Henson, Josiah

views updated

Josiah Henson

Abolitionist, minister, writer

During the period of slavery in the United States and afterward in the ongoing struggle for equality and opportunity for people of African descent, Josiah Henson was a man who lived his conviction of being honest in both word and deed. Even while a slave and enduring violence, when given the choice of defiling his word or gaining freedom, Henson kept his word. When Harriet Beecher Stowe read The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), she was determined to meet Henson. They met in 1851 and Henson's life became the basis for the character Uncle Tom in her 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. After escaping from slavery and finding freedom in Canada, Henson learned to read and write and became a religious and community leader both there and in the United States. He traveled throughout the United States, Canada, and England, preaching and speaking for the abolition of slavery. He became a conductor of the Underground Railroad and had an audience with Queen Victoria. In all, Henson was a man of integrity and determination whose life far exceeded the limits that society had placed on him.

Josiah Henson was born into slavery on June 15, 1789, in Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland. He was given the Christian name of his master Dr. Josiah McPherson and the surname of his master's uncle. During his life as a slave Henson witnessed beatings and other abuses to his family and to others. In his 1849 autobiography Henson describes the beating his father received for striking a white man who was trying to rape his mother. As his father endured the sentence of one hundred lashes, "a feeble groan was the only response to the final blows. His head was then thrust against the post, and his right ear fastened to it with a tack; a swift pass of a knife, and the bleeding member was left sticking to the place." Henson's father was never the same after this and was later sent to Alabama away from his family; neither Henson nor his mother ever knew what happened to him. Later, when Henson was five years old, his master died. Henson's brother and sisters were sold off one by one as property in an estate sale. When Henson's mother was sold to Isaac Riley of Montgomery County, Maryland, she begged that he purchase Josiah, her baby and last remaining child. She was brutally rebuked by Riley, her new owner. Henson was sold to Adam Robb, a tavern keeper in Rockville, Maryland. Robb later sold Henson to Riley in exchange for a horse-shoeing job.


Born a slave in Port Tobacco in Charles County, Maryland on June 15
First exposure to Christianity and the abolitionist movement
Marries Charlotte, a slave
Becomes a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church
Escapes slavery with wife and four children and settles in Dresden, Canada; becomes involved in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement
Serves as captain of Afro-Caribbean troop in the Canadian Rebellions
Founds a settlement and begins the British American Institute as a refuge for escaped slaves
Publishes the first of three editions of his autobiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself; makes first of three journeys to England
Meets Harriett Beecher Stowe who has read his autobiography
Wife Charlotte dies
Marries Nancy Gambles
Dies in Dresden, Ontario, Canada on May 5

Henson was tall, strong, and quick minded. Riley took full advantage of Henson's abilities by moving him from plow and horse boy to overseer to market man. Since Henson could not read or write, his having the responsibility of market man, which was most often delegated to white men, proves that Riley recognized his intelligence. This job required Henson not only to bargain for the best price for his master's produce but to bring the money back to his master. Henson's obedience and moral high ground had been proven to his master. On one occasion he came to the aid of his master in a fight when a man named Bryce Litton got the better of him. Litton retaliated against Riley by ordering his house slaves to ambush and beat Henson. They broke Henson's shoulder blade by hitting him with an oak fence post. It took five months for Henson to heal, and he could no longer raise his hand above his head. Although Henson had not been raised in a religious environment, he found an immediate connection with Christianity and began to embrace its teachings in 1807. Around the same time, Riley allowed Henson to attend a sermon by an anti-slavery preacher, and he was exposed to the abolitionist movement. These experiences gave greater meaning to Henson's life. Henson married Charlotte, a slave, in 1811. In 1825, Riley went bankrupt and had to sell his farm. Henson and twenty-two other slaves were to be transferred to Riley's brother, Amos, in Davies County, Kentucky. Riley made Henson give his word that he would deliver himself and the other slaves to Kentucky. The trip took them through Ohio, a free state, but Henson kept his word and all were delivered.

In 1828, Henson became a preacher for the Methodist Episcopal Church and was able to earn money while in Kentucky. He was able to save $350 toward his freedom. His master Amos Riley took the money but reneged on the agreed amount of $400. Riley raised the price to $1,000 and then decided to sell Henson to a new planter in New Orleans. Henson accompanied his master's son to New Orleans while he transacted some business, which included the final transaction of the sale of Henson. When the master's son got seriously ill, rendering him weak and helpless, he begged Henson to take him home safely to his father. Henson could have left his master's son and made a run for his freedom, but he instead brought him safely home to his father. Henson's act of kindness was met with no reward or appreciation. Henson was so outraged by this experience along with his growing desire for freedom, he decided to escape along with his family to Canada.

