Harriet Tubman was in her early 30s at the latest when she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The abolitionist icon, who was born into slavery sometime between 1815 and 1825 in Maryland, escaped to Philadelphia in 1849, and in her role as "Moses" she escorted more than 300 slaves to freedom. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, she then volunteered for the Union as a cook and nurse before the Union Army recruited her as a spymaster.
Though her heroic work from this period of her life is well-documented, what she looked like as a young freedom fighter has remained somewhat of a mystery. Now, a newly discovered photograph going on auction next month might offer a rare look at Tubman in her 40s, James Rogers reports at Fox News.
“There are very few known photographs of Harriet Tubman, and of those, most picture her in old age,” Swann Auction Galleries, which is selling the photo, tells Rogers in a statement. “This carte-de-visite [photograph] from the late 1860s shows a new side of this iconic and heroic American figure, as a much younger woman in the prime of her life, shortly after the end of the Civil War.”
According to David Wilcox at The Citizen, the local newspaper near Tubman’s home in Auburn, New York, the photo was discovered in an album once owned by Emily Howland of nearby Sherwood, New York, who was a fellow abolitionist, philanthropist and suffragist. According to the Swann Gallery, the album includes 44 photos, mostly of abolitionists and politicians, including John Willis Menard, the first black American elected to Congress. In fact, Wilcox reports that the album includes another already well-known image of Tubman taken about a decade later. Rogers reports that Swann estimates the album will sell for $20,000 to $30,000 when it goes to auction on March 30.
Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, tells Wilcox that she believes the new photograph is the real deal. She says that in the last two decades the public has sent her dozens of photos believed to be Tubman, but none of them have panned out. This one, she says, is different. “There's no doubt in my mind about the provenance of the photo and that it is Tubman. I had never run across it,” she tells Wilcox. “What’s remarkable about this photograph is that she’s so proud and dignified and beautiful. She looks so young. This is the vibrant young Tubman just coming off her work during the Civil War. She’s building her life with her family in Auburn. It just surprised me, and I think it's going to surprise a lot of people.”
Dann J. Bryold, a historian and Tubman scholar at Central Connecticut State University tells Smithsonian.com that he, too, thinks this could be a genuine Tubman photo, especially since the scars she suffered when a slave overseer hit her with a lead weight are visible. “This is an amazing, amazing image,” he says. “It almost makes sense to find a Harriet Tubman image in this manner because of her disposition. Frederick Douglass is thought to be the most photographed man of the 19th century. But she was a different brand of abolitionist, a doer not a talker. She did the work nobody ever really wanted to do and didn’t want to take the credit for it."
The dearth of photographs of a younger Tubman has led to false claims in the past. According to Tamar Lewis at The New York Times, after it was announced last year that Tubman would appear on the $20 bill in 2020, several images that people claimed were of her began circulating on the internet. In one, the subject, a young black woman, wears a fancy ball gown, and in the other, the subject is dressed in a plain dark outfit and carries a rifle. Those photos turned out to be of different women, but their popularity pointed out the desire that many had to see Tubman as a young activist.
Bryold says the power that an image of Tubman as a younger woman holds is that it makes her seem more real. “History is always closing the gap of time and space to make you feel closer to an individual and make you aware these are real people,” he tells Smithsonian.com. “This picture allows those emotions and revives the thought that this is real person going through real situations.”
The photo appears during of something of Tubman revival. Not only is she slated to appear on the $20 bill, the Interior Department recently established Harriet Tubman National Historic Park in Auburn, New York, which preserves her home and commemorates her life (especially shining a light on her later years). The Underground Railroad National Historic Park in Cambridge, Maryland, is also scheduled to open in March and the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture includes significant Tubman artifacts, including her shawl. A Harriet Tubman biopic starring Broadway star Cynthia Erivo was also announced earlier this week.