Friday, November 8, 2019

Harriet Tubman and William Henry Seward (and a free book event)

by Kathleen L. Maher

Are you "geeking out" about the new Harriet Tubman movie like me? If so, I thought you might enjoy reading about this amazing lady's not-commonly-known relationship with Lincoln's Secretary of State. 

First, some trivia about William H. Seward, a historical figure and native New Yorker whom I never get tired of studying.

  • New York State Senator 1830-34
  • New York Governor 1839-42
  • US Senator for NY 1849-61 
  • Considered early favorite Republican for president in 1860  
  • Secretary of State 1861-1869 for Lincoln and Johnson
  • Attacked and seriously wounded by Lewis Powell during Lincoln's assassination plot
  • purchased Alaskan territory (considered "Seward's Folly") in 1867
Seward was a passionate abolitionist, which damaged his presidential chances in 1860 though he was a strong contender to Lincoln. Slavery was not abolished in New York until 1827, and I found it an ironic surprise to learn his own father was a slaveholder. He and his father had a strained relationship over tight purse strings, and as a young man, William--or Henry as his friends called him--left school to find employment in Georgia, where he witnessed the mistreatment of slaves. He remained devoted to the abolitionist cause even after his family reconciled with him, and called him home to New York to finish his law degree.

Seward earned a reputation for defending a black man accused of murdering four white people following escape from jail. Seward argued a new defense strategy, insanity, citing the abuse the man William Freeman incurred in prison. Seward was an advocate for prison reform and humane treatment for the insane. Seward also defended an underground railroad conductor by the name of John Van Zandt who was sued by a slaveholder. Seward's wife Frances was even more devoted to the abolitionist cause than he. After the Fugitive Slave law of 1850, the couple opened their own home as a safe house along the Underground Railroad route passing through Auburn, New York. 

In the mid 1850's the Sewards met Harriet Tubman in their mutual work on the Underground Railroad. Frances Seward gave Margaret Tubman a place to stay in Auburn after Harriet brought her niece from Maryland. In 1857, a permanent home was offered to Harriet to house her aging parents, whom she had helped escape in a daring trip south. For a while they stayed in Canada, but the active anti-slavery sentiment in Auburn assured her of their safekeeping.  In 1859 the Sewards sold that property to Harriet for a small sum. Harriet would use this house as a base of operations throughout the rest of her activity on the Underground Railroad. 

Harriet met and later married Nelson Davis, and the Auburn wedding was attended by the Sewards, among many other friends. The brick structure of the Harriet Tubman Home on her 25 acre parcel of land is where she spent most of her living from 1859-1913, a part of the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park in Auburn exists to honor her work and legacy. The Thompson Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church which she helped finance and build remains on the property as well as the home for indigent and elderly African Americans which was her dream to provide after the war.

Tubman died in 1913 at the venerable age of 93. She is buried in Auburn at the Fort Hill Cemetery, which became listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1999.

Kathleen L. Maher’s first crush was Peter Rabbit, and she’s loved conflicted heroes ever since. She has two novellas in BARBOUR BOOKS' collections: Victorian Christmas Brides and Lessons on Love. Winner 2012 ACFW Genesis Award. Author of Sons of the Shenandoah Series: The Abolitionist's Daughter and The Chaplain's Daughter.
Kathleen and her husband live in an old farmhouse in upstate NY.
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My first book, The Abolitionist's Daughter provides a look into the Underground Railroad through a fictitious family and features real heroes of the Underground Railroad. Book 2 in Sons of the Shenandoah series, The Chaplain's Daughter, kicks off five days of a Free Kindle EventBe sure to download your free copy today through November 12 on Amazon.


  1. I had no idea of their friendship until I read your novel, The Abolitionist's Daughter. Thank you for writing of this signpost in history.

    1. Hi MaryAlice! Thank you for reading and being awesome