Josiah Henson

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For the American wrestler, see Josiah Henson (wrestler).
Josiah Henson
Josiah Henson bw.jpg
Josiah Henson in 1877
Born (1789-06-15)June 15, 1789
Charles County, Maryland, United States
Died May 5, 1883(1883-05-05) (aged 93)
Dresden, Ontario, Canada
Nationality American
Other names Uncle Tom
Occupation Author, abolitionist, minister
Religion Methodist
Spouse(s) Nancy Henson
Relatives Matthew Henson
Appletons' Henson Josiah signature.png

Josiah Henson (June 15, 1789 – May 5, 1883) was an author, abolitionist, and minister. Born into slavery in Charles County, Maryland, he escaped to Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1830, and founded a settlement and laborer's school for other fugitive slaves at Dawn, near Dresden in Kent County. Henson's autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), is believed to have inspired the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).[1] Following the success of Stowe's novel, Henson issued an expanded version of his memoir in 1858, Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson's Story of His Own Life (published Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1858). Interest in his life continued, and nearly two decades later, his life story was updated and published as Uncle Tom's Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (1876).

Early life and career[edit]

Provincial plaque placed by the Government of Ontario memorializing Henson's Dawn Settlement near Dresden, Ontario. Henson's settlement offered former slaves escaped from the U.S. the chance to start a new life free from slavery and the badges and incidents of slavery[2] in Upper Canada.

Josiah Henson was born on a farm near Port Tobacco in Charles County, Maryland. When he was a boy, his father was punished for standing up to a slave owner, receiving one hundred lashes and having his right ear nailed to the whipping-post, and then cut off.[3] His father was later sold to someone in Alabama. Following his family's master's death, young Josiah was separated from his mother, brothers, and sisters. His mother pleaded with her new owner, Isaac Riley, and Riley agreed to buy back Henson so she could at least have her youngest child with her, on condition he would work in the fields. Riley would not regret his decision, for Henson rose in his owners' esteem, and was eventually entrusted as the supervisor of his master's farm, located in Montgomery County, Maryland (in what is now North Bethesda). In 1825, Mr. Riley fell onto economic hardship and was sued by a brother in law. Desperate, he begged Henson (with tears in his eyes) to promise to help him. Duty bound, Henson agreed. Mr. R then told him that he needed to take his 18 slaves to his brother in Kentucky by foot. They arrived in Davies County, Kentucky, in the middle of April 1825 at the plantation of Mr. Amos Riley. In September 1828 Henson returned to Maryland in an attempt to buy his freedom from Issac Riley.[4]

He tried to buy his freedom by giving his master $350, which he had saved up, and a note promising a further $100. Originally, Henson only needed to pay the extra $100 by note. Mr. Riley however, added an extra zero to the paper and changed the fee to $1000. Cheated of his money, Henson returned to Kentucky and then escaped to Kent County, U.C., in 1830, after learning he might be sold again. There he founded a settlement and laborer's school for other fugitive slaves at Dawn, Upper Canada. Henson crossed into Upper Canada via the Niagara River, with his wife Nancy and their four children. Upper Canada had become a refuge for slaves from the United States after 1793, when Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe passed "An Act to prevent further introduction of Slaves, and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province". The legislation did not immediately end slavery in the colony, but it did prevent the importation of slaves, meaning that any U.S. slave who set foot in what would eventually become Ontario was free. By the time Henson arrived, others had already made Upper Canada home, including Black Loyalists from the American Revolution, and refugees from the War of 1812.

Henson first worked farms near Fort Erie, then Waterloo, moving with friends to Colchester by 1834 to set up a Black settlement on rented land. Through contacts and financial assistance there, he was able to purchase 200 acres (0.81 km2) in Dawn Township, in next-door Kent County, to realize his vision of a self-sufficient community. The Dawn Settlement eventually prospered, reaching a population of 500 at its height, and exporting black walnut lumber to the United States and Britain. Henson purchased an additional 200 acres (0.81 km2) next to the Settlement, where his family lived. Henson also became an active Methodist preacher, and spoke as an abolitionist on routes between Tennessee and Ontario. He also served in the Canadian army as a military officer, having led a Black militia unit in the Rebellion of 1837. Though many residents of the Dawn Settlement returned to the United States after slavery was abolished there, Henson and his wife continued to live in Dawn for the rest of their lives. Henson died at the age of 93 in Dresden, on May 5, 1883.



Josiah Henson is the first black man to be featured on a Canadian stamp. He was also recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1999 as a National Historic Person. A federal plaque to him is located in the Henson family cemetery, next to Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site.


The Henson Cabin—Maryland[edit]

The 'Josiah Henson' cabin in Maryland

The actual cabin in which Josiah Henson and other slaves were housed no longer exists.[5] The Riley family house, however, remains and is currently in a residential development in Montgomery County, Maryland. After having remained in the hands of private owners for nearly two centuries, on January 6, 2006, the Montgomery Planning Board agreed to purchase the property and the acre of land on which it stands for $1,000,000.[6][7] The house was opened to the public for one weekend in 2006.[8][9] As of March 2009, the site has received an additional $50,000 from the Maryland state Board of Public Works for the planning and design phase of a multiyear restoration project.[10] An additional $100,000 may come from the Federal government that would go towards restoration and planning.[10] The site was planned to be opened permanently to the public in 2012, until then there were guided tours four times a year.[10]

Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site[edit]

Located near Dresden, Ontario, in Canada, Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site includes the cabin that was home to Josiah Henson during much of his time in the area, from 1841 until his death in 1883. The five-acre complex includes Henson's cabin, an interpretive center 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See National Underground Railroad to History's "Resistance to Slavery in Maryland," p. 129f.;
  2. ^ For an explanation of the legal meaning of this term, see Joseph Lee Jones et ux v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409 (1968).
  3. ^ "Father Henson's Story of His Own Life". Retrieved February 8, 2008. 
  4. ^ The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself
  5. ^ Shin, Annys (October 3, 2010). "After buying historic home, Md. officials find it wasn't really Uncle Tom's Cabin". The Washington Post. 
  6. ^ Lenhart, Jennifer (June 15, 2006). "'Uncle Tom's Cabin' Will Open to Visitors". The Washington Post. p. DZ06. 
  7. ^ "Planning Board Approves Purchase of Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site" (PDF) (Press release). Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Montgomery County Planning Board. January 5, 2006. 
  8. ^ Lenhart, Jennifer (June 8, 2006). "Public to Glimpse 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'". The Washington Post. p. GZ03. 
  9. ^ Lenhart, Jennifer (June 25, 2006). "'Where We Were and Where We Have to Go'". The Washington Post. p. C06. 
  10. ^ a b c Bradford Pearson, "Uncle Tom's Cabin could get government funds", The Olney Gazette, March 4, 2009

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