In September of 1783 the American rebellion for freedom and independence came to an end following the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Approximately six years later, Josiah Henson was born into slavery near Port Tobacco, Maryland.
Early in his life, Henson had to deal with not only the lack of freedom and limitations of humanity endemic to slavery. He had to also cope with the loss of and separation from family members.
As a young boy, Henson witnessed his father being whipped and mutilated in retaliation for him attempting to defend Henson’s mother from a rapist overseer. Following the sale of his father into the deep South, Alabama, Henson never heard news of or had contact with his father again. The remaining family was later separated with Henson, his mother, and siblings being sold off to different slave traders. Fortunately, his mother was able to convince her new owner to purchase Henson when he became dangerously ill. But, there would be several attempts to sell or trade Henson over the course of his life.
By the time Josiah Henson reached adulthood he was a trusted supervisor on the plantation. In 1825, Henson was given the responsibility of transporting himself, his wife and children, and other slaves to Kentucky by foot. His slave master, Isaac Riley, had fallen into financial difficulties and begged Henson to transport the slaves so he could avoid financial ruin.
Despite passing through the free state of Ohio where the group could have remained, Henson urged everyone on and delivered them all to the new plantation. Henson would later feel guilt about being in the midst of freedom and delivering everyone back into the hell of slavery out of a misguided sense of duty and loyalty.
Prior to leaving Maryland, Riley promised Henson the opportunity to purchase his freedom for $450. Eventually, Henson was able to save $300 which he gave to Riley as a deposit with a promissory note for the remaining $100 balance. Unsurprisingly, slave masters were not particularly ethical when dealing with slaves. Riley belonging to this group of vile individuals pocketed Henson’s money, added a zero to the promissory note increasing the balance to $1000, and began making plans to sell him to New Orleans.
In a twist of fate, the scheme to sell Henson into the deep South fell apart. Realizing that he would likely never be allowed to purchase his freedom, Henson began making plans to escape with his wife and four children. Carrying the two youngest children in a bag, Henson and his family walked from Kentucky to Ohio and were ferried from Lake Erie to Buffalo and on to Canada where they eventually settled in what would become Ontario.
Henson found work on a local farm and also preached. He eventually learned how to read from his eldest child who was able to attend school. Once established in Canada, Henson co-founded the Dawn Settlement for fugitive slaves as well as an industrial school where former slaves could learn trades that would enable them to be self-sufficient. He also made several trips back to the US to preach and raise funds for the settlement and is credited with helping 118 other slaves escape to freedom.
A memoir of Josiah Henson’s life was published in 1849 under the title of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Two years later, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was released in serial form with the lead character, Uncle Tom, believed to have been based on Henson.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. n.d. “Josiah Henson.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed September 7, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Josiah-Henson.
- Brock, Jared. 2018. “The Story of Josiah Henson, the Real Inspiration for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. May 16, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-josiah-henson-real-inspiration-uncle-toms-cabin-180969094.
- n.d. “Josiah Henson, a True Abolitionist.” African American Registry. Accessed September 7, 2019. https://aaregistry.org/story/josiah-henson-a-true-abolitionist.
- n.d. “Summary of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.” Documenting the American South. Accessed September 7, 2019. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/henson49/summary.html.
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