Auburn, NY

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

American 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman got more than 300 slaves to freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad

A life-size photo of Harriet Tubman, “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, greets visitors to the Tubman museum in Auburn, New York. She helped more than 300 black American slaves to freedom in Canada.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

AFRICAN-Americans, fleeing from slavery in the U.S. South, called her their “Moses.” Slave owners called her many things, most of them obscene, all of them unflattering.

But Harriet Tubman was not deterred. She continued making her secret forays into the Deep South to lead slaves to safety in Canada.

Auburn, a pleasant, leafy town in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, seems an unlikely place to be reminded of cotton fields and slave auctions and leg irons and lynchings. But it is indeed where you’ll find a part of the story of this dark blot on America’s conscience, for it tells the story of Harriet Tubman.

It was here that she lived the last half of her life and now her home is a museum. Exhibits and guides tell how, before the U.S. Civil War, Auburn was one of the last stops on the so-called Underground Railroad.

This was a loose arrangement of guides and safe houses run by anti-slavery advocates spiriting slaves northward. Auburn is about 200 kilometres from the Niagara River near Buffalo where the fugitives would cross into Ontario.

The diminutive (152-centimetre-tall) Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in 1820 or 1821. After escaping in 1849 she was safe in the northern states, but a year later President Millard Fillmore signed what was called a “Compromise” to the Fugitive Slaves Act, making it a crime for any state to harbour fugitives.

That meant slaves had to get farther north. To Canada.

The Underground Railroad was already in existence, but the Compromise gave it a new head of steam, and Harriet Tubman knew it well. Guides in the museum visitor centre tell how, from her base in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, and then (from 1857) in Auburn, she made trip after trip to Dixie, leading more than 300 slaves to safety.

But more important than that, perhaps, the story of “the Black Moses” got a lot of attention in northern newspapers and many influential people were attracted to her cause.

Her motto, says a guide, “was ‘Keep going.’ She’d tell her charges, ‘If you are tired, keep going. If you are scared, keep going. If you are hungry, keep going. If you want to taste freedom, keep going.’”

She kept up the “freedom train” journeys during the Civil War (1861-1865), at the same time acting as a spy for the Union behind enemy lines.

Auburn resident William Seward, the U.S. secretary of state and an anti-slavery campaigner, sold her a little farm on South Street, and she used the house to shelter runaways. That house burned down and in 1870 the present house was built nearby.

In her later life, Tubman recalled that as “conductor” of the Underground Railway, “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” Harriet Tubman died in 1913. A marker in the visitor centre records that the New York Times listed her as one of the 250 most important people in the world to have died that year. She is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn.



For more information visit the Harriet Tubman museum website at harriethouse.org.

For information on travel in New York state go to the New York State Division of Tourism website at www.iloveny.com.