In The Water Dancer, the character of Harriet is an historical allusion to Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous “conductors” of the Underground Railroad. In the United States in the mid-19th century, the Underground Railroad was a vast network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved African Americans to escape to free Northern states and to Canada. Over the course of ten years, Tubman made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom. In all of her journeys, she never lost a single passenger.
Tubman was born enslaved in Maryland's Dorchester County around 1820. From a young age, she worked as a house servant and in the fields. While she was still in her early teens, Harriet saw an overseer who was about to throw a heavy weight at a fugitive slave. Harriet stepped between the slave and the overseer—the weight struck her head. She later said about the incident, “The weight broke my skull … They carried me to the house all bleeding and fainting. I had no bed, no place to lie down on at all...” This incident impacted Harriet for the rest of her life. She would fall into a deep sleep at random. She also started having vivid dreams and hallucinations. As a devout Christian, she often claimed these were religious visions.
Tubman came up with clever strategies to help free enslaved people. She often used the master's horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey. She also left on Saturday nights, since runaway notices couldn't be placed in newspapers until Monday morning. In addition, if she encountered “slave hunters” she would turn around and head south. Tubman even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, “You'll be free or die.”
During the Civil War Harriet Tubman worked for the Union military as a cook, a nurse, and even a spy. After the war, she settled in Auburn, New York, where she would spend the rest of her long life. She died in 1913.