Date of Award

Spring 2003

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Ellen Fitzpatrick

Second Advisor

J William Harris


We all believe that we know Harriet Tubman (1820--1913): slave, famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, abolitionist, spy, nurse, and suffragist. Her successful, secret journeys into the slave states to rescue bondwomen, men, and children have immortalized her in the minds of Americans for over one hundred and thirty years. One of the most famous women in our nation's history, we have come to know the narrative of her life only through juvenile biographies. These stories made Tubman's life a legendary one by reconstituting her into a historical and cultural icon suitable for mass consumption as the "Mother of her race". More myth than reality, this historical image has not always been representative of Tubman's real life experience.

Through the use of long disregarded and obscured historical records, and utilizing archival resources unavailable to earlier biographers, this dissertation reveals new details of Harriet Tubman's long life, many of them resurrected after years of oversight and neglect. By placing Tubman within an historical context, this dissertation examines the familial, social, cultural, political, and economic factors that shaped and influenced her life under slavery and in freedom. Relevant contexts include (but are not limited to) Evangelical Protestantism, slave culture, gender roles, regional variations in the slave and free black experience unique to the Eastern Shore and Chesapeake area where Tubman grew up, the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, refugee communities in the North, the Civil War, the nature of community life in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman settled after the war, humanitarian work in the African American community, and the woman's suffrage movement.

"Asante Daughter of Zion" also highlights the critical choices made over time to mute and rewrite Tubman's life narrative, making her an acceptable image suitable for mass consumption as the "Mother of her race". This dissertation explores the ways in which the historical obscurity of the details of Tubman's life remain intricately woven in the racial, class and gender dynamics of our nation.