There has been
much speculation and confusion over the identities of Harriet Tubman's siblings and her extended family. Based on extensive
research in census schedules, court documents, slaveholder testimony and records, tax records, real estate records, account
records, newspaper accounts, city directories, chattel records, diaries, journals, letters, and family oral histories and
memorabilia, we now know that Harriet Tubman was the fifth of nine children born to Rit Green Ross and Ben Ross. All of Harriet's
siblings were enslaved by Edward Brodess, although at least five or six of the Ross children, including Harriet, were born
on Anthony Thompson's plantation in the Peter's Neck region of Dorchester County, near the Black Water River at the end of
Harrisville Road south of present day Madison. Thompson was the owner of Ben Ross and step-father to Edward Brodess.
Harriet Tubman was probably born in late February, early March 1822 on Thompson's plantation. Tubman was named Araminta
Ross, or Minty for short, and she joined three sisters and one brother: Linah, born 1808; Mariah Ritty, born 1811; Soph, born
1813, and Robert, born 1816. Another brother Ben was born in 1823 or 1824, followed by a sister Rachel in 1825, another brother
Henry in 1830, and finally, Moses in 1832. Brodess moved Harriet, her siblings, and her mother Rit, to his own farm in Bucktown,
10 miles to the east of Thompson's farm, sometime after 1823. He forced them to leave behind Ben and the extended familial
and community relationships they had forged in the small black community near Thompson's plantation.
Minty's young adult life, she changed her name to Harriet. In 1844 she married a free black named John Tubman, who lived and
worked near her father in the Peter's Neck region of the county.
When Harriet Tubman fled to freedom in the late
fall of 1849, after Edward Brodess died at the age of 48, she was determined to return to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to
bring away her family. It would take her over 10 years, and she would not be entirely successful. Linah, Soph and Mariah Ritty
had been sold to the Deep South some years before, making their rescue impossible and their fates unknown. Tubman's niece
Kessiah Jolley Bowley, the daughter of Linah, would be the first relative Tubman would help escape from slavery. Then, she
assisted her brother Moses, followed by her three remaining brothers, Ben, Henry and Robert.
On Christmas Eve,
1854, Harriet Tubman waited impatiently for her three enslaved brothers to meet her at a pre-determined rendezvous point at
Poplar Neck in Caroline County, Maryland, where her parents were then living a free life. She planned to bring them to safety
in Pennsylvania, then on to Canada where she had settled other family and friends from prior rescue missions. This move to
Canada, however, served to confuse the identies of Tubman's brothers, and their accurate names remained unknown until recently.
With few clues gleaned from the early biography by Sarah Bradford, who was also confused as to their actual identities, the
possibility of correctly identifying and tracing the life experiences of these three men seemed impossible. Based on extensive
research in scores of primary documents, including William Still’s unpublished “Journal C,” the letters
of Thomas Garrett and other abolitionists, census records, newspaper accounts, chattel, slave and tax records, and family
oral histories, these men’s pre- and post-enslavement identities and life stories have finally come to light.
Following Tubman’s trail on the Underground Railroad proved crucial to finding the missing links that connected the
brothers’ lives in slavery and their new lives in freedom. When Robert, Ben, and Henry sat down with William Still,
the famous black Underground Railroad agent in Philadelphia, four days after they fled their enslaver in Maryland, they chose
new identities. Shedding their “Ross” surname, they selected, together, the last name “Stewart.” This
name change complicated many efforts to trace each brother’s life. Perhaps more importantly, however, it also left the
current Tubman family relatives confused and unaware of the accurate identities of their famous ancestors. Though this documentation
does not answer why they chose this particular name (though there are several plausible possibilities), it has helped clear
up many misunderstandings.
Therefore, it is now known that at least three of Tubman's four brothers took the surname
"Stewart". Robert Ross became John Stewart, Ben Ross became James Stewart, and Henry Ross became William Henry Stewart.
Moses Ross's fate remains unclear. No mention is made of him after his escape in 1851. Further research may reveal what may
have happened to him. Rachel, Tubman's last surviving sister in Dorchester County, Maryland, died in 1859 before she could
be rescued by Harriet. Rachel's two children, Ben and Angerine, remained enslaved and their fates are still unknown.
Harriet's brothers married local Dorchester County women. Robert Ross (John Stewart) married
Mary Manokey, who was ensalved by Dr. Anthony Thompson. Ben Ross (James Stewart) married Jane Kane, who was enslaved
by Horatio Jones, a neighbor of the Thompson's at Button's Neck in Dorchester County. Jane changed her name to Catherine
Kane. Henry Ross (William Henry Stewart) married a free woman named Harriet Ann Parker, the daughter of Isaac and Julia
Parker of the Slaughter Creek area. While Harriet Tubman was able to bring Harriet Ann Parker and her two children,
William Henry Jr., and John Isaac to Canada, she was never able to rescue Mary Manokey and her children, John Jr., Moses,
and Harriet. They remained enslaved on the Eastern Shore until Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. John Jr. and Moses
eventually moved to Auburn, NY to be with their father, John Stewart. Mary married again and stayed on the Eastern Shore.
John married Millie Hollis in Auburn, NY in 1863. Millie was also born in Dorchester County. It is not know if she was
free or enslaved and fled on the UGRR.
For more information about Tubman and her extended family, please consult "Bound For the Promised
Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero." Includes a detailed family tree.