The True Story Of Harriet Tubman's Only Child

For many American students, Harriet Tubman is one of those historical figures with a famous name and set of deeds — but a private life that remains a mystery. Brief grade school units on the Underground Railroad don't often mention her birth name of Araminta Ross or the stray blow to the head that gave her lifelong bouts of seizures and visions that she took for religious signs (per Kate Clifford Larson's "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero"). They also typically don't delve into her free husband, John, whom Harriet had to leave behind when she fled for her own freedom, and who later remarried.

Rarely mentioned as well is Tubman's daughter by adoption. In 1874, Tubman and her second husband, Nelson Davis, took in a girl named Gertie. That Gertie has featured so little in biographies of Tubman is perhaps not surprising. She was adopted after her mother's most famous exploits — when the slavery that Tubman had fled and fought against was ended. There is also very little documentation regarding Gertie herself beyond an 1875 census that lists her as adopted and an 1880 census where she is simply described as Tubman's daughter. Even her adoption record, if it exists, is beyond the reach of historians and biographers.

Gertie came into an extended family

Gertie Davis came into an extended and somewhat unconventional household when she was adopted by Harriet Tubman and Nelson Davis (per "Bound for the Promised Land"). Tubman was by then middle-aged and lived on a 7-acre farm in Auburn, New York that she had purchased in 1859 from William H. Seward, future secretary of state to Abraham Lincoln. She took in boarders (Nelson was one, before they married) and ran a brickmaking business on the farm. Accounts of Tubman's marriage to Nelson, who was more than 20 years younger than her, varied. Some described it in happier terms, while others said that Tubman's many duties and interests didn't leave her with much time or devotion to her home life. 

At the time Gertie was brought into this household, Tubman was still caring for her mother, Rit, though she died only six years after Gertie's adoption. There were four non-relative boarders on the farm, and a number of Tubman's friends and family lived nearby in Auburn. Their next-door neighbor was Tubman's brother John. It was with one of these families that Tubman, Nelson, and Gertie lodged after their farmhouse burnt down some time between 1882 and 1884 (it was later rebuilt in brick).

After growing up among this extended family, Gertie married a man named Watson, though little else about her adult life can be confirmed. She may have accompanied Tubman to a suffragette meeting in her early 20s, but even this account doesn't name the attendant young lady, and it may have been Tubman's great-grandniece instead.

Did Harriet Tubman have a biological daughter?

Could Gertie Davis have had a stepsister? According to Catherine Clinton's "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom," Tubman made a run south not long after settling in Auburn and came back with an 8-year-old girl named Margaret, who was said to be the abolitionist's niece. By her own account, Margaret was a free girl and fairly well-off when she was taken north by Tubman. Margaret allegedly told her daughter Alice that Tubman knew what she did was wrong and upset the girl's family back in Maryland. Too busy for regular childcare, Tubman left Margaret with the wife of William H. Seward, though the two still became close and shared a lifelong affection.

They were so close, in fact, and Margaret was said to bear such a strong resemblance to Tubman that some have speculated the girl was really Tubman's daughter (per History). The timing of Margaret's birth — 1850 — lines up with when Tubman escaped Maryland, and the facts of her escape are obscure enough to allow the possibility. But obscurity also prevents verifying such a story, and the details Margaret and Alice shared about her life are complicated by strife within the family. As of this writing, Gertie Davis remains the only acknowledged daughter of Harriet Tubman's.