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Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero

Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero

5.0 6
by Kate Clifford Larson

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Harriet Tubman is one of the giants of American history—a fearless visionary who led scores of her fellow slaves to freedom and battled courageously behind enemy lines during the Civil War. And yet in the nine decades since her death, next to nothing has been written about this extraordinary woman aside from juvenile biographies. The truth about Harriet


Harriet Tubman is one of the giants of American history—a fearless visionary who led scores of her fellow slaves to freedom and battled courageously behind enemy lines during the Civil War. And yet in the nine decades since her death, next to nothing has been written about this extraordinary woman aside from juvenile biographies. The truth about Harriet Tubman has become lost inside a legend woven of racial and gender stereotypes. Now at last, in this long-overdue biography, historian Kate Clifford Larson gives Harriet Tubman the powerful, intimate, meticulously detailed life she deserves.

Drawing from a trove of new documents and sources as well extensive genealogical research, Larson reveals Tubman as a complex woman— brilliant, shrewd, deeply religious, and passionate in her pursuit of freedom. The descendant of the vibrant, matrilineal Asanti people of the West African Gold Coast, Tubman was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but refused to spend her life in bondage. While still a young woman she embarked on a perilous journey of self-liberation—and then, having won her own freedom, she returned again and again to liberate family and friends, tapping into the Underground Railroad.

Yet despite her success, her celebrity, her close ties with Northern politicians and abolitionists, Tubman suffered crushing physical pain and emotional setbacks. Stripping away myths and misconceptions, Larson presents stunning new details about Tubman’s accomplishments, personal life, and influence, including her relationship with Frederick Douglass, her involvement with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and revelations about a young woman who may have been Tubman’s daughter. Here too are Tubman’s twilight years after the war, when she worked for women’s rights and in support of her fellow blacks, and when racist politicians and suffragists marginalized her contribution.

Harriet Tubman, her life and her work, remain an inspiration to all who value freedom. Now, thanks to Larson’s breathtaking biography, we can finally appreciate Tubman as a complete human being—an American hero, yes, but also a woman who loved, suffered, and sacrificed. Bound for the Promised Land is a magnificent work of biography, history, and truth telling.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“What a glorious book! Kate Clifford Larson’s magnificent biography of the life of the real Harriet Tubman deserves the nation’s attention. . . . With clarity, grace, and skill, Larson brilliantly captures the truly remarkable spirit of a genuine American heroine. We are all in Larson’s debt.”
Coauthor, A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America
The Emeline Bigelow Conland Fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

“An extraordinary achievement. Heroically researched, movingly written, it transforms a legend into a flesh-and-blood human being and brings a critical era in our history vividly to life.”
Julia Cherry Spruill Professor of History,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Harriet Tubman’s life as a warrior woman is elegantly captured in Kate Clifford Larson’s riveting biography. . . . Bound for the Promised Land is the story of a legendary woman we thought we knew, but Larson’s portrait is more focused, more complex, more satisfying.”
Author of Gender Talk:
The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities
Professor, Women’s Studies and English and
Director, Spelman College