In the summer of 1830 Henson, his wife, and their four children fled Kentucky. They endured sickness, wolves, starvation, and the ever-present fear of being captured, punished, and returned to slavery. A tribe of Native Americans and the Underground Railroad helped Henson and his family. After traveling through Cincinnati, Buffalo, and New York, they crossed the U.S. border into Canada on October 28, 1830. Henson and his family settled in Dresden, Ontario, near Lake St. Clair and south of the Sydenham River. For four years Henson worked as a farm laborer and preacher in the area. To better himself he had his oldest son teach him how to read and write. Only a short time passed before Henson got involved in the Underground Railroad. As a conductor he made several trips south and led over two hundred slaves to Canada to freedom. During the Canadian Rebellion of 1837–38, Henson served as a captain in a troop of Afro-Caribbean volunteers.

In 1834, Henson and a dozen of his associates rented government land in Colchester, and with the help of sponsors from the United States and England, Henson began plans for an Afro-Canadian community and industrial school. Henson's plans for an exclusive black settlement was aided by Hiram Wilson, the missionary sent by the American Anti-Slavery Society, and James Cannings Fuller, a Quaker philanthropist of Skaneateles, New York. Henson formally organized the Afro-Canadian community in 1842 when he, Wilson, and another partner purchased two hundred acres in Dawn Township, Upper Canada. The land that was purchased in Chatham, Ontario, was a place in which escaped slaves were taught various skills such as how to clear land for farms and how to support themselves and their families. The institute did not exclude whites or Indians. Also in 1842, Henson bought two hundred acres of adjoining land and moved his family to this site.

In 1849, Henson published his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. It was reprinted in 1858 and renamed Truth Stranger than Fiction: Father Henson's Story of His Own Life, and published in 1879 as Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction; An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson. The last two editions had forwards by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe read Henson's 1849 autobiography and was interesting in talking with him. The opportunity came in 1850 after Stowe had moved to Maine. Henson was passing through on an anti-slavery tour and met her. Stowe was so interested in Henson's story and his life that she wanted to know of other peculiarities regarding slaveholders. Henson shared more experiences. Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin published in 1852 was met with claims of misrepresentation and anger from the South. In response to this Stowe wrote A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. This book referred to the actual slaves who were the basis for her characters and events in the book. The most benevolent of her characters was Uncle Tom whom Stowe states in her book was based on Josiah Henson. For a few years Henson made lecture tours as the "real Uncle Tom."

As an active abolitionist, Henson traveled through New England, Canada, and England, preaching against the evils of slavery and sharing his life story. In England in 1849 and 1851, he met the archbishop of Canterbury, was honored at a private party by Prime Minister Lord Jim Russell, and was invited by Lord Gray to travel to India. Henson's first wife died in 1852, and he married a Boston widow, Nancy Gambles, in 1856. On Henson's last visit to England in 1876 he visited the World's Fair and became the first ex-slave to have an audience with Queen Victoria. The queen gave Henson a personal gift of her photograph in a gold frame.

Henson died on May 5, 1883, in Dresden, Ontario. His contribution to the cause of freedom and equality touches both the United States and Canada. The state of Maryland named an underdeveloped state park site in Montgomery County after Henson in 1991. Henson became the first black person to be featured on a Canadian stamp and honored by the government in 1999 with a plaque designating Henson as a Canadian of National Historical Significance.



Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1853, pp. 19, 26-27.

Vicary, Elizabeth Zoe. "Henson, Josiah." In American National Biography. Vol. 10. Eds. John A Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 621-22.


Richman, Michael. "Uncle Tom's Montgomery Cabin," Washington Post, 10 December 1997.


The African American Registry. "Josiah Henson, a true abolitionist." www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/954/Josiah_Henson_a_true_abolotionist (Accessed 12 March 2006).

The National Archives Learning Curve. "Josiah Henson." www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAShenson.htm (Accessed 12 March 2006).

Richman, Michael. Uncle Tom's Montgomery Cabin. www.innercity.org/columbiaheights/newspaper/cabin.html (Accessed 12 March 2006).

                                Lean'tin L. Bracks

Henson, Josiah

views updated

Henson, Josiah

June 15, 1789
May 5, 1883

Josiah Henson, an abolitionist clergyman, was born a slave in Charles County, Maryland. He gained a reputation as a diligent worker with a capacity for leadership, and his role as a slave preacher was eventually recognized by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Henson's last owner, Isaac Riley, made him a plantation manager and entrusted him on one occasion with the transportation of eighteen slaves to Kentucky. He remained a loyal slave until he was duped by his master in negotiations to purchase his freedom. In October 1830, he escaped to Canada with his wife, Charlotte, and their four children.

Once in Canada, Henson found work as a farm laborer and slowly established an itinerant ministry. He served as a captain in a company of the Essex Coloured Volunteers during the Canadian Rebellion of 1837. Henson devoted much of his efforts to assisting fugitive slaves. Working as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, he brought fugitives from Kentucky to the Canadian haven. He envisioned racial progress under the protection of British law, and he therefore encouraged black settlement in Canada. With the financial backing of several New England philanthropists, he helped found a manual labor school, the British-American Institute, at the Dawn settlement, near Chatham, Canada West (present-day Ontario). The Dawn school and the settlement's sawmill provided educational and employment opportunities, respectively, for African Americans fleeing southern slavery and northern racial oppression.

