larson said. “The easy answer would be racism and sexism, but it’s more than that. It has something to do with the power of legend.”
– 30 – CNS-3-9-06