Who was Josiah Henson?
Josiah Henson was an American labourer, preacher, abolitionist, and writer. A child of slave parents, he was originally from Maryland, USA, and later ran away to Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1830. There, he set up a settlement and labourer's school for other runaway slaves at Dawn, near Dresden, in Kent County, Upper Canada, British Canada. It is believed that his autobiography, ‘The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself’, which was published in 1849, inspired the titular character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’. After the latter book became a success, Henson released an extended version of his memoir in 1858. Henson was also an army officer, who fought for Canada in the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 and was put in charge of a black militia unit. They conducted a successful attack on the rebel ship Anne. After the US government abolished slavery, many of the fellow residents of the Dawn Settlement went back. However, Henson and his wife, Nancy, did not, and spent the rest of their lives in their adopted home. Public fascination with his life is still present. In 2018, a documentary, titled ‘Redeeming Uncle Tom: The Josiah Henson Story’, was released.
Childhood & Life As A Slave
Born into slavery on June 15, 1789, near Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland, United States of America, Henson, as a boy, witnessed his father receiving a hundred lashes for confronting a slave owner. Furthermore, his right ear was affixed to the whipping post with a nail and later sliced off. He was eventually purchased by someone in Alabama.
After the death of the master of his family, Henson and his siblings were sold away. His mother begged to her new owner, Isaac Riley, and Riley purchased back Henson, so at least her youngest child would be with her. In return, Henson was put to work in the fields.
In the ensuing years, he became one of the most dependable slaves of the Riley family and was ultimately made the supervisor of the master’s farm, situated in Montgomery County, Maryland (modern-day North Bethesda).
In 1825, Riley encountered financial hardships, and his brother-in-law had filed a lawsuit against him. Desperate, he reached out to Henson for help with tears in his eyes.
Henson was a man bound by his sense of duty. He accepted Riley’s request of taking eighteen slaves to Riley’s brother, Amos Riley, in Kentucky by foot. In mid-April 1825, Henson and others reached Amos’ plantation in Daviess County, Kentucky.
In September 1828, Henson came back to Maryland seeking to purchase his freedom from Isaac. He attempted to do so by giving his master $350 along with a note that promised him another $100. However, Riley later put an extra zero in the paper and made it look like Henson had promised to pay him $1,000.
Feeling cheated and betrayed, Henson went back to Kentucky. When he came to know that he might be sold again, Henson ran away to Kent County, Upper Canada in 1830.
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After Upper Canada Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe introduced "An Act to prevent the further introduction of Slaves, and limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province" in 1793, the region became a haven for fugitive slaves from US.
However, the legislation did not instantly stop slavery in the colony, but it ended the importation of slaves. Because of this, any US slave who could make his way to the region that was later renamed Ontario was free.
When Henson came to Upper Canada, he discovered that numerous other former slaves had already settled in there. Some were Black Loyalists who had come over during or after the American Revolution. Many others were refugees from the British-American War of 1812.
In 1833, slavery was rendered illegal in the British Empire, and at that point, Canada was still part of the empire.
Initially, Henson found work in the farms near Fort Erie and then in Waterloo. In 1834, he, along with some friends, relocated to Colchester to establish a black settlement on rented land. With the help of contacts and financial assistance, he bought 200 acres (0.81 km2) in Dawn Township, located in the neighbouring Kent County, to establish a self-sufficient community. This had always been his dream. At its peak, the community was home to 500 people.
The main source of their income was the export of black walnut lumber to US and Britain. Henson bought an extra 200 acres (0.81 km2) beside the settlement, where he resided with his family. His wife’s name was Nancy, and they had at least four children together.
At some point, Henson became an ordained Methodist minister who led church services. As an abolitionist, he delivered speeches on the roads between Tennessee and Ontario.
During the Canadian Rebellion of 1837, Henson fought in the Canadian Army. He was an officer, in charge of a black militia unit. In 1838, the unit wrested control of the ship Anne from the rebels by interrupting their supply lines to southwestern Upper Canada.
Following the abolition of slavery in US, many people who had been residing in the Dawn settlement chose to go back, but Henson and his wife spent their lives there.
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In 1849, Josiah Henson released his autobiography, ‘The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself’, through Arthur D. Phelps in Boston, Massachusetts. The memoir reportedly inspired the eponymous character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1852).
Upon its publication, the novel was a huge success and prompted the release of an extended version of Henson’s memoir in 1858, titled ‘Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson's Story of His Own Life’, through John P. Jewett & Company.
People’s fascination about his life did not diminish during his lifetime. In 1876, an updated version of the memoir, ‘Uncle Tom's Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson’, was published.
Death & Legacy
Josiah Henson passed away on May 5, 1883, in Dresden, Ontario, Canada. He was 93 years old at the time. He has the distinction of being the first black man to appear on a Canadian stamp.
In 1999, he was recognised as a National Historic Person by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. A federal plaque has been set up in the Henson family cemetery, beside Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site.
The actual cabin where Henson and other slaves were kept during his time in Maryland has long been demolished. However, the Riley family house still exists and presently is part of a residential development in Rockville, Montgomery County, Maryland.
The property was owned by private owners for nearly two centuries before the Montgomery Planning Board decided to acquire it and the land on which it was built for $1,000,000 on January 6, 2006. People were allowed to visit the site for one week that year.
After it received multiple funding, a multiyear restoration project started. There were plans to make it operational and permanently opened for public by 2012. Before that, guided tours were conducted four times a year.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site is situated near Dresden, Ontario. The cabin in which Henson resided for much of his life is part of the complex. The five-acre site also includes an interpretive centre about Henson and the Dawn settlement, an exhibit gallery about the Underground Railroad, outbuildings, a 19th-century historic house, a cemetery, and a gift shop.