Sojourner Truth was a former slave who became prominent as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. The story of her early life is known from The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a book originally published in 1850 from an oral account that Sojourner Truth gave to fellow abolitionist Olive Gilbert.
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery c.1797 on the Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh Estate in Ulster County, New York, with the name Isabella Baumfree. Her parents were James and Betsey "Bett" Baumfree.
Her parents had a total of about ten or twelve children, most of whom were sold away before Isabella was old enough to remember, leaving only Isabella and a younger brother living with their parents.
Her birthplace has been identified as Hurley (the town where the 1790 U.S. Census recorded Johannis Hardenbergh), but more specifically it was Swartekill, the site of the Hardenbergh estate, now in the town of Esopus.
Her first owner, Johannes Hardenbergh (name rendered Ardinburgh in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth), died in 1799 when Isabella was about 2 years old, and she, her parents, and "ten or twelve other fellow human chattels" became the legal property of his son, Charles Hardenbergh. Charles Hardenbergh died in 1808.
The inventory of his estate lists "Izabella, a Negro Wench," among his property. She and her younger brother, who was listed as "Negro Boy Peet," were each valued at $100.
Bett was freed to care for her husband, who was old and infirm
and was not listed in the estate inventory, presumably because he was no longer able to work. They were allowed to continue living in the damp cellar of the Hardenbergh house. Isabella and her brother Peet were, however, sold at auction to different owners in 1806.
She would be sold twice more by the age of 13, in 1808 and 1810.
She did not know how to read or write English; her first language, until about age 9, was Dutch. As a slave Isabella worked at spinning wool, helping to keep house and helping in a tavern.
Marriage and Children
The minor child Isabelle Baumfree had two children, the second fathered by her last owner and rapist, John Dumont:
James (c.1814, died in childhood)
She married an enslaved older man named Thomas, surname unknown, c.1820. They had three children:
Elizabeth Banks (1825)
In 1799 the State of New York began the process of abolishing slavery; it would be eight years before completion, on July 4, 1827. John Dumont had promised her freedom in 1826. When he reneged on his promise Isabella spun him a final hundred pounds of wool, and walked to freedom, taking only her infant, Sophia. She found refuge with Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, who would help her go to court when she learned that John Dumont had illegally sold her five year old son, Peter. She became one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case.
The experience was transformative; after escaping to freedom and successfully using the legal system to recover her son, Isabella became a devout Christian in 1829.
The year 1843 was a turning point for Baumfree. She became a Methodist, and on June 1, Pentecost Sunday, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She chose the name because she heard the Spirit of God calling on her to preach the truth. She told her friends: "The Spirit calls me, and I must go," and left to make her way traveling and preaching about the abolition of slavery.
From that time she used her powerful and resonant voice and study of scripture to sing and preach at first a spiritual message and later abolition and women's rights, drawing crowds sometimes described as mobs, which she fearlessly calmed and even scolded when necessary.
Her most famous speech, later called the "Ain't I A Woman" speech, made in 1851 at a Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, extemporaneously argued for a place in the women's movement for women of color.
"Black women, of course, were virtually invisible within the protracted campaign for woman suffrage", wrote Angela Davis, supporting Truth's argument that nobody gives her "any best place"; and not just her, but black women in general.
She helped recruit soldiers for the Union Army; her grandson enlisted. She worked for the National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C. to improve conditions for African-Americans. She rode in the streetcars to help force their desegregation. She was a tireless advocate for fulfillment of the promise of "40 acres and a mule," land grants from the federal government to the formerly enslaved, a project she pursued for seven years without success.
She died at her home on November 26, 1883 (aged 86) in Battle Creek, Michigan.
↑ Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, dictated to and edited by Olive Gilbert, first published in 1850. Available online at these free sources:
Monroe County Library System, Rochester, New York. (Digital images of 1875 edition, in PDF format). A new edition was published in 1875 that added accounts of her life up to that date. An 1884 edition of the Narrative reprinted the contents of the 1875 edition, with a final chapter about her death.
↑Inventory of the Charles Hardenbergh Estate, from On the Trail of Sojourner Truth in Upstate New York (web exhibit), compiled by Corinne Nyquist, Librarian, Sojourner Truth Library, State University of New York at New Paltz. Accessed 23 August 2020.
"District of Columbia, Freedmen's Bureau Field Office Records, 1863-1872," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2QV-T7PH : accessed 1 February 2019), Sojourner Truth, 23 Feb 1866; citing Military Correspondence, District of Columbia, United States, NARA microfilm publication M1902 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 7; FHL microfilm 2,424,782.
"District of Columbia, Freedmen's Bureau Field Office Records, 1863-1872," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2QV-T3C7 : accessed 1 February 2019), Sojourner Truth, 14 Jul 1865; citing Military Correspondence, District of Columbia, United States, NARA microfilm publication M1902 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 6; FHL microfilm 2,424,781.
Tricia Williams Jacson (2016). "Women in Black History - Stories of Courage, Faith, and Resilience", "Sojourner Truth" page 21. Grand Rapids, MI:Published by Revell