Debunking the Myths About Harriet Tubman

December 7, 2022

Harriet Tubman is a truly inspiring historical icon. She was a high-ranking participant in the Underground Railroad, an 1840s and 1850s network that helped enslaved Black people get out of the South and make their way to the North, where slavery was abolished. Her achievements are amazing and legendary, so much so that they’ve been obscured by history. Here are some commonly stated facts about Harriet Tubman, and the truth behind them.

MYTH: Harriet Tubman helped about 300 people escape slavery over the course of 19 dangerous journeys.

The 300 was created, and thus spread, by Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, a bestselling biography published by Sarah Bradford in 1868. Tubman's accomplishment is no less heroic by the true number being somewhat smaller. According to Tubman herself, and what little documentation exists of her Underground Railroad trips, the total number of people whose escapes she enabled is about 70. In 1858 and 1859, she told supporters and allies that she’d rescued between 50 and 60 people via nine trips. In her final documented trip, in December 1860, she helped seven people escape, making for a total of about 70 enslaved people liberated thanks to her audacity and courage in the face of extreme danger.

MYTH: Part of the reason why “spirituals” such as “Wade in the Water,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” entered common knowledge is because Harriet Tubman sang the along the Underground Railroad — as coded signals to escapees on the run.

It’s usually reported, as in Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, that Tubman’s signal songs were only ever “Go Down Moses” and “Bound for the Promised Land,” and Tubman would change up the tempo as a signal to escaping slaves that it was safe to emerge from hiding. She never sang other songs attributed to her, particularly “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” because it wasn’t written until the 1940s, decades after Tubman’s death.

MYTH: A famous, powerful, and devastating quote about internalized racism came from Harriet Tubman. Regarding her escorting so many to freedom, Tubman allegedly said, “I could have saved thousands — if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.”

This is a case of misappropriation of Tubman’s achievements and legacy, and not getting it right. In 1970, feminist political theorist Robin Morgan wrote an essay called “Goodbye to All That,” about sexism and racism even in liberal and progressive circles, and she republished it in 2008, in the light of the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This time, calling out women who didn’t vote for Clinton, Morgan wrote, “Let a statement by the magnificent Harriet Tubman stand as reply. When asked how she managed to save hundreds of enslaved African Americans via the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, she replied bitterly, ‘I could have saved thousands—if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.’” Historians jumped on the quote, and found that Tubman never said it, determining its origin to be a 20th century biography of the freedom fighter.

MYTH: Harriet Tubman was a maternal, even grandmotherly figure.

When she began her life as a revolutionary freeing the enslaved, beginning with her own escape from the South into the free North in 1849, Tubman was just 27 years old. She was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad for 11 years, retiring at the grand old age of 38.

To learn more truths about this remarkable American hero, check out Show Me History: Harriet Tubman: Fighter for Freedom. A fully illustrated life story of Tuman, it’s available now in the “Courageous!” boxed set from Portable Press.