The Christmas Escape of 1854

December 22, 2022


By Amanda Bowra

Christmas Eve, 1854. At just 32 years old, runaway slave Harriet Tubman braved capture, torture, and death to return to her home in Maryland to rescue three of her brothers, Ben, Henry, and Robert from slavery. The brothers had attempted to escape with Harriet in the past, but unable to bear leaving their wives and children, they turned back to face their punishment. Now five years later, Harriet got news that the brothers were to be sold to new owners immediately after the holidays. They would be torn from their families- separated forever and still slaves. Harriet sent an encoded message via agents of the underground railroad that read, “tell my brothers to be always watching unto prayer and when the good old ship of Zion comes along, to be ready to step on board”. Upon receiving this message, the brothers planned their escape once again.

In the mid-19th century, Christmas was the best time of year for slaves to escape. It was the only time of year they were given an extended break and many were given passes to visit family members living at nearby plantations. This pass gave slaves the unusual permission to be on the roads alone. It was with these passes that Harriet’s brothers and some family members were able to leave the plantation Christmas Eve day. They left under the guise of visiting their mother, except they never showed up. Instead, they met with Harriet and hid in a corn house for several hours, waiting until nightfall to begin their dangerous journey. They traveled more than 100 miles over the course of many days until on December 29th, 1854, they arrived to freedom at William Still’s Anti-slavery Office in Philadelphia.

In her lifetime, Harriet rescued 70 family members and friends over the course of 13 different trips. Her belief in the Founding Father’s words of liberty and freedom, her everlasting faith in God, and her undying love for family pushed Harriet to risk her life time and time again. Though she was never taught to read or write, Harriet went on to become a nurse and even became a spy for the north during the Civil War. She was born a slave but died a symbol of courage and freedom. She was named “the Moses of her people”, and it was she who once said:

 “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”


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