As if she wasn’t cool enough already, Harriet Tubman, christened Moses by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, used owl calls to alert freedom seekers about whether they could run or stay put. (I think there is some question about whether her acolytes actually used that moniker, as they do in the movie version of Tubman’s life. But like so many history-bytes, it’s too good to deny. Let’s believe everyone did call her that.)
At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, one historian says that an owl call would “blend in with the normal sounds you would hear at night. It wouldn’t create any suspicion.”
Scout, spy, guerilla soldier and nurse for the Union Army, Tubman was also a naturalist. She grew up in an area of wetlands, swamps and upland forest. As an enslaved domestic servant at the age of seven her jobs included wading into the swamps to check on the muskrat traps. She worked the timber fields with her brothers and father.
She famously made 13 trips from the north to Maryland between 1850 and 1860 to lead people to freedom. And her earlier experiences in those forests and timber fields helped her read the map of the outdoors and employ the sounds she knew by heart.
The North Star and the Big Dipper were also crucial when it came to traveling under cover of night. And she knew the rivers she and her followers would have had to travel in order to throw off their scent when the tracking dogs came.
We don’t know for sure what kind of owls she emulated — a barred owl or “hoot owl”, probably, though a great horned owl is a possibility. Certainly not these babies, that only peep. Harriet’s “hoo-hoo” was a sound that a fortunate few got to hear and respond to.