Much less well known is her impressive expertise as a self-taught naturalist.
Born Amanita Ross, she later took the first name of her mother: Harriet. The surname belonged to her first husband, John Tubman, whom she married in 1844.
A Clandestine Railroad
In the decades before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad moved enslaved African Americans in the South to freedom in the northern United States and Canada. Bordering the slave states of Virginia and Kentucky, Southwest Ohio played an especially important role in this clandestine network.
During her time as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, Tubman often traveled at night, using her extensive knowledge of the region's environment and wildlife to communicate, navigate, and survive. She said of herself, "I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it".
(Gammon House, a rare remaining Ohio Underground Railroad site; photo: Jerry Kenney)
The Call of an Owl
Harriet Tubman spent much of her youth in close contact with nature. Born around 1822, she grew up in an area full of wetlands, swamps, and upland forests. These locations taught her the expert skills she used in her own quest for freedom in 1849.
She has been described as the ultimate outdoors woman, even using bird calls as she traveled, eventually helping approximately 70 people, including her parents and four brothers, escape slavery.
Harriet frequently used the call of an owl, probably the barred owl (Strix varia), also known as a hoot-owl, to warn slaves seeking freedom about the safety of emerging from hiding to continue their journey. The call of these owls sounds very much like someone asking the question, Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?
An owl's call would have blended in with the normal sounds of the night, not creating any suspicion. Robert Hayden’s poem Runagate, Runagate mentions Tubman and the owls she mimicked with astounding accuracy.
The Lessons From Nature
As an adolescent, Tubman suffered a severe head injury when an overseer threw a two-pound metal weight at another slave who was attempting to flee. The weight struck Harriet instead, which she said "broke my skull". Several accounts of her life mention Harriet Tubman's slave labor as a child on a tidewater Maryland farm, including wading into frigid marsh water to catch muskrats for food.
Her parents were enslaved, and Harriet's owners rented her out to neighbors as a domestic servant as early as age five. At seven, she was hired out again and her duties included walking into the wet marshes to check muskrat traps.
(Carnegie Museum of Natural History)
Harriet also worked as a field hand, in timber fields with her father and brothers, and at wharves in the area. All of these experiences later helped her when, between 1850 and 1860, she made 13 trips back to Maryland to guide people to freedom. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed Tubman “Moses".
In the timber fields she learned the skills necessary to be a successful conductor on the Underground Railroad, including how to assess a landscape, how to exist safely and comfortably in the woods, and how to move from place to place by listening to the sounds of nature.
She Could Read The Sky
Being able to travel and navigate was paramount for people risking their lives to escape to freedom. Tubman used the North Star and the Big Dipper to orient herself as she moved from place to place.
She led family members, as well as strangers, from Maryland to Philadelphia to New York and as far as St. Catharine’s, Canada, traveling at night and using science to help her find her way.
Knowledge of Botany Was Crucial
Harriet's knowledge of botany proved to be an absolutely essential skill that was acquired early in life. People used plants for food and other survival needs. Travelers along the Underground Railroad would have searched for fruit in the woods and also hunted greens such as dandelions, wild lettuces, chicories, curly dock, mustard greens, and wild radishes.
While the woods were filled with sassafras, black cherry, and paw-paw trees, not everything was safe to eat. One of the conductor's main duties was to find nourishment. Those slaves who didn't have the benefit of a conductor were on their own, and they sometimes wandered through the woods all day eating nothing but acorns.
Life After the Underground Railroad
Harriet's expertise proved beneficial after her Underground Railroad days. She arrived at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1861, and served in the Union Army. Her experience with the waterways she had repeatedly crossed while shepherding freedom seekers soon became essential knowledge for Union troops.
In 1863, she helped free more than 700 African Americans during a raid in South Carolina, a feat that earned her the nickname "General Tubman". In 1897, England's Queen Victoria presented her with this shawl.
Never Lost a Soul
Harriet Tubman’s understanding of her environment and its ecology prepared her for both the great and small tasks of the Underground Railroad and the Civil War. She proudly pointed out to Frederick Douglass that in all of her journeys, she never lost a single passenger.