Harriet Tubman | History | Smithsonian

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

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Bound for the Promised Land

Kate Clifford Larson
Random House, $26.95

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It is a risky business to tamper with a national icon and trickier still to convey the full dimension of the individual behind the legend. But Kate Clifford Larson has accomplished both in her brilliant biography of Harriet Tubman, whose name has become synonymous with selfless dedication to her people.

Tubman was born a slave around 1822 in the tidewater country of Maryland's Eastern Shore. Having endured years of harsh physical labor and abuse, she escaped to Philadelphia in 1849, where she could have remained in safety. Instead, she returned to Maryland 13 times over the next 11 years, bringing away at least 70 slaves. (Tubman's first biographer, Sarah Bradford, credited her with rescuing 300 slaves, a figure accepted as accurate until now.)

Drawing on groundbreaking field research as well as long-neglected sources, Larson demonstrates that Tubman relied on an intricate network of slaves, free blacks and whites that enabled her to move about virtually unseen as she led fugitives to freedom. Larson also recounts Tubman's exploits during the Civil War, when, as an Army scout in Union-occupied South Carolina, she led a Yankee force in the first known combat operation in American history headed by a woman. In later life, Tubman cared for impoverished African-Americans at her home in upstate New York and became an honored figure in the women's rights movement.

Larson has brought to life the woman she calls "part of the core American historical memory."

Reviewer Fergus M. Bordwich is writing a history of the Underground Railroad, which will be published next year.

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