9 Surprising Facts About Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Reverend Paul Carter, who has led tours of Harriet Tubman’s longtime home in Auburn, New York, for more than 25 years, is often startled by how little people know of this escaped enslaved woman turned Underground Railroad guide and Civil War spy. He and the property’s president and CEO, Karen Hill, are happy to educate people about Tubman’s remarkable life. Carter leads visitors through part of the property Tubman owned for five decades, which is now part of the National Park system. “We absolutely think she is one of the all-time great Americans,” Hill says. Here are nine facts Carter and Hill share that tend to stun visitors.

1. She wasn’t born Harriet Tubman.

Not even close. Harriet Tubman's birth name was Araminta Ross, and her family called her "Minty" as a child. She changed her name to Harriet, in honor of her mother, when she was a teenager.

2. Harriet Tubman persevered despite significant health issues.

A weight thrown at another slave hit Tubman in the head when she was young. She nearly died, and for the rest of her life she suffered from headaches, seizures, and visions. She undertook journeys of hundreds and thousands of miles despite deep physical limitations.

3. Harriet Tubman rescued her own family.

After making her own escape from slavery, Tubman began her work as an Underground Railroad guide by going back to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for her siblings. Ultimately she led more than 70 people to safety, many to St. Catharines, Ontario.

4. Harriet Tubman wasn't very tall.

Though she had a reputation for being forceful—she was said to threaten people who balked along the route to freedom with a gun—Tubman was tiny, standing just under 5 feet.

5. Harriet Tubman outlived her husbands.

While she was gone conducting along the Underground Railroad, her husband, John Tubman, took another wife. After he died, she also remarried. Her second husband, Nelson Davis, was much younger—at least 24 years—but he, too, predeceased her by many years.

6. Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead a U.S. military raid.

Tubman was given $200 for three years as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Her service included leading a raid that freed 750 slaves in South Carolina—making her the first woman to lead an armed raid in enemy territory in the United States, according to Hill.

7. Harriet Tubman got some help from powerful friends—like William Seward.

She developed a friendship with one of the most powerful men of the time, William Seward, who later served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State. It was his house in Auburn that she purchased as her family residence, for a very reasonable price, in 1859.

8. Harriet Tubman never stopped serving others.

When the war was over, her giving didn’t stop. Tubman pushed tirelessly for women’s suffrage. And though she always struggled financially, she was a woman of deep faith who shared what little she had, donating a piece of her property as a Home for the Aged serving elderly African Americans. She wound up living there during her own later years, too.

9. Harriet Tubman lived an extremely long life for her time.

She died when she was around 93 years old (she is believed to have been born in about 1820), which means she lived an astonishingly long life for the time period, especially considering the physical strains she’d endured.

Why Do We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving?

gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images
gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images

While it’s possible—even probable—that pumpkins were served at the 1621 harvest festival that’s now considered the predecessor to Thanksgiving, attendees definitely didn’t dine on pumpkin pie (there was no butter or wheat flour to make crust).

The earliest known recipes for pumpkin pie actually come from 17th-century Europe. Pumpkins, like potatoes and tomatoes, were first introduced to Europe in the Columbian Exchange, but Europeans were more comfortable cooking with pumpkins because they were similar to their native gourds.

By the 18th century, however, Europeans on the whole lost interest in pumpkin pie. According to HowStuffWorks, Europeans began to prefer apple, pear, and quince pies, which they perceived as more sophisticated. But at the same time pumpkin pie was losing favor in Europe, it was gaining true staple status in America.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written and published in the New World colonies. Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin pudding” cooked in pastry crust. Simmons’s recipes call for “stewed and strained” pumpkin, combined with a mixture of nutmeg, allspice, and ginger (yes, it seems our pumpkin spice obsession dates back to at least the 1500s).

But how did pumpkin pie become so irrevocably tied with the Thanksgiving holiday? That has everything to do with Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor who is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” In her 1827 abolitionist novel Northwood, Hale described a Thanksgiving meal complete with “fried chicken floating in gravy,” broiled ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and—of course—pumpkin pie. For more than 30 years, Hale advocated for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, writing regular editorials and sending letters to five American presidents. Thanksgiving was a symbol for unity in an increasingly divided country, she argued [PDF].

Abraham Lincoln eventually declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (to near-immediate outcry from Southerners, who viewed the holiday as an attempt to enforce Yankee values). Southern governors reluctantly complied with the presidential proclamation, but cooks in the South developed their own unique regional traditions. In the South, sweet potato pie quickly became more popular than New England’s pumpkin pie (mostly because sweet potatoes were easier to come by than pumpkins). Now, pumpkin pie reigns supreme as the most popular holiday pie across most of the United States, although the Northeast prefers apple and the South is split between apple and pecan, another Southern staple.

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Anthony Blunt: The Art Historian/Russian Spy Who Worked at Buckingham Palace

Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Des Willie, Netflix

*Mild spoilers for season 3 of The Crown on Netflix ahead.

Viewers of the third season of The Crown on Netflix will likely have their curiosity piqued by Anthony Blunt, the art historian who is revealed to be a spy for the Russians during his 19 years of service to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead of getting the boot once he was discovered, however, Blunt went on to remain under Her Majesty's employ for eight more years—until his official retirement. While treason never looks good on a resume, the royal class had good reason to keep him on.

Blunt, who was born and raised in England, visited the Soviet Union in 1933 and was indoctrinated as a spy after being convinced of the benefits of Communism in fighting fascism. He began recruiting his university classmates at Cambridge before serving during World War II and leaking information about the Germans to the KGB. Blunt was one of five Cambridge graduates under Soviet direction. Two of them, diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, relocated to the Soviet Union in 1951. Another, Kim Philby, went undetected until 1961. John Cairncross escaped notice, too, but was eventually outed.

However, it was Blunt who had a post at Buckingham Palace. After being tipped off by American intelligence, MI5 interrogated Blunt. He confessed to his treachery in 1964 and was granted immunity from prosecution. Why was he able to remain employed? One theory has it that British intelligence was so embarrassed by Blunt's ability to circulate in the upper levels of the monarchy that firing him would have raised too many questions. Another thought has Blunt having knowledge of some bizarrely congenial wartime correspondence between Adolf Hitler and the Duke of Windsor (a.k.a. King Edward VIII, whose abdication led to Elizabeth's eventual ascension to the throne).

Whatever the case, the Queen was advised by MI5 to keep Blunt around. In his role as art curator, he had no access to classified information. Blunt was at the Palace through 1972 and spent another seven years roaming London giving lectures. His actions remained a tightly guarded secret until Margaret Thatcher disclosed his treason in 1979.

As for that speech seen in The Crown, where Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth makes some not-so-subtle digs at Blunt at the opening of a new exhibition, there's no record of such a takedown ever happening. While the two reportedly kept their distance from each other in private, according to Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives:

“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures—inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”

Stripped of his knighthood as a result of the truth about his actions being made known, Blunt became a recluse and died of a heart attack in 1983. His memoirs, which were made public by the British Library in 2009, indicated his regret, calling his spy work "the biggest mistake of my life."

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