Moses of Her People: Harriet Tubman and Runaway Slaves

Last Updated by Kenyatta D. Berry on
Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait
Library of Congress

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Kenyatta D. Berry is genealogist and lawyer with more than 15 years of experience in genealogical research and writing. She began her genealogical journey while in law school and studying at the State Library of Michigan in Lansing. A native of Detroit, Berry graduated from Bates Academy, Cass Technical High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She also co-hosts Genealogy Roadshow on PBS.

In this blog post, Berry discusses the history of Harriet Tubman and how Charlotte Jenkins channels her strength in Mercy Street.​.

 

Moses of Her People: Harriet Tubman and Runaway Slaves

In Episode 3: One Equal Temper, a racist white man with smallpox is taken to the tent to be quarantined. During a fight with a patient he is injured and Samuel works to save his life despite his crying foul. Dr. Bryon Hale comes into the tent and realizes that Samuel understands medicine and caring for patients. The doctor summons him not to scold Samuel but to hire him as a paid tutor. Samuel shares this information with Charlotte and she reveals her story as a runaway slave. Charlotte ran for days without a destination but was headed towards freedom. During her journey she was told about Harriet Tubman and later met “The Moses of Her People.”

Why was Harriet Tubman called “The Moses of Her People?”

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross a slave in Bucktown, Maryland. She married a free black man John Tubman in 1844 and escaped North to Philadelphia in 1849, fearing she would be sold South during the Domestic Slave Trade.1 While in Philadelphia, Harriet worked with abolitionists William Still and John Brown. Harriet Tubman is called “The Moses of Her People” because like Moses she helped people escape from slavery.

Harriet is well known as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Using a network of abolitionists and free people of color, she guided hundreds of slaves to freedom in the North and Canada. In 1862, Harriet arrived in Hilton Head, South Carolina, to aid Union troops during the Civil War. She carried a pass issued by Maj. Gen. David Hunter, Commander of the Department of the South.2

“Pass the bearer, Harriet Tubman. . . wherever she wishes to go; and give her free passage, at all times, on all government transports.” 3

A scene in the contraband tentA scene in the contraband tent Harriet served as a nurse in the Sea Island off the coast of South Carolina caring for the sick and wounded without regard to color. Acting Assistant Surgeon Henry K. Durrant was so moved by her warmth and generous attitude.

He wrote a note, stating “To Whom It May Concern,” commending her for “kindness and attention to the sick and suffering.” 4  Harriet traveled into Confederate territory with Union Col. James Montgomery during their raids. She provided information to the plantation slaves during these raids and many slaves were led to safety within the Union lines. 

“I wish to commend to your attention Mrs. Harriet Tubman, a most remarkable woman, and invaluable scout.” Col. Montgomery to Gen. Gillmore in 1863. 5

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and Runaway Slaves 

The Fugitive Slave Act was signed by President Millard Fillmore on September 18, 1850, as a supplementary amendment to the Slave Act of 1793. The law essentially allowed slave catchers to catch alleged fugitive slaves without due process of law. Once captured the alleged slave would be brought before a commissioner or federal judge who would conduct a summary hearing. If the evidence proved satisfactory to the commissioner or judge, they would issue a certificate of removal. 6

Library of Congress Free people of color and runaway slaves were at risk in the North after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. Owners employed slave catchers to bring back fugitive slaves and the Act made it a crime to give shelter to an escaped slave. These slave catchers were dubbed “Kidnappers” by abolitionists. 

One of the earliest known kidnappers of free people of color and fugitive slaves was Patty Cannon. An illegal slave trader, she was the co-leader of the Cannon-Johnson Gang of Maryland-Delaware in the early 19th century. She sold free people of color and fugitive slaves to the South. This became known as the Reverse Underground Railroad.7 It is possible that Harriet Tubman knew of Patty Cannon and the Cannon-Johnson gang since she was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, which bordered Sussex County, Delaware, where Cannon lived. In 1829, when Tubman was about nine years old, Patty was indicted for four murders after the bodies of four blacks including three children were found on property she owned. She confessed to almost two dozen murders of black kidnap victims and died while awaiting trial in prison.8

Charlotte Jenkins, like Harriet Tubman, was a runaway slave who later nursed the sick and wounded during the Civil War. She takes charge of the smallpox tent in a way that no one has seen before when the racist white man arrives. Charlotte establishes a firm stance with him that surprises Samuel and Belinda. Charlotte channels the strength and fortitude of Harriet Tubman and becomes a force of nature at the Contraband Camp.

— Kenyatta D. Berry

Footnotes and further reading:

[1] Archives of Maryland Online Publication

[2] Wesley, Charles H., and Patricia W. Romero. "Negro Americans in the Civil War; from slavery to citizenship." New York: Publishers Co., 1967.

[3] Ibid, page 107

[4] ibid, page 107

[5] Ibid, page 108

[6] Don E. Fehrenbacher, "The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery" (New York: Oxford University Press 2001) 231.

[7] Reverse Underground Railroad | Wikipedia 

[8] Patty Cannon | Wikipedia 

Kenyatta D. Berry is genealogist and lawyer with more than 15 years of experience in genealogical research and writing. She began her genealogical journey while in law school and studying at the State Library of Michigan in Lansing. A native of Detroit, Berry graduated from Bates Academy, Cass Technical High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She also co-hosts Genealogy Roadshow on PBS 

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