Harriet Tubman, perhaps more so than any other woman, personifies the fight against slavery in the American South. Her exploits are rightly the stuff of legend. Future Science Group’s Literary Unit, Of Lost Time, a site that publishes famous letters of note, will be showcasing correspondence pertinent to Tubman (1822-1913) and her post-Civil War era contemporaries to offer context to the epic heroism of her deeds.


The most famous letter in the upcoming collection, penned by fellow former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1868, details his great respect for Tubman’s shining spirit and unwavering courage. While not unaware of his own illustrious place in history’s spotlight, deference to Tubman’s achievements, the tone of the letter is humble and self-deprecating.


Douglass notes that while he often found himself a centre of attention by design, he acknowledges Tubman’s most important work prior to the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation (news of which did not reach some states, most notoriously Texas, until two years after the close of the Civil war) was undertaken primarily behind the scenes out of necessity.


Tubman’s roles as a conductor on the Underground Railroad — which earned her the nickname “Moses” — and as an intelligence operative for the Union Army during the Civil War were by their very nature covert. In his historic letter, Douglass, elevates the real-life merits of the actions Tubman so bravely and repeatedly undertook from the time she gained her own freedom, and opts to downplay the impact of his own importance in light of what he deemed a greater good. While his own oeuvre influenced minds, Douglass cited Tubman’s real-world accomplishments as undeniably life-changing in a literal sense for those she helped escape the oppression of enforced servitude.


Once Enslaved, Harriet Tubman Chose Freedom for Herself and for Others

Born into slavery, in 1849, when threatened as a young woman with the prospect of being sold off from her home, rather than accept her fate, Harriet Tubman chose freedom. That first journey was one she made alone.


As a slightly built female whose greatest resources were her own wits and determination, such a trip would have been hazardous enough, but to add to the peril, Tubman suffered seizures and blackouts, the result of a childhood injury she received at the hands of an overseer who struck her in the head with a two-pound lead weight.


The onset of Tubman’s subsequent epileptic events and blackouts could take hold at any time. Until they passed, Tubman, who was unable to move or speak, was at the mercy of her surroundings. While Tubman maintained that during these seizures she conversed with God and that they were actually a great source of inspiration to her, their unpredictable timing and duration presented a grave danger, nonetheless.


Still, the condition did not prevent Tubman from making that first successful escape and dozens of others. After trekking on foot through 90 miles of woods and marshland, Tubman crossed from Maryland over the Delaware state line. Continuing on, she eventually reached Philadelphia — and freedom.


“I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” Tubman is said to have told her longtime friend and biographer Sarah Bradford. “Now I was free. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

As remarkable a feat as her exodus had been, Tubman was not content to let those she’d left behind remain enslaved. Time and again, she returned to the states of the Confederacy, at great peril to herself, to lead others to freedom on what became a continuing crusade to deliver as many slaves from bondage as she could.


Harriet Tubman Inspired Historic Letters But Could Neither Read Nor Write

Ironically, Harriet Tubman, whose storied life became an oft-told tale that helped define the literature of both historic and more recent activism, was herself, illiterate. What we know of her comes to us from what was written by others. That Tubman recorded none of her own personal history is yet another testament to the tyrannies of slavery and the times in which she lived.


Prior to the 1830s, there were no codified laws with regard to teaching slaves to read and write. In 1831, after the Nat Turner-led revolt, that changed. Every slave state, with the exceptions of Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee, passed legislation that outlawed the education of slaves. The thinking was an educated slave — especially one who could forge false documents — was a dangerous slave.


“The alphabet is an abolitionist,” Harper’s Weekly editorialised in 1867. “If you would keep a people enslaved, refuse to teach them to read.”


Frederick Douglass, whose historic letter to Harriet Tubman forms the centrepiece in Of Lost Time’s new collection, was, like Tubman, born in Maryland. Literacy wasn’t illegal in his home state but neither was it encouraged. That Douglass was able to teach himself to read and write was due in large part to his living at least part of his early life as a house servant in a metropolitan locale rather than as field servant on a plantation.


While Douglass wasn’t able to attend school, life in the streets of Baltimore gave him an opportunity to meet and mingle with boys who did have an education, and it was from them he first learned his letters.


By age 12, inspired by Caleb Bingham’s collection of works centred on natural rights, “The Columbian Orator,” which he’d purchased with 50 cents he saved from shining shoes, Douglass was already on the road to becoming a powerful orator in his own right. As a field slave — and a female — Harriet Tubman was afforded no such educational opportunities.


Another Historical Letter Offers Insight into the Life of Harriet Tubman

In addition to the Frederick Douglass missive, an historic letter dated February 5, 1898 regarding Harriet Tubman can be found in the History, Art & Archives of the United States House of Representatives.


Written by New York Representative Sereno Payne, chairman of the Ways and Means and Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committees, the communique was sent on Tubman’s behalf seeking an increase her pension that would include not only her war widow’s benefits but also compensate Tubman for the outstanding service she’d performed herself, which had yet to be recognized.


Well into her 80s by then (with no formal record of her birth, Tubman’s exact age is unknown), at a rate of $8 per month, Tubman had received about $200 at the time Payne wrote seeking redress from the Committee on Invalid Pensions. While a lump sum and an increase to $25 per month were initially declined, Tubman’s pension was eventually raised to $20 per month, which she collected until the time of her death.


Providing Historical Context Through Curated Letter Collections

Having never learned to read or write, famous historical letters were penned both to and about Harriet Tubman — but never by her. Of Lost Time’s upcoming compilation of historical letters focusing on Tubman’s legacy is just one of an expanding portfolio of curated collections culled from historical figures whose significance can be much better understood and appreciated through their writings.


These letters provide insight into the sometimes poignant and often heartening events of the past, opening a window for modern readers to experience the social, historical, and political contexts of eras in which they were written and bring important figures such as Harriet Tubman to life.