Charles Hardenbergh inherited his father's estate and slaves and when he died in 1806, nine-year-old Isabella, also called Belle, his family auctioned with a flock of sheep for $100 to John Neely, near Kingston, New York. Until that time, Belle spoke only Dutch, and for the rest of her life she spoke English with a Dutch accent. Nealy sold her two years later to Martinus Schryver of Kingston, NY, for $105, and he sold her in 1810 for $175 to John Dumont of New Paltz, NY, where she stayed for 16 years and was subject to physical and sexual abuse. At Dumont's, Isabella became enamored with an enslaved man named Robert, who lived on a neighboring farm. When Robert's master discovered the romance, he whipped the young man soundly. Isabella's master then made her marry an older enslaved man, name Thomas, from whom she had 4 of her 5 children, the first being Robert's. In 1799, New York state began legislation to abolish slavery, but the process was not completed until July 4, 1827. Dumont had promised to grant Truth her freedom a year before state emancipation, but reneged. As a result, in 1826, Isabella escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia-she had to leave her other 4 children behind because they were not legally freed in the emancipation order until they had served as bounded servants until their twenties.
Isabella's first job as a free woman was as a servant for Isaac Van Wagener in Wagondale, Ulster County, NY. She wasted no time in gaining her first victory in a life filled with "firsts" and accomplishments. She had learned that her son Peter, then five years old, Dumont had sold illegally to an owner in Alabama. This was a common trick in New York state, to sell off the enslaved to states in which slavery existed, though it was ending in New York. New York state imposed harsh penalty for such actions. Since this son had been emancipated under New York Law, Isabella with the help of the Van Wageners, took the issue to court and, after months of legal proceedings, got back her son. This would be the first time an Afrikan woman would take a white man to court and win the case. Up until this time Isabella practiced the various spiritual survivals of West Afrika, however, soon after this victory she became a Christian. In 1829, Isabella moves to New York City, where she works as a domestic, eventually working for the Christian evangelist, Elijah Pierson. In 1832, she meets Robert Matthews, known as the Prophet Matthias, when he visits Pierson's home and starts housekeeping for him. She joins the Matthias Kingdom communal colony, and remains a member until it dissolved in 1835. The commune fell apart a few years later, with allegations of sexual improprieties and even murder as Matthew was arrested for the murder of Pierson. Individuals had implicated Isabella in the murder but both her and Matthews were found innocent, and she sued and won for slander. During her lifetime she brought, and won, three lawsuits. This was very unusual for a woman, especially for an ex-slave who could not read and write. (She retrieved her son, Peter, won a slander suit in New York City, and a personal injury case after she was injured in a street car incident in Washington. D.C.)
After becoming acquainted with a number of religious groups, Isabella Baumfree, on June 1, 1843, changed her name to Sojourner Truth and told her friends: "The Spirit calls me, and I must go." She became a Methodist, and began traveling and preaching against slavery. In 1844, she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. Founded by abolitionists, the organization supported women's rights and religious tolerance as well as pacifism. While there, Truth met other abolitionists the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles. She also met and befriended Olive Gilbert, an abolitionist- feminist who later wrote her biography, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth. The group disbanded in 1847 at which point Truth worked as a housekeeper for George Benson, the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. In 1850, Truth purchased Benson's home for $300. That same year her biography was published. The next year she joined abolitionist George Thompson's speaker's bureau, traveling to Rochester, NY, where she stays with Underground Railroad leader, Amy Post. At the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, on May 28, 1851, Truth made her most famous address, known as "Ain't I A Woman." In the speech she asserted that women deserved equal rights with men because they were equal in ability to men. "I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?" She concluded her argument, saying "And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part?"
