Josiah Henson and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Josiah Henson was an author, abolitionist, and minister who escaped slavery in the United States with his story being supposedly utilized by Harriet Beecher Stowe when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson was born on 15 June 1789 on a farm in Port Tobacco in Maryland that was owned by Francis Newman. Henson’s father was also owned by Newman, but Henson’s mother and other siblings lived on a nearby farm that belonged to a Dr. Josiah McPherson.

Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Henson was a boy, his father was punished for standing up to a slave overseer who had beat Henson’s mother. Henson’s father retaliated beating the overseer. Immediate action was taken against him and he received one hundred lashes and had his right ear nailed to a whipping post before it was cut off. From that point forward the elder Henson was disobedient and “intractable.” He was so much trouble Newman decided to sell him to someone in Alabama.

Josiah Henson, who was still a young child, then went to live with his mother at McPherson’s, who reputedly treated his slaves better than other slave holders in the area. Henson and his mother and siblings (three sisters and two brothers) were happy for a time but then McPherson died when he fell from his horse while drunk. Because the estate needed to be divided up between the heirs, the decision was made to sell off McPherson’s slaves at auction. Among the slave sold was 5-year-old Henson, his siblings, and his mother.

A bulletin discussing the sell of slaves in 1860. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Henson’s mother was bought by Isaac Riley of Montgomery County. She pleaded with him to purchase her young son Josiah Henson, but Riley responded by hitting and kicking her. Her son was then sold to Adam Robb of Rockville, Montgomery County. However, the 5-year-old fell ill, and Robb became convinced that he would not survive and even if he did, he would be poor worker. Robb then made a deal with Riley, who bought him for a “trifling sum” and with the understanding that Henson would be able to work the fields. Fortunately, Henson did recover and was a strong and able worker. Of Riley, Henson later noted:

“The character of R., the master whom I faithfully served for many years, is by no means an uncommon one in any part of the world … Coarse and vulgar in his habits, unprincipled and cruel in his general deportment, and especially addicted to the vice of licentiousness, his slaves had little opportunity for relaxation from wearying labor, were supplied with the scantiest means of sustaining their toil by necessary food, and had no security for personal rights. The natural tendency of slavery is, to convert the master into a tyrant, and the slave into the cringing, treacherous, false, and thieving victim of tyranny. R. and his slave were no exception to the general rule.”[1]

When Josiah Henson was twenty-two years old, he married a woman named Nancy whom he described as “well-taught.” Forty years later he stated he had made the right decision and that he had no regrets in marrying her. Together they had twelve children, eight of whom survived. These children were also the children that Henson mentioned he was counting on to help him in his “declining years.”

Eventually Riley fell upon hard times punctuated by legal difficulties with a brother-in-law. Riley ended up losing nearly everything and decided he needed to move to Kentucky to get a fresh start. In anticipation of the move, he asked Henson, who was his most trusted slave, to be responsible to transport eighteen other slaves, among whom were Henson’s wife and two children. They were to go to Riley’s brother’s place, which involved nearly a thousand mile trip.

Henson agreed to do it knowing that Riley would follow with the remainder of his slaves in a few months. Henson and his group thus set off in February of 1825 and eventually arrived in Cincinnati. Once there, freed Blacks encouraged him and the other slaves to “quit their master.” Nonetheless, the thought of running away had never crossed Henson’s mind:

“Now was offered to me an opportunity I had not anticipated. I might liberate my family, my companions, and myself, without the smallest risk, and without injustice to any individual, except one whom we had none of us any reason to love, who had been guilty of cruelty and oppression to us all for many years, and who had never shown the smallest symptom of sympathy with us, or with any one in our condition.”[2]

Josiah Henson thought about how Riley deserved the punishment of losing him and his other slaves, but Henson also thought about how he had promised to deliver Riley’s property to Kentucky. Therefore, being a man of his word, Henson continued onward with his group until they arrived in Daviess county mid-April 1825. Henson then delivered himself and the other slaves up to Riley’s brother Amos.

Three years later, in 1828, Riley still had not made it to Kentucky. His wife apparently did not want to move and refused to go. Riley therefore sent an agent to sell off his slaves in Kentucky, only keeping Henson and his family. In the summer of 1828, Henson recalled the “heart-rendering scenes” that played out as he helplessly watched the other slave families being ripped apart and “separated forever.”

About this same time Henson met a white Methodist preacher. He mentioned to Henson that he and his family should free. Before long, the preacher suggested Henson purchase his freedom and the freedom of his family. Riley had tasked Henson with taking him the proceeds from the sale of his Kentucky slaves and so Henson set off again returning to Maryland. Like before he traveled through Cincinnati but this time he remained for some time, worked hard, and earned the generous sum of $350.00. It was this money that Henson planned to use to purchase his and his family’s freedom.

When Josiah Henson arrived