During the late 1850s, Harriet Tubman, apart from her work with the Underground Railroad, was active in the anti-slavery circuit, attending conventions, lectures, and other events.

It was during this period of activism that Tubman met John Brown. Both Tubman and Brown advocated for the overthrow of slavery through whatever means necessary. Countless stories of Tubman’s successful rescues of enslaved peoples via the Underground Railroad attest to her courage, resourcefulness, and knowledge of the topography of the United States and Canada [1], [2].

Brown saw Tubman as a powerful and important ally. Brown was aware of Tubman’s knowledge of safe routes for fugitives to travel between the United States and Canada, particularly her use of the Appalachian route, better known as the Great Black Way [3].

Brown and Tubman met at least twice during April 1858 in order to discuss and plan how to recruit the formerly enslaved people. It was due to Tubman’s knowledge of the terrain that Brown decided that the safest entrance to the Great Black Way was through Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County, Virginia (now West Virginia) [4], [5] .

In fact, Brown so admired Tubman that he called her General Tubman, “acknowledging her unwavering fearlessness.” It is speculated that Tubman intended to join Brown for the Harpers Ferry Raid, but that she was ill and was thus unable to be involved [6][7].

Some scholars have also contended that Tubman might have been unavailable, or that she had begun to see the plan as unwinnable. Historian Kellie Carter Jackson believes that it was likely a combination of these that prevented her direct participation in the raid [8][9].

After Brown’s execution, Tubman continued to speak highly of him. It is important to note that Tubman was also held in high regard and was compared to Brown by Frederick Douglass:

 “Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much of what you have done would seem improbably to those who do not know you as I know you” [10].

References

[1] Lerone Jr. Pioneers in Protest. University of Michigan Press, 1969, pp. 140-141. 

[2] Jackson, Kellie Carter. Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, p. 111. 

[3] Geffert, Hannah N. “John Brown and His Black Allies: An Ignored Alliance,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 126, no.4 (Oct., 2002), p. 594. 

[4] Jackson 111. 

[5] Geffert 594. 

[6] Jackson 113. 

[7] Bennet 141. 

[8] Jackson 113. 

[9] Jackson 113.

[10] Bennet 143-144.