Publishers Weekly
Few American historical figures are as familiar in legend as Tubman (1822?-1913), and as little known in fact. Although at least 30 juvenile biographies have treated her, Larson's is the first adult biography to appear since Earl Conrad's Harriet Tubman (1943). This pedestrian (in the neutral sense) account presents new investigative sources, utilizing court records and contemporary local newspapers, wills and letters, along with legal and illegal transactions. Larson directs tangled traffic as Tubman and her relatives are "passed down through several generations"; she traces the lives of the white owners as well the black "blended community of free and enslaved people" on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Tubman grew up in slavery and where she returned time and again to spirit slaves to freedom. In recounting Tubman's routes and ruses, as the figure known as "Moses," Larson freshly identifies many of the escapees as she delineates the solid role of free and enslaved blacks in the Underground Railroad. She identifies Tubman's "sleeping spells, periods of semi-consciousness," as temporal lobe epilepsy. With Tubman's support of John Brown and her activities during the Civil War, Larson arrives where the Tubman legend usually ends with Tubman immortalized "forever as an Underground Railroad Agent and Civil War spy." As in the only other adult biography, Sarah Bradford's Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869), Larson follows her subject into her post-Civil War life supporting freedmen in the South and tending to a large household, including a young woman Larson speculates may have been Tubman's daughter. While this history is well done, competition will arrive in February, when Little, Brown publishes Catherine Clinton's Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Harriet Tubman, philanthropist, abolitionist lecturer, Civil War spy, scout, military commander, and the only African American female known to have repeatedly and successfully piloted others to freedom via the Underground Railroad, has been the subject of scores of 20th-century children's and fictional accounts but has not had a scholarly biography since the 1940s. Now, a trio of new works appears, each drawing upon primary sources not used before, applying modern scholarship drawn from the disciplines of women's and African American history, and offering new interpretations and insights into the life, legend, and legacy of this American hero. Road to Freedom, written by university professor Clinton, a scholar of African American women's history, is a concise and readable biography that vividly updates the story of Tubman's life with context and new interpretations based on the latest historical scholarship. It is the best choice for the casual reader and is recommended for academic or public libraries. Humez's (women's studies, Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston; Gifts of Power) offers the most analytic and interpretive treatment, including a biographical sketch, an examination of Tubman's gifted storytelling, and reprints of her stories, sayings, and documents. This combination makes it ideal for scholarly audiences, though it will please any interested reader. It will serve as an invaluable resource for understanding the real Harriet Tubman and is highly recommended for all collections with interests in Tubman, women's studies, Civil War studies, and African American women. Larson's Bound for the Promised Land is the most detailed study to date of Tubman's life, utilizing a variety of primary sources, including local public records, and providing more information on her liberating forays into the South, her relationships within the black community and with powerful white patrons, and new information about her lifelong epilepsy. Larson is a noted Tubman scholar and consultant for national monuments dedicated to Tubman and the Underground Railroad (UGRR). Recommended for any library with a particular interest in the life of Tubman or the UGRR. [Clinton's book was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/03; the Underground Railroad Freedom Center will open in Cincinnati in Summer 2004.-Ed.]-Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Araminta Ross, better known as Harriet Tubman, was born a slave in 1822 on Maryland's Eastern Shore. In 1849, after hearing that she might be sold to settle her late master's debt, she escaped and began a life of sacrifice to help others escape as well. But Tubman's efforts didn't stop there. She played a vital role in the events of the Civil War and, in her later years, supported the fight for women's rights. Until the end of her life, she fought against the bigotry and injustice faced daily by African Americans. Using a clear writing style, Larson does an excellent job of placing Tubman in the context of her times. After finishing this book, readers will feel a greater appreciation for this woman's accomplishments and awareness that one person really can make a difference.-Peggy Bercher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A doctoral dissertation recycled as a literary biography of the legendary abolitionist and feminist. Sixty years have elapsed since the last full-length portrait of Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), and first-time author Larson must be commended for uncovering many new facts about the astonishing life of a woman once called "the Black Joan of Arc" and "the Black Moses," a woman who knew John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and countless others involved in the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the women’s suffrage movement. Larson’s handling of these remarkable materials, however, is unrelievedly conventional and often dull; she even fails to animate Tubman’s remarkable single encounter with fellow activist Sojourner Truth. After an introductory sketch of her subject’s life, the author returns us to antebellum Maryland, where young Harriet grew up as the property of Edward Brodess, a stereotypical white slave owner. Although an 1852 fire in the Dorchester County Courthouse destroyed key documents, Larson was nonetheless able to trace the history of Tubman and her family. Harriet fled slavery in 1849, but risked her life to return numerous times (sometimes disguised as an old man) to rescue relatives and others, some 70 people in all. She became well known on the abolitionist circuit and returned to the South when the Civil War broke out to nurse the wounded, recruit freed blacks for the Union Army, and spy for the North. Amazing success greeted all her efforts, and after the war, Tubman spent years trying to coax a pension from the government. She devoted her final years to family, public speaking, and assorted social causes; slender proceeds from earlybiographies helped her stay alive until she finally got her pension. Unfortunately, Larson’s artless prose never equals Tubman’s achievements, and the text often resembles what it once was—an academic assignment. Well-researched, but the plodding treatment keeps this powerful, important story from soaring. (4 maps, not seen) Agent: Doe Coover/Doe Coover Agency

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Random House Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.03(h) x 0.92(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt



When Harriet Tubman fled her dead master’s family in 1849, she was not the only slave from the Eastern Shore of Maryland racing for liberty. In 1850 a total of 279 runaway slaves earned Maryland the dubious distinction of leading the slave states in successfully executed escapes. The motivations for running away are no mystery; however, in many cases the methods of escape remain unknown even to this day. Despite stepped-up efforts in Maryland and other southern states to thwart escapes during the ten years before the Civil War, some slaves did marshal the strength and courage to take their liberty. But few returned to the land of their enslavers, risking capture and reenslavement, even lynching, to help others seek their own emancipation.