Henson toured England in 1849 and 1851, lecturing on slavery, meeting with prominent reformers, and raising funds for the British-American Institute. He presented some of the Dawn settlement's products, including walnut lumber, at the Great Exhibition of 1851. His management of the school and his fund-raising tours in England sparked criticism from some Canadian blacks, and upon his return he became embroiled in a decade-long struggle for control of the British-American Institute property. The school eventually closed in 1868.

Henson's international notoriety increased dramatically with the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. In her research for the novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe (18111896) interviewed Henson and read his biography, a seventy-six-page pamphlet published in 1849, titled The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Despite some initial equivocations on the part of Henson and Stowe, he became identified in the public mind as the model for the fictional Uncle Tom, and he is best remembered for this connection with Stowe's widely read antislavery novel. Stowe wrote the introduction to his second narrative, Truth Stranger than Fiction: Father Henson's Story of His Own Life, in 1858. On his final tour of England, in 1876, he received an audience with Queen Victoria and was celebrated as "Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom."

See also Abolition; Canada, Blacks in; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Free Blacks, 16191860; Literature of the United States; Underground Railroad


Beattie, Jessie Louise. Black Moses: The Real Uncle Tom. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1957.

Hartgrove, W. B. "The Story of Josiah Henson." Journal of Negro History 3 (1918): 121.

michael f. hembree (1996)

Josiah Henson

views updated

Josiah Henson

The autobiography of Josiah Henson (1789-1883), an African American slave who escaped to freedom in Canada, was widely read by abolitionists, and he became mistakenly known as the model for Uncle Tom in the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Josiah Henson was born June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Md. As a child, he saw his father beaten and his family sold away. After almost dying of neglect, he was sold to rejoin his mother, a slave of Isaac Riley. Henson grew to be an intelligent, strong worker and was made superintendent of his owner's farm. After conversion at the age of 18, he became a respected preacher. In a quarrel with a white man, he suffered an arm injury that crippled him for life. At the age of 22 he married a slave girl and fathered 12 children.

Henson was so trustworthy that Riley entrusted him with supervising the move of 18 slaves to his brother's farm in Kentucky. Though the group had opportunities to escape, Henson honored his promise and delivered them to Kentucky. After 3 years there he returned to Maryland, having earned enough as a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church to purchase his freedom. However, Riley raised the price beyond Henson's reach, then sent him to New Orleans to be sold away from his family. The owner's son decided not to sell Henson, however, and returned him to Kentucky.

In 1830 Henson fled with his wife and four children to Canada. Working as a farmer, first for hire and then on land owned jointly by a group of escaped slaves, he adjusted quickly to freedom. He became a preacher in Ontario. Other blacks acknowledged his leadership, and whites also regarded him highly. In 1842 he moved to the all-black community of Dawn, Ontario, founded with the support of American and English abolitionists. Henson was the community's natural leader and, although funds were short, the settlement prospered. He was also an agent for the Underground Railroad, by which American slaves escaped to freedom in Canada.

To raise more funds, Henson told his life story to Samuel A. Eliot, who published it as The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada (1849). This would probably have remained just another slave narrative among the many then circulating were it not for the widespread success of Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Though Stowe probably had neither met Henson nor read his story until after her novel was published (1852), Henson became popularly identified with Uncle Tom, and he did not discourage this mistake. Fame followed, and he met celebrities in America and Britain, including Queen Victoria. His autobiography was revised under various editors and titles, with introductions and forewords by various notables, including Stowe. During his later years Henson continued working for Dawn's development. However, he did not wear his fame lightly and offended many associates. Nevertheless, he successfully raised money for Dawn. He died in Dresden, Ontario, on May 5, 1883.

Further Reading

The numerous accounts of Henson's life are all essentially based on his autobiography. The most complete edition, An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (1881), was republished in 1969 with a thorough introduction by Robin W. Winks. Other relevant works are Brion Gysin, To Masta—A LongGoodnight: The Story of Uncle Tom, A Historical Narrative (1946), and Jesse L. Beattie, Black Moses: The Real Uncle Tom (1957). A biographical sketch is in Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968), in the International Library of Negro Life and History.

Additional Sources

Bleby, Henry, Josiah, the maimed fugitive; a true tale, Miami, Fla., Mnemosyne Pub. Co. 1969.

Cavanah, Frances, The truth about the man behind the book that sparked the War Between the States, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975.

Henson, Josiah, Uncle Tom's story of his life: an autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson, 1789-1876; introduction by C. Duncan Ric, London, Cass, 1971. □