Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. During that time she saved 70 souls from the abomination of slavery and became one of the most well known abolitionists in American history. In this post we’ll learn how Tubman used her skills as a naturalist to triumph over immense evil and successfully lead 19 dangerous and exhausting missions through varying landscapes.
So how does an escaped slave become an American Hero? Our perspective holds the answer. You see Tubman wasn’t simply an escaped slave. She was a highly skilled naturalist; an expert of the natural world. It’s not a part of her story that’s told often and we’re more likely familiar with naturalist leaders of her time like Thoreau, Darwin, and Muir. However, when we examine Tubman’s story from a different perspective we can see her 19 missions as some of the most impressive and noble naturalist skill ever displayed.
Tubman was raised in Maryland, where she spent a great deal of time in the mashes and forests. Each time Tubman was slaved out for work, even as a child, she took every opportunity to learn about the interconnectedness of the natural world around her. During her forced labor she was able to practice the skills necessary to escape slavery and make her heroic 19 missions as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Let’s learn more about how she came by the astronomy, botany, geology, and biology skills she employed.
As a teenager Tubman performed force labor alongside her father and brother at the Dorchester County wharfs. Her work there made her part of a mar-time community in which both traveling by boat and navigating by the stars was a way of life. As the vast majority of Tubman’s Underground Railroad missions were done under the cover of darkness, her ability to read the immense celestial sphere above and determine direction at any moment was invaluable. It was the North Star that guided Tubman to her own freedom in the fall of 1849.
At the shipping docs, Tubman would also build connections. The black sailors she met while loading and unloading goods would become contacts in a network of help for her future missions.
Hired out by her master as early as age six, Tubman was also forced to work as a muskrat trapper. During this time she learned to navigate the waterways and avoid over exposure to the elements. She was responsible for traversing long distances through marshy lands to check traps, remove any muskrats captured, and bring them back. In her role as conductor, Tubman relied on her trapping experience. She knew that traveling near and across waterways would allow her passengers to avoid detection by scent dogs.
Tubman worked with her father often and worked to earn as much money as possible. This would help her avoid being farmed out to work for a temporary master and being separated from her family. Another time Tubman accompanied her father to work was in his role as a Timber inspector and lumberjack. Tubman again took the experience as an opportunity to learn all she could. She became as expert at reading the different landscapes. She knew how to navigate swamps, marshes, forests, and waterways; all environments she would face and overcome on the Underground Railroad. From 1850-1860 she employed these skills to bring 70 souls, many of them family, from slavery in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia, New York, and Canada.
When guiding hikes here in the desert, I like to demonstrate ways we can determine direction with the natural landscape. Lichen, a plantlike organism that grows on rocks, walls, and trees, is an easy to identify indicator. It is a vibrant green and typically grows on the North facing side of a rock. Along with that we have the Fishhook Barrel cactus that leans toward the south. If you can find a nice sun-exposed hillside the cacti and lichen will help you find your direction.
In a similar fashion, Tubman used the moss that grew on the North facing side of tress in forests and swamps to determine direction. No matter the direction she was forced to run Tubman could easily get back on track using the natural landscape. An understanding of botany also made it possible for Tubman to treat any sick or injured passengers on her Underground Railroad trips. She understood how plants could be used medicinally and was experienced at administering them. Tubman’s passengers used tree bark for shoe soles and women would brew a drink out of wild lettuce to control their menses.
Are you familiar with the birds that live near you? Tubman was, and she used those birding skills to communicate with other fleeing slaves and those helping. The Barred Owl or Hoot Owl nests close to water and comes out at night; it provided the perfect cover for communication. The owl’s call would signaled that it was safe. Tubman also used her knowledge of birds and their migrating patterns to determine direction. Understanding that birds fly north in the summer, Tubman was reassured of her direction each time she noticed their flight pattern.
Want to be Like Harriet?
If Tubman’s role as a naturalist inspires you, try these tips for getting outside and getting curious.
- Ask questions and seek the answers. Go to your favorite outdoor space and let your mind lose with wonder at the history, diversity, and vastness of the natural world.
- Sit quietly in expectation of a magical encounter with wildlife. When you’re home, research what you’ve seen and heard; then look for it the next time you’re out.
- Touch something you’ve never touched before. Wonder why it is the way it is and find out. The answer will likely lead to more questions and a deeper connection to the natural world.
More Inspiration to Get Outside
- How to Turn a Sunrise Hike into a Healing Experience
- Sonoran Desert Scavengr Hunt
- Top5 Reasons Outdoor Classrooms Rock
Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (n.d.). Retrieved February 7, 2023, from https://carnegiemnh.org/harriet-tubman-was-a-naturalist/
Guzman, F., & Gast, P. (2020, March 10). A timeline of the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman. CNN. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/10/us/harriet-tubman-timeline-trnd/index.html
Magazine, S. (2022, March 10). Harriet Tubman is famous for being an abolitionist and political activist, but she was also a naturalist. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/harriet-tubman-is-famous-for-being-an-abolitionist-and-political-activist-but-she-was-also-a-naturalist-180979689/
Michetti, J. (2021, February 28). Harriet Tubman, naturalist. Audubon Society of Northern Virginia. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from https://www.audubonva.org/news/harriet-tubman-naturalist