On one moonless night in 1849, a runaway slave ran swiftly toward the Choptank River. Up above, the North Star shone brightly in the sky, guiding her on. She moved quickly and carefully through the trees, keeping close to the shadows. The runaway was on constant alert, wary of any sudden movements or sounds. She occasionally touched a nearby tree trunk, her fingers brushing the moss to check her direction—her father had taught her that moss mainly grew on the north side of the trees.
Owls hooted, bats flicked back and forth, crickets clicked their wings, and fireflies zigzagged across the path, as if this were any other night in the Maryland woodland. But it wasn’t any other night. This was the night Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery for good! Though she didn't know it yet, this would be the first of many dangerous trips to freedom.
A Terrible Trade
Harriet was not the first enslaved person to run away, nor would she be the last. Europeans had been kidnapping, buying, and selling African people since the fourteenth century. The first documented arrival of captive Africans in North America was in 1619. Two English ships captured a Portuguese slave ship in the West Indies, seizing about fifty men and women aboard. The captives were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, where some were sold to settlers. For many years, owners treated these captives as indentured servants.
But indentured labor was expensive—employers had to pay wages. Once freed, former servants could set up their own farms, which meant the plantation owners made less money. Slavery, on the other hand, provided a cheap labor force—as no wages were paid—and less competition. Sugar was brought to the American colonies in the early seventeenth century and, along with cotton and tobacco, proved to be a popular product in America and Europe. Wealthy colonizers established more and more plantations in both the West Indies and the southern states of America to grow these crops. By 1641, Africans arriving in the colonies were no longer treated as indentured servants but as slaves.
With land up for grabs in newly colonized America but not many people available to work on it, the demand for slavery grew. For almost two hundred years, slave traders kidnapped people from African countries and transported them across the ocean to work on the plantations. This crossing was called the Middle Passage. The difficult journey took up to twelve weeks, with the captives kept in tightly packed, unclean conditions.
The enslaved population grew, and the plantation system became an established way of life. But in 1808, a law came into effect that would change slavery in the South forever. The law made it illegal to bring new slaves into the country—the days of kidnapping Africans and transporting them to the colonies were over. Enslaved mothers became an important source of profit for their owners. The birth of a child not only meant another pair of hands for the harvest; a child born into slavery could be sold, like cotton and sugar, for profit.
Life As An Enslaved Person
Men, women, and children were forced to work from sunrise to sunset for no wages. Their owners told them to forget their languages, traditions, stories, and religions.
As an enslaved person you could:
• work up to fifteen hours a day
• be sold or loaned out to another owner at the whim of your master or mistress
• have your children (who automatically became enslaved at birth) taken away from you at any time
• have your home searched every two weeks for weapons or stolen goods
As an enslaved person you could not:
• choose to change your owner, even if you were in danger of being harmed by your current owner
• leave the plantation without permission
• strike your master or your master’s children, even in self-defense
• own property
• wear fine clothes
North vs. South
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Northern and Southern states of America had very different beliefs and values.
In the South, farming was big business. Growing crops was much easier when you had a huge free workforce! Slave owners believed that slavery was morally right and often used biblical passages to justify keeping people as property. Although two-thirds of Southerners owned no enslaved people at all, slavery was tied to the region’s economy and culture. In fact, by the mid-nineteenth century, there were almost as many black people—both enslaved and free—in the South as there were white people (four million blacks to five and a half million whites).
The plantations stretched from the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Maryland and Virginia south to Georgia. Cotton made a lot of money, and millions of acres were converted to its production. Enslaved people were also crucial to the sugar plantations in Louisiana and the growing of wheat and tobacco in other states.
The North, on the other hand, didn’t have the warm climate needed for crops like cotton and tobacco. Instead, the North’s wealth was built on industry.
Factories making food, firearms, textiles, and metal products brought in lots of money and attracted people from all over the world to move to America for a chance at a better life. In fact, seven out of eight immigrants settled in the North rather than the South during that time period. The economy of the North had been less dependent on slave labor, and by 1804 all Northern states had voted to abolish slavery within their borders.
The North also built better transportation links, with more than two-thirds of the railroad tracks in the country running across the Northern states. These rail lines made it easier to get from factory to factory, city to city, and helped industrialization to flourish.
A Secret Railroad
This was the cruel world Harriet was born into. Her ancestors came from West Africa, traveling to America on slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean. Though the South had tough laws against helping runaways, there were still people willing to risk their lives to help others be free. In time, Harriet became involved in the struggle for freedom herself.
The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad but an escape network of secret safe houses, known as “stations,” along a route to freedom for runaway enslaved people. It was formed around the late 1700s and ran from the South to the free states in the North and Canada. Free blacks, sympathetic whites, and enslaved people themselves aided runaways in their bid for freedom.
Harriet Tubman played a key role in the Underground Railroad, acting as one of the “conductors”—a person who helped runaways on their journey. She led over seventy people out of slavery through a series of clever schemes and ploys. She returned to the South an estimated nineteen times to free other slaves and was known as “the Moses of her people.”
But Harriet knew nothing of this as she fled through the woods on that moonless night in 1849. As she walked quickly toward the Choptank River, all she understood was that her journey would be long, difficult, and dangerous. But at the end of it, freedom waited.
She traveled almost one hundred miles on foot, by boat, and by wagon, from safe house to safe house, moving only by night. She had to avoid the patrollers and slave hunters trailing her—as well as their hounds. But when she looked up at the sky and saw the North Star, Harriet found hope.
Copyright © 2019 by Sandra A. Agard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.