John Tubman: The little-known first husband of Harriet Tubman who betrayed her

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Harriet Tubman is widely praised today for her daring escape from slavery when she was only 22 and her rescue missions which undoubtedly helped changed America. Tubman had been married for five years when she escaped slavery in 1849 and had she listened to her first husband, she probably wouldn’t have gained widespread acclaim as an abolitionist and civil rights activist.

Basically, her African-American husband, John Tubman, who had been born free, did not share in her dreams to the extent that he once threatened to betray her if she followed through on plans to escape.

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Even when a determined Tubman managed to flee and came back to get her husband two years later, he declined to go up north with her. What was even more painful was the fact that John had moved on; he had found another woman. Tubman was heartbroken; she felt betrayed but she carried on with her mission. At the end of the day, she would help rescue about 70 people, including family and friends during 13 trips to Maryland as a key member of the Underground Railroad.

Despite being a powerful, revered woman whose daring exploits earned her the nickname “Moses,” her heartbreak upon getting to know of her husband’s actions gives “a powerful example of her humanity,” said Mary N. Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

“She [Tubman] was a woman who loved,” said Elliot. “She love[d] deeply, obviously, and she had passion.” Indeed, John and Tubman did love each other, and this was played beautifully in “Harriet”, the first major motion picture about the life of Tubman.

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The two first met in the early 1840s on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, at a time Tubman was still known as Amarinta “Minty” Ross. Little is known about their courtship but the two seemed to have different personality traits. “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,” according to an account.

Tubman, who had been born into slavery while her husband had not, was aware of the repercussions of getting married. By law, if they were to have children, the children would take her legal status, in other words, they would be enslaved like her. What is more, any marriage between the two would only be made legal if Tubman’s slaveowner gave his approval. But these impediments could not stop the two lovers from tying the knot in 1844.

Still, Tubman knew that since she was a slave, she could be sold at any time. Fearing that her marriage would be split apart, among other reasons, she began making plans to ran off to the north. And she thought she could get the support of her husband, but no. John said he was fine where he was and even described as “foolish” her wife’s visions.

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Tubman had narcolepsy caused by a blow to the head when she was about 15, hence she could fall asleep any time and any place, according to reports. An enslaved Tubman, while married, would “start up at night with the cry, “Oh, dey’re comin’, dey’re comin’, I mus’ go!”, according to writer Sarah Hopkins Bradford in her second biography of Tubman.

“Her [Tubman] husband called her a fool, and said she was like old Cudjo, who when a joke went round, never laughed till half an hour after everybody else got through, and so just as all danger was past she began to be frightened,” said Bradford, though various accounts have raised doubts about this narrative.

Tubman would in 1849 escape on her own from her Bucktown, Maryland farm to Philadelphia after an earlier attempt to flee with her brothers. She then worked with some abolitionists in 1850 to free some of her relatives enslaved in Maryland. Despite the risks involved, she returned to Maryland again the following year to convince her husband to follow her to Pennsylvania, only to find out that he had married.

Some accounts state that since John was a free man, he would have been enslaved if he was caught on the run with her.

Tubman would go on to play a significant and pioneering role in the Civil War, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition when in 1863, she led soldiers to raid rice plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina and freed many slaves.

The Union army spy and recruiter would marry her second husband Nelson Davis in 1869, two years after her first husband John was killed by a white husband in a dispute.

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