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The Josiah Henson Story
You may never have heard of Josiah Henson, at least by that name. He was known better as the main character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or Life Among the Lowly” published in 1852. The book popularized a number of stereotypes about blacks such as the “mammy” and “pickaninny” images.
“Uncle Tom,” was the faithful, long suffering servant which continuously kowtowed before his white master. The book intrigued President Abraham Lincoln who is said to have met Stowe at the beginning of the Civil War and remarked “So, you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.” But, that wasn’t the real Josiah Henson, although Stowe had used a few of his experiences as a slave in her book.
Josiah was born into slavery on a plantation in Charles County, Maryland June 15, 1789. Henson spent 41 years as a slave and was sold 3 times before he was 18. When he was a boy, his father received one hundred lashes and his right ear cut off at the hands of a merciless owner. His father was later sold to another slave owner in Alabama.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Whipping Scars Circa 1860
After his master's death, Josiah was separated from his mother and siblings when he was sold as property in an estate sale. After his mother pleaded with her owner Isaac Riley, a deal was struck. Riley agreed to buy Henson back on the condition he would work as a field hand. Riley had made a good bargain as Josiah later became a trusted and valued man in the eyes of Riley. Eventually Riley made him supervisor of his farm in Montgomery County, Maryland, now North Bethesda.
By 1830, Henson had saved $350 to buy his freedom. However, when Henson proffered his owner the money he raised the price to $1,000. The money was not returned so Josiah began making plans for him and his family to escape to Ontario, Canada. And shortly thereafter they did.
In his memoirs Henson wrote, “We succeeded in crossing the Ohio River in safety, and arrived in Cincinnati the third nightafter our departure. Here we procured assistance; and, after stopping a short time to rest, we started for Richmond, Indiana. This is a town which had been settled by Quakers, and there we found friends indeed, who at once helped us on our way.” Henson crossed into Upper Canada with his wife Nancy and their four children.
Henson soon discovered Ontario had become a refuge for slaves from the United States. Legislation had already been introduced in Canadian government that declared any U.S. slave who set foot in what would eventually become Ontario, was a free man.
There he became an author, Methodist preacher and abolitionist. He also founded a farming colony and a school for former slaves called the Dawn Community as well as operating an underground railroad for other slaves seeking freedom. He later became a prominent figure in the anti-slavery movement. His autobiography, published in 1849, became Stowe’s model for her “Uncle Tom” character.
Henson’ first work “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave.” was a huge success in the North. His second, “Father “Henson’s Story of His Own Life, was a continuation of his life story until 1858. Both publications paved the way for more runaway slaves to seek refuge in Canada. Henson had written how former slaves in Canada were superior to freed blacks in the United States. He urged blacks to come to Canada and become farmers where they could live in freedom, under their “own vine and fig tree."
Henson was also an officer in the Canadian army, having led Black militia in the Rebellion of 1837. Many at the Dawn Settlement returned to the United States after slavery was abolished. Henson and his wife, however, remained there for the rest of their lives. Henson died at 93 in Dresden, on May 5. 1883. He was the first black man to be featured on a Canadian stamp.
Located near Dresden, Ontario, is a five acre complex which comprises the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site. The site includes Josiah Henson’s cabin that was his home from 1841 until his death in 1883. There is also a center about Henson and the Dawn settlement, an exhibit gallery illustrating the Underground Railroad, outbuildings, a 19th century house, a cemetery and a gift shop.