How did Tubman successfully escape bondage in Dorchester County, and how did she manage to return many times to lead out family and friends? Not merely the recipient of white abolitionist support, Tubman was the beneficiary of, and a participant in, an African American community that challenged the control of white Marylanders, from the earliest Africans brought from Africa to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Tubman’s story begins several decades before her birth with a complicated set of interrelationships, black and white, enslaved and free, of several generations of families living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As historian Mechal Sobel describes it, this was a “world they made together.”

Dorchester County lies between two rivers, the Choptank to the north and the Nanticoke to the south and east, and extends from the Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware state line, encompassing almost 400,000 acres of dense forest full of oak, hickory, pine, walnut, and sweet gum; marshes and waterways; and extensive farmland. Numerous navigable rivers and creeks crisscross the county, offering access to trade and suitable sites for shipbuilding. The flat terrain provides abundant tillable lands for tobacco, wheat, corn, fruit, and other agricultural products, and before modern times, the vast supply of oyster shells helped keep soils fertile.

The Choptank River rises near the Delaware line, flowing south between Caroline and Talbot Counties and on to Dorchester County, finally emptying into the Chesapeake. In the nineteenth century, the river remained navigable for nearly forty miles upstream from the Chesapeake Bay. Dorchester’s southern border, the Nanticoke River, was navigable throughout its course from Seaford, Delaware, to the Chesapeake; the town of Vienna served as its port of entry and be- came a major trading center during the early nineteenth century, providing bay access to neighboring Somerset County and southwestern Delaware.

It was to this landscape that Harriet Tubman’s African ancestors were forcibly brought to labor in servitude to white masters. Enslavement of Africans in Maryland, and the laws and regulations that codified slavery’s existence, evolved slowly over a hundred-year period. Until the early eighteenth century white indentured servitude was common, particularly on the Eastern Shore. Some planters had both slaves and indentured servants; by the 1730s and 1740s, however, shipments of black captives from Africa to the Americas had increased dramatically. Numerous laws were enacted relating to ownership of slaves, including ones specifying that any children born to an enslaved woman would carry the status of the mother, with ownership remaining with the slave woman’s owner, even if the father was a free black or a white man.

Thus Tubman’s story begins with the history of some of the white families who claimed ownership of her and her family. The detailed records of the lives of the white families who enslaved Tubman, her family, and her friends, demonstrate the sharp contrast between the lives of whites and blacks, lives intimately entwined yet irreconcilably different. Following these white families’ lives as closely as the remaining records allow reveals the lives of their enslaved people, bringing to life the web of community into which Tubman was born. The white Pattisons, the Thompsons, the Stewarts, and the Brodesses played key roles in the lives of Tubman’s family. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, most black people, slave and free alike, moved around according to the land ownership patterns, occupational choices, and living arrangements of the region’s white families. Out of necessity, many black families maintained familial and community ties throughout a wide geographic area. Family separations were not always precipitated by sale; some whites owned (or rented) land and farms across great distances, requiring a shifting of their enslaved and hired black labor force at varying times throughout the year, or at various times over a period of decades when new land had been purchased and the cycle of clearing and es- tablishing new farms began. This pattern of intraregional movement forced families and friends (both black and white) to create communication and travel networks in order to maintain ties with family and community. These complicated networks made it possible for Tubman to become one of the rare individuals capable of executing successful and daring rescues repeatedly.

A devastating fire at the Dorchester County courthouse, set by an unknown arsonist in May 1852, destroyed a great portion of Dorchester County’s historical records. Because few records survived from before 1852, piecing together the nature of black and white relationships in Dorchester County can be done in only a limited way. For instance, we do not know the names of all the slaves owned by Edward Brodess, Harriet Tubman’s owner, nor all of those owned by Anthony Thompson, the owner of Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Several documents did survive the fire: the records of the Orphans Court from 1847 to 1852 were saved because the clerk of the court brought the logbook home to work on it over the weekend. This quirk of fate secured a five-year segment of history important to revealing details of Tubman’s life and of those black and white families who were part of her community. Other records were saved, too: the books listing manumissions, freedom papers, and many chattel records (where slave sales were recorded) were preserved, providing important information about the black community and vital genealogical data for many families in the area. District court cases, heard at the appeals court located in neighboring Talbot County, were recorded at the state level, as were most land transactions, thereby preserving some information from the colonial era and the early republic. Fortunately, these court records contain some of the most dramatic documentation available detailing Harriet Tubman’s life in slavery.

