Almost every schoolchild knows the fabled Harriet Tubman -- "The Moses of Her People," "Conductor of the Underground Railroad" -- and most adults probably know what every schoolchild knows.

Children's stories, but little more.

Amazingly, until this year, the most recent adult biography of Tubman appeared in 1943, written by a left-wing labor organizer named Earl Conrad. Although he made a serious effort, Conrad never visited Tubman's home in Maryland, struggled to find sympathetic archivists to help him gather material and, the record shows, endured numerous rejections from publishers who referred to his work as "a freak subject," and the mere tale of a "colorful character."

When Conrad's biography, Harriet Tubman, finally appeared under the editorial direction of the pioneering African-American historian Carter G. Woodson, the only previous adult biography of Tubman was the hastily published work of a middle-class white woman, Sarah Bradford, an author of children's books. Bradford's biography appeared in 1868 and was revised in 1886.

So until this year -- 182 years after her birth, 139 years after the end of the Civil War, 91 years after her death -- the world has known Tubman only through the grandly mythologized accounts of two amateur historians and the scores of children's books they inspired.

Suddenly, three new books written by academic historians have appeared. In the next few weeks, books by Kate Larson, Catherine Clinton and Jean Humez will be published, documenting in detail the painful life and times of the Maryland-born slave. No less inspirational and harrowing than the previous accounts, the new books do, however, reveal far more factual information about Tubman's family, her motivations, intellectual life, spirituality and personal conflicts than ever before.

The new research also offers a significant challenge to worn, popular conceptions.

As Clinton writes, Tubman "cannot remain a 'Mammy' figure, a warm, nurturing historical caricature. Like Pocahontas before her, Tubman's life demands more than pop culture projections, and forces us to seek the underlying causes that make her legacy so powerful for us today."

In particular, the new scholarship underscores the shameful history of slave-owning practices on Maryland's Eastern Shore. New evidence, produced in the books, reconfigures the historical landscape of those communities in ways that some Marylanders will find surprising -- perhaps even alarming.

Most of all, the question of why it has taken so long for Tubman's full story to be told is one that the three authors have tried to grapple with. Although it remains a puzzle, they say that an effort to piece it together will likely illuminate a much larger and important issue: America's deeply rooted difficulty in facing up to its past as a slaveholding nation.

Kate Larson had quit her job in the financial industry and was raising children at home in 1993 when she decided to go back to graduate school for a master's degree in history. "I was reading children's biographies of Tubman to my daughter, who was 7," said Larson, who will begin teaching at Simmons College in Boston this fall. "And when I tried to find a more adult biography, I could only find that one by Conrad from 1943 and the ones by Sarah Bradford from the 19th century."

When she started graduate school, Larson thought she would eventually discover why no one had ever applied rigorous scholarship to Tubman's story. Ten years later, she has produced the most thoroughly researched account of that life, winning advance praise from a variety of American historians who are calling her book, Bound For The Promised Land, an extraordinary achievement.

Nonetheless, Larson still can't quite fully answer her original question.

The quick explanation, she said, is that racism and sexism have prevented scholars from writing seriously about Tubman's life. The long answer, of course, is more complex and nuanced.

Perhaps no one knows more about the real challenges of documenting the life of Harriet Tubman and her family on the Eastern Shore than John Creighton, a former public school teacher in Dorchester County who has devoted 30 years to the task.

In the early 1970s, Creighton was living in the county's historical society building and serving as its caretaker. He began to meet the occasional visitor who dropped by with questions about Tubman. Even with access to the society's records, he had trouble answering the most basic queries: When was she born; where did she work; what happened to all of her siblings? In fact, no one really knew.

In the summer of 1972, Creighton decided to visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York to review the notes and correspondence of Earl Conrad, the 1940s Tubman biographer. It set him on an adventure that, even today, has no end in sight.

"I spent a week reading Conrad's files, and it was fantastic," said Creighton, now in his 60s. "There were so many things in there that weren't in his book, so I came back home and started tracking a paper trail until I built this big 3-by-5 card database that's turned into something like a library's card catalog."

Bit by bit, plumbing public records, reviewing property transactions, tracing bills of sale, deeds, criminal court cases and depositions, Creighton amassed a rare collection of documents that has become, he says, "like a little historical society here in my garage." The documents detail not only the facts of Tubman's life, but also comprise an astonishing array of facts about Dorchester County and many of the people -- black and white -- who entered her life when she was a child and young adult.