The famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman is a pseudonymsynonymous with the underground railroad and political activism. Her husband, John Tubman, didn’t follow her North but lead an equally interesting life that has intrigued historians for decades.
A Complicated Marriage
Little is known about John Tubman, who was Harriet’s first husband. We know that he was a free Black man and married Harriet around 1844. The marriage was complicated due to Harriet’s slave status, with John deciding not to follow Harriet north in her search for freedom.
Any union between a free man and a slave would result in their children also becoming slaves. This was a heavy burden for Harriet, who would go on to fight for her freedom and leave John behind.
The complications started with John’s status and his apparent lack of interest in helping his wife find freedom. By the age of 22, Harriet had already been married to John for five years. We’re not sure if their marriage was a happy one, but if Harriet decided to listen to her husband, her life would have looked a lot different.
Harriet Tubman is known worldwide for her widespread acclaim as an abolitionist and civil rights activist. Her life was an authoritarian nightmare with no support from John, who was described by many as “overbearing.”
Unfortunately, John would go on to threaten Harriet and ultimately gave her an ultimatum that would change her life forever.
John might not have betrayed his wife as he had threatened and was compelled to keep his distance from her after she escaped the confines of her slave quarters. Two years after the fact, a relentless Tubman returned to Maryland to fetch her husband. Rather unsurprisingly, John decided to decline his wife’s request and stay put.
The reason for this was because John had seemingly moved on in the two years since Harriet’s escape. In fact, he’d found a new wife and was happily remarried. This broke Harriet’s heart, who remained very much in love with John Tubman, despite his lack of support for her freedom. This interesting fact represents a powerful example of Harriet’s humanity that mainstream media hasn’t explored.
Harriet Tubman was the leader of thirteen missionary trips that helped to save over seventy enslaved people. Her undeniable strength in the face of adversity is what sets her apart from other historical figures. But, it’s important to remember that she was also a deeply heartbroken woman. She turned her pain into strength and, against all odds, was able to achieve the impossible.
Doomed From The Start
Harriet and John met in the early 1840s on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Not much is known about their early courtship, but the pair seemed to be mismatched from the start. At the time, Harriet was still known by her maiden name Amarinta “Minty” Ross, a name that she’d soon leave behind in favor of her soon-to-be husband’s surname.
Documented historical accounts from the time suggest that the pair may have been a lot more different than we first thought.
“Harriet was witty with an ebullient spirit and strong will. John Tubman, on the other hand, may have been brash, aloof, and even haughty at times”.
This statement indicates the vast differences between John and Harriet, which may be one of the reasons why John didn’t take his wife seriously.
Overcoming Great Odds
The fact of the matter is that Harriet had a lot more to lose than John. As a working slave, she could be sold at any time. This meant that her marriage to John was extremely volatile and left her with little foundation.
On the other hand, being a free black man, John was offered a much greater sense of security. His freedom enabled him to travel freely and work for wages. This enabled him a greater sense of independence from the slave owners whilst still relying on them for work.
Harriet would seek her husband’s support in making plans for an eventual escape into the “free North.” She wanted him to join in her plight for freedom but was turned down on multiple occasions. John has even been described Harriet’s escape plan as “foolish,” reporting that he was “fine where he was.”
It would seem that John regularly made fun of his wife and likened her to a member of their community with severe learning difficulties.
A Perilous Journey
In 1849, Harriet Tubman would finally free herself from the shackles of slavery and those of her former husband. She escaped on her second attempt to Philadelphia after her first attempt, aided by her two brothers, had failed. Harriet would work relentlessly with the abolitionists to make thirteen different trips to free relatives and enslaved people in Maryland.
Some accounts are rather more sympathetic to John and state that he had to make an informed decision in order to save himself. If he were caught with Harriet as a free man, he’d undoubtedly be arrested and enslaved.
Harriet Tubman’s involvement in the Civil War would make her the first US woman in history to lead a military exposition. She headed a unit that raided a rice plantation in 1863 along the banks of the Combahee River in South Carolina. The successful assault resulted in the freedom of many slaves and cemented Tubman’s name in history.
Meanwhile, John Tubman died in 1851 after being shot by a white man named Robert Vincent. The two men had gotten into a roadside quarrel, resulting in John’s untimely death. He left behind a widow and four children, with the final nail in the coffin being the “not guilty” verdict, which was passed by an all-white jury.
Mary N. Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said in a recent interview:
“She [Tubman] was a woman who loved. She love[d] deeply and she had a burgeoning passion to do good”.
This observation speaks volumes about Harriet Tubman, whose whole life would be shaped by her love for a man who didn’t have her best interests at heart.
It’s the oldest story in the book but an important lesson for Harriet to learn. In any case, she would go on to use the pain and anguish from her first marriage to become the legendary civil rights activist we cherish today.
Zackary Momoh played John Tubman in 2019’s biography movie Harriet. Cynthia Erivo played the title role and was nominated for the Oscar in 2020.