Reaching Beyond the Grave: The Legacy of a Patriarch

In 1791 Atthow Pattison, the patriarch of a long-established Eastern Shore family, sat down to contemplate his legacy to his children and grandchildren. A Revolutionary War veteran, a modest farmer, and an even more modest slaveholder, Pattison could proudly trace his roots in Dorchester County back at least a century. Intermarrying for generations, the Pattisons and other Eastern Shore families consolidated their control over vast tracts of dense timberland, rich marshlands, and productive farms.

Standing at his front door, Pattison could view much of his approximately 265-acre farm, situated on the east side of the Little Blackwater River, near its confluence with the larger Blackwater River. From the wharf in front of his home Pattison probably shipped tobacco, timber, and grain, destined for England and other markets, and received goods originating from the West Indies or England as well as other trading points in New England and along the Chesapeake.

After dividing tracts of land, including his home plantation, and arranging for payments to his grandchildren when they came of age, Atthow bequeathed his remaining slaves and livestock to his surviving daughter, Elizabeth, and her children, Gourney Crow, James, Elizabeth, Achsah, and Mary Pattison, and to his son-in-law, Ezekiel Keene, and his children, Samuel and Anna Keene. Elizabeth, in keeping with her father’s implicit understanding that his children marry “in the family,” had married her cousin William Pattison, and they lived on a nearby plantation. Atthow’s second daughter, Mary, had married her cousin Ezekiel Keene and moved to a farm south of Atthow’s land, though she was dead by the time the will was written.

When Atthow Pattison died in January 1797 he gave to his granddaughter Mary Pattison one enslaved girl named “Rittia and her increase until she and they arrive to forty five years of age.” This phrase, limiting Rit’s and her children’s terms of service to forty-five years, provided for Rit’s eventual manumission, or freedom, from slavery. Maryland manumissions had taken place even in the earliest days of slavery. Never an informal procedure, manumissions were taken quite seriously and were often recorded in land records (as deeds) for each county. Some slaves were able to earn enough money to buy their own freedom, and on occasion slaves sued for their freedom, some eventually prevailing. In 1752 Maryland passed a law restricting manumission by will to slaves “sound in body and mind, capable of labor and not over fifty years of age,” so as to prevent slaveholders or estates from avoiding responsibility for the care and maintenance of “disabled and superannuated slaves.” Manumitting slaves was illegal if the grant of manumission was written in part “during the last fatal illness of the master,” or if the freeing of slaves affected the ability of creditors to settle their claims against the estate of the deceased. This legislation, it was hoped, would slow the increasing number of deathbed manumissions and hold slaveholders more accountable for the support and maintenance of indigent slaves.

Limiting Rit’s term of service lowered her market value to Pattison’s heirs if they were inclined to sell her after gaining possession of her. No doubt Pattison was aware of this, but he may have been influenced by the spirit of the times. On the Eastern Shore, as elsewhere in the new nation, a complex movement was emerging, both religious and secular, that spurred a marked increase in manumissions during the 1790s. While elite families still maintained much control, wealth could be achieved readily with the expanding production of wheat and other grains for export markets, providing viable roads to prosperity for entrepreneurial families in Dorchester and the surrounding counties. The rise of intensive grain agriculture and timber harvesting transformed work patterns on the Eastern Shore. Tobacco production required a year-round labor force, but grain agriculture did not. While timber harvesting could be carried on throughout the year, it also required continuous acquisition of land once one lot had been cut, and it demanded a predominantly male labor force. These factors, among others, altered the nature of black slavery and freedom on the Eastern Shore by 1800; on one hand, free black labor became, to some extent, a more attractive economic alternative to owning slaves, while on the other hand, some white slaveholders found it lucrative to sell off their excess slaves.

Meet the Author

Kate Clifford Larson has spent years researching the life and times of Harriet Tubman. She earned her doctorate at the history department of the University of New Hampshire. A graduate of Simmons College and Northeastern University, Larson has won numerous academic awards and fellowships in support of her work. This is her first book. She lives in Winchester, Massachusetts.

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Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a really excellent sample of this book it tells about promise land of harriet tubman and 4 me being african-amerian it's emotionally disturbing but it was still lovely 2 experience harriet's journeys that could have costed her life so it is just amazing.
Anonymous 8 months ago
The account seems as accurate as one can get about Harriet Tubman. I absolutely enjoyed this book. Learned a lot about the feminist movement also.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reading it was a remarkable journey through the 19th centry. She was certainly a true fighter for all those that believe in the dignity of mankind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I personsally think yoou can learn something from this book