Tubman’s First Rescue Mission

<i>Harriet Ross Tubman Memorial</i>

Statue of Harriet Tubman wearing a pistol at her waist from Bristol, Pennsylvania. Tubman points northward as she leads her imaginged freedom seekers onward. Source: Photograph by Renée Ater.

<em>Go Down Moses, Let My People Go!<br /></em>

Go Down Moses is an African American spiritual, thought to have origniated in the early 1800s. Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) arranged the compostion in 1917. Source: Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

In December 1850, Harriet Tubman planned her first mission: the escape of her niece Kessiah and her two children, James Alfred and Araminta. Tubman had received news from relatives and friends in Baltimore that they were to be sold on the auction block. Upon hearing the news Tubman left Philadelphia and traveled to Baltimore, where she had family and friends, many who worked and lived along the city’s waterfront. With Kessiah’s husband, John Bowley, Tubman planned their escape, giving detailed instructions to Bowley. The family was able to flee by boat from Cambridge, Maryland, sailing up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore. Tubman then transferred them safely to Philadelphia.[1]

Tubman carefully planned each of her rescues. Although unable to read, Tubman knew that newspapers were not printed on Sundays and runaway advertisements would not appear until Monday. So she tried to organize the escapes to leave on Saturday evening. Tubman always arranged for a specific meeting place at an appointed time to meet the freedom seekers, traveled during the night with them, and hid them during the day so that they could rest.

Using the stars for navigation, she was comfortable moving through the landscape of the Eastern Shore at night. She carried a pistol for protection against slave catchers, and was said to brandish it to encourage her charges to keep moving forward. Sarah H. Bradford also reported that she used paregoric, a tincture of opium, to lull babies and small children to sleep so their cries would not lead to their discovery.[2]

Tubman sang two songs to guide the freedom seekers: Go Down Moses and Bound for the Promise Land. “If danger lurked nearby, Tubman would sing an appropriate spiritual to warn her party of an impeding threat to their safety,”according to Kate Clifford Larson. “When the road was clear, she would change her words or the tempo of the song and guide them on to the next safe place.”[3]

The opening lyrics of Go Down Moses are particularly famous, and are inscribed on Alison Saar’s Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go

Select the hyperlink to listen to the Tuskegee Institute Singers, Go Down Moses, 1914, Victor Records, Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/78/.


[1]Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine, 2004), 89-90.

[2]Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet Tubman, The Moses of Her People (New York: Geo. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886), 33, electronic edition, Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/harriet/harriet.html.

[3]Larson, Bound for the Promised Land, 101.

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
Tubman’s First Rescue Mission