young harriet tubman -- 2/5/24

Today's selection -- from Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation by Tiya Miles. Growing up as a slave:

“Throughout her youth, Harriet Tubman would experience nature as a multifaceted and mysterious surround. The world outside was teacher and tormentor, protector and saboteur. She observed her mother defiantly use the woods as a hiding place to shield a son from sale, and she watched her father expertly manage the forest as a skilled harvester of its bounty. As a child and later, a young adult, she would follow her parents' examples and begin to intentionally use nature—first animals, then trees, plants, and waterways, as tools of resistance to enslavement and abuse. Tutored by parents who espoused a Black Christian faith, and exposed to the many religious traditions in her multiracial, multiethnic community (including Methodism, Catholicism, Quakerism, and African spiritual belief), Tubman expanded her material orientation to the natural world to cosmic dimensions and began to experience outdoor spaces, particularly the woods, as sacred realms for communion with the God in whom she fervently trusted. Each of these ways of relating to nature—as hideout, tool, resource, and sacred space—prepared Tubman to become the woman others would come to call ‘Moses,’ navigating the outdoors in wonder and power with the aid of her liberating God.

“When Harriet was born, the middle child of nine, her grieving parents had already lost children to the slave market at the hands of [her mother] Rit's owners, the Brodess family. Rit and [her father] Ben Ross had wed after the two were brought together by the marriage of their enslavers, Mary Pattison Brodess and her second husband, Dr. Anthony Thompson. As fertile soils were exhausted and the tobacco economy faltered, slaveholders began looking to other financial opportunities. At the same time, cotton agriculture and production extended farther south and west into the rich lands of Native American nations that would be seized by the United States in the Indian removal era of the 1820s and 1830s. White opportunists migrating into these newly opened lands sought to enlarge their labor forces. For slaveholders in the Upper South, unfree Black people represented easy ‘capital,’ and in addition to profiting from their labor, slaveowners sought to realize the wealth stored in the bodies of their legal slaves. Some sold individuals southward, separating families. Many hired African Americans out to others who could use their labor on a temporary basis. Slaveholders also diversified their economic operations, developing a flourishing timber industry that forcibly employed unfree people like Harriet Tubman's father, Ben, and later, Harriet herself. Edward Brodess, the son of Mary Brodess and the owner of Harriet Tubman's mother and hence of Harriet and her siblings, employed all three of these income-building strategies. As the shape of chattel bondage shifted in Maryland, so did the makeup of the state's population and the daily labor practices of rural life. The percentage of free African Americans in Maryland increased, through manumission (being liberated legally by the people who owned them) as well as through escape. As enslaved Blacks were increasingly being leased out to live and work beyond the estates of their legal owners, more of them were able to escape to live in the large port city of Baltimore.

A woodcut of Tubman in her Civil War clothing

“Harriet Tubman grew up bearing the brunt, and seeing the possibilities, in these changing economic and social dynamics. Her owner repeatedly leased Harriet and her siblings to others on distant estates. When she was only six or seven, Harriet was sent 10 miles from home to labor for James Cook and his wife, a harsh and demanding couple. There she was made to perform all manner of work inside and out, including wading through the cold, brackish waters to collect muskrats from the traps Cook had placed so that he could sell the creatures' pelts into a lucrative fur market. She fell ill with the measles at the Cook farm and was sent home, where her mother nursed her back to health only to have their owner lease Harriet out once more, this time sending her to the household of a white woman, Miss Susan, who wanted someone at ‘low wages’ to tend her infant (‘wages’ that would go to her owner's family). Because Harriet, not yet ten, could not keep the baby quiet or the furniture dusted to Susan's satisfaction, she was beaten regularly and unmercifully and bore the scars for the rest of her life. Once she snuck a cube of sugar and then, when she saw Susan reach for the whip, fled and hid in a pigpen on a nearby farm for four to five days. Harriet slept and ate with ‘eight or ten little pigs’ and their mother until she became afraid that the ‘old sow’ would harm her for taking too much food from the trough. Hungry, dirty, and exhausted, Harriet returned to Susan's household and was ‘shamefully beaten,’ she would later recall, by the man of the house. Harriet paid a terrible price for her recalcitrance, but she also learned at a young age that if she were daring enough and willing to risk deprivation and punishment, she could survive for days on her own outdoors.”



Tiya Miles


Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation (A Norton Short)




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