This week we are shining the spotlight on Josiah Henson. He was a farmer, a preacher, an abolitionist, a community leader, a military officer, and an author. He also travelled 550+ miles to escape his life of slavery. That’s quite the resume, huh? Born into slavery on June 15, 1789 in Charles County, Maryland, his early years were difficult. His father defended his wife from a white overseer who was trying to sexually assault her. As a result, he was whipped 100 times, had his right ear cut off, and later sold to someone in Alabama. He never heard from his father again. Josiah also nearly lost the rest of his family too when the death of his original owner caused him, his mother, and his 12 siblings to be split up. His mother managed to convince her new owner, Isaac Riley, to buy back Josiah so that she could take care of her youngest child and he agreed. Josiah grew up working as a field hand.
Riley was not any less of an awful person than his previous owner, but Henson was able to gain his trust overtime. Eventually, Josiah was trusted with more and more responsibilities, including traveling and transporting fellow slaves on Riley’s behalf. Despite having Riley’s trust, things did not really improve for Josiah yet. For example, on one occasion Josiah had to drag a drunk Riley out of a bar brawl. The overseer for Riley’s brother suffered a hard fall during the fight—not the fault of Josiah, but he got blamed for it. The overseer had Josiah ambushed and in the process one arm and both shoulder blades were broken. He received no medical treatment and as a result Josiah was “maimed for life” because they did not heal properly.
Josiah Henson (Post 1830); image taken from his autobiography.
Upon hearing his first sermon at the age of 18, Josiah converted to Christianity. On the advice of a white Methodist preacher who hated slavery, he convinced Josiah, who would be heading off to Maryland for one of Riley’s business matters, to use the trip as a chance to make money preaching so that he could buy his freedom. Josiah did exactly that, but was rebuked, and found himself stuck working in Kentucky for Riley’s brother, Amos. Later, Josiah was sent down to New Orleans to be sold. Amos got sick on-route though and had to return to Kentucky. Upon their return, Josiah used this opportunity to grab his wife, Nancy, and their four young children, and fled.
“Canada was often spoken of as the only sure refuge from pursuit, and that blessed land was now the desire of my longing heart. Infinite toils and perils lay between me and that haven of promise; enough to daunt the stoutest heart; but the fire behind me was too hot and fierce to let me pause to consider them.” (Henson, Pg. 102)
The six of them travelled across Indiana and Ohio. How did they do it? Josiah carried his two youngest children on his back and after their provisions ran out, they relied on good samaritans to keep them from starving. Regardless, they managed to fight off exhaustion as well as evade slave-hunters and their dogs. In Ohio, they encountered sympathetic sailors who were headed to Buffalo, New York. The Henson family set sail and afterwards they crossed the border on October 28, 1830 via the Niagara River. The family settled near modern-day Dresden, Ontario.
Nancy and Josiah Henson (c. 1877)
Josiah was now free to do whatever he pleased. He could have spent the rest of his time living a simple farmer’s life and stay as removed from slavery as possible. Instead he became determined to help other fugitives by creating a black refugee settlement. He became an abolitionist and an agent of the Underground Railroad. Together with a group of his associates, he purchased 200 acres of land in 1841 in Dawn Township, Upper Canada. Josiah’s dream was for the Dawn Settlement to be self-sufficient, so he and his partners created an all-ages general education and trades school known as the British-American Institute. The Dawn Settlement was highly successful and the community of refugees flourished; its peak population was around 500.
Fun Fact: Josiah also found time to serve in the Canadian army. During the Rebellions of 1837, he led a black militia unit in Upper Canada.
He wasn’t done yet. In addition to overseeing the Dawn Settlement, Josiah raised money and support for the abolitionist cause by doing speaking tours in American Midwest, New York, and New England. His autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, released in 1849, also raised money for the cause as well.
Now, there is some concern that Josiah was the inspiration behind the character Uncle Tom in the forever controversial anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (If you have not read the novel, Uncle Tom is a racist stereotype). Stowe admitted that she both met and read Josiah’s book prior to writing her novel, however she never explicitly said he was the inspiration. Josiah took advantage of the rumor to draw bigger crowds to his abolitionist speeches; calling himself the “real life Uncle Tom.” Given everything Josiah accomplished and how many people he helped, whether or not he was the inspiration is kind of immaterial.
In 1983, the Canada Post commemorated his life “as a community leader and conductor on the Underground Railroad” with a stamp. (Here is a lovely version of the picture, minus the text). The issuing of the stamp marked the first time a black man was featured on a Canadian stamp.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War brought about the end of the Dawn Settlement in 1868. Although some families chose to stay in the area, many decided to return to the United States. Josiah lived out his final years quietly in Dresden and died in 1883 at the age of 93.
Final Note: For those interested, you can visit Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario, which commemorates his life and explores the history of Ontario’s black community.
Henson, Josiah, Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life. Boston: John P. Jewett, 1858. [Online] Accessed from: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/henson58/menu.html
“Josiah Henson,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/josiah-henson/
Pease, William H. and Jane H. Pease, “HENSON, JOSIAH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–. Accessed from: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/henson_josiah_11E.html.