Inside The Life Of John Tubman, Harriet’s Husband Who Didn’t Follow Her North

Ashley Mangtani


The famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman is a name synonymous with the underground railroad and political activism. Her husband John Tubman didn't follow her North but led an equally interesting life that has intrigued historians for decades.

A Complicated Marriage

Little is known about John Tubman, who was Harriet’s first husband. We know that he was a free Black man and married Harriet around 1844. The marriage was complicated due to Harriet’s slave status, with John deciding not to follow Harriet north in her search for freedom.

Any union between a free man and a slave would result in their children also becoming slaves. This was a heavy burden for Harriet who would go on to fight for her freedom and leave John behind.

The complications started with John's status and his apparent lack of interest in helping his wife find freedom. By the age of 22, Harriet had already been married to John for five years. We're not sure if their marriage was a happy one, but

If Harriet decided to listen to her husband, her life would have looked a lot different.

Finding Strength

Harriet Tubman is known the world over for her widespread acclaim as an abolitionist and civil rights activist. Her life was an authoritarian nightmare with no support from John, who was described by many as 'overbearing’. Unfortunately, John would go on to threaten Harriet and ultimately gave her an ultimatum that would change her life forever.

John might not have betrayed his wife as he had threatened and was compelled to keep his distance from her after she escaped the confines of her slave quarters. Two years after the fact, a relentless Tubman returned to Maryland to fetch her husband. Rather unsurprisingly, John decided to decline his wife's request and stay put.

Moving On

The reason for this was because he had seemingly moved on in the two years since Harriet’s escape. He’d found a new wife and was happily remarried. This broke Harriet’s heart, who remained very much in love with John, despite his lack of support for her freedom. This interesting fact represents a powerful example of Harriet’s humanity that hasn’t been explored by mainstream media.

Harriet was the leader of thirteen missionary trips that helped to save over seventy enslaved people. Her undeniable strength in the face of adversity is what sets her apart from other historical figures. But, it's important to remember that she was also a deeply heartbroken woman. She turned her pain into strength and against all odds, was able to achieve the impossible.

Doomed From The Start

Harriet and John met in the early 1840s on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Not much is known about their early courtship but the pair seemed to be mismatched from the start. At the time, Harriet was still known by her maiden name Amarinta "minty" Ross, a name that she’d soon leave behind in favour of her soon to be husband’s surname.

Documented historical accounts from the time suggest that the pair may have been a lot more different than we first thought. “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". This statement indicates the vast differences between John and Harriet, which may be one of the reasons why John didn't take his wife seriously.

Overcoming Great Odds

The fact of the matter is that Harriet had a lot more to lose than John. As a working slave, she could be sold at any. This meant that her marriage to John was extremely volatile and left her with little foundation.

On the other hand, John, being a free black man, was offered a much greater sense of security. His freedom enabled him to travel freely and work for wages. This enabled him a greater sense of independence from the slave owners, whilst still being reliant on them for work.

Harriet would seek her husbands support in making plans for an eventual escape into the 'free North'. She wanted him to join in her plight for freedom but was turned down on multiple occasions. John has even been described Harriet's escape plan as 'foolish', reporting that he was 'fine where he was'. It would seem that John regularly made fun of his wife and likened her to a member of their community with severe learning difficulties.

A Perilous Journey

It was in 1849 that Harriet Tubman would finally free herself from the shackles of slavery and those of her former husband. She escaped on her second attempt to Philadelphia after her first attempt aided by her two brothers had failed. Harriet would go on to work relentlessly with the abolitionists to make thirteen different trips to free relatives and enslaved people in Maryland.

Some accounts are rather more sympathetic to John and state that he had to make an informed decision in order to save himself. If he was caught with Harriet as a free man, he'd undoubtedly be arrested and enslaved.

Harriet Tubman's involvement in the Civil War would make her the first US woman in history to lead a military exposition. She headed a unit that raided a rice plantation in 1863 along the banks of the Combahee River in South Carolina. The successful assault resulted in the freedom of many slaves and cemented Tubman's name in history.

Meanwhile, John Tubman died in 1851 after being shot by a white man named Robert Vincent. The two men had gotten into a roadside quarrel, resulting in John's untimely death. He left behind a widow and four children with the final nail in the coffin being the 'not guilty' verdict, which was passed by an all-white jury.

Academic Observations

Mary N. Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture said in a recent interview, “She [Tubman] was a woman who loved. She love[d] deeply and she had a burgeoning passion to do good".

This observation Speaks volumes about Tubman, whose whole life would be shaped by her love for a man who didn't have her best interests at heart.

It's the oldest story in the book, but an important lesson for Harriet to learn. In any case, she would go on to use the pain and anguish from her first marriage to become the legendary civil rights activist we admire today.



Ashley Mangtani

SEO & Technical Copywriter specializing in B2B, SaaS, & Digital Transformation. Currently writing for WalkMe.