In 1855, a second edition of her Narrative was published, with an introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom she had met and befriended earlier. She traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to speak to the Friends of Human Progress convention, through efforts of Michigan Quaker, Henry Willis. She was at one point friendly with Millerites, a religious movement that grew out of Methodism and later became the Seventh Day Adventists. She took a liking to Michigan, and in 1857-1858, she sold her Northampton property and purchased a house in Harmonia, 6 miles west of Battle Creek, Michigan. She lectured throughout the Midwest. Once in Indiana she a member of the audience accused her of being a man in disguise. Almost six feet tall, Truth was a striking woman with a charismatic presence. She quietly took out one of her breast and remarked to the man, "Does this look familiar?", sending the crowd into uproarious laughter. Truth was legendary for her sense of humor, which she often used to deflate self-righteous people.
In 1864, during the Civil War, Truth met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. She raised food and clothing contributions for Black regiments as she worked for the National Freedman's Relief Association, and in 1865 was assigned to work at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington. While there, she tried to challenge the discrimination that segregated street cars by race and this is where she was injured leading to her third successful lawsuit. With the ending of slavery, she concentrated on the issue of women's suffrage. She had earlier befriended Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but disagreed with them on many issues, most notably Stanton's position that she would not support Black male suffrage if women's suffrage was not tied to it. Although Truth remained supportive of women's suffrage throughout her life, she began to distanced herself from the organized movement as it took on what she considered an increasingly racist tone. During Truth's life she spoke about abolition, women's rights, temperance, prison reform, and she even preached to the Michigan Legislature against capital punishment.
In 1867, Truth moved from Harmonia to Battle Creek, Michigan. In 1868, she traveled to western New York and continued traveling and preaching all over the East Coast. At a speaking engagement in Florence, Massachusetts, after she had just returned from a very tiring trip, when Truth was beckoned to speak she stood up and said, " Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say." In 1870, Truth tried to secure land grants from the federal government for freedmen, a project she pursued for seven years without success. While in Washington, D.C., she had a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House and visited the US Senate chamber, where Senators sign her Book of Life, which was a collection of her experiences, anecdotes, and stories based on her travels recorded by her son, who could read and write.
In 1871 New Year's Day, she made a powerful presentation in Boston. In her speech she gave a little background about her own life. She recounted how her mother told her to pray to God that she may have good masters and mistresses. She goes on to retell how her masters were not good to her, about how her master whipped her for not understanding English, and how she would question God why he had not made her masters be good to her. She admits to the audience that she had once hated white people, but she says once she met her final master, Jesus, she was filled with love for everyone. Frances Titus, wife of prosperous Quaker miller Richard Titus, was Truth's friend, traveling companion, sponsor and lecture manager. She also revised Gilbert's Narrative and added Truth's Book of Life. Though Nanette Gardner of Detroit records in Truth's Book of Life, that Truth was the first woman to vote in a Michigan state election, this seems unlikely as Michigan women were not given the right to vote until November 1918 long after Truth had died. (Truth had try unsuccessfully to vote in Michigan and in 1872, she attempted to vote for Grant in a federal election but again was unsuccessful. Michigan state as early as 1849 had formed a Senate committee that proposed a "universal suffrage" amendment to the Michigan constitution, which would have granted voting rights to both women and Afrikan Americans, but the proposal failed. A woman's suffrage bill did not come before the state legislature again until 1866, but again failed to pass. So the idea that Truth voted in 1872 is untenable.
In 1878-79, Truth and Titus traveled through New York and other eastern states for six months during the fall and winter. Near the latter part of her life Truth's suffered from ailing health, which limited her speaking engagements. In July 1883 she was treated by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of the Battle Creek Sanitarium for ulcers on her legs. Truth died on November 26, 1883, at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. More than 3,000 people crowded into the Battle Creek Tabernacle to pay their last respects to her. Uriah Smith, church leader of the Adventists presided at the services. Truth was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Battle Creek, beside other family members. Because of her association with the Adventist, Truth is often considered an Adventist pioneer, but in truth, Truth was a lone spiritual warrior, who spiritually connected to all whom she felt were doing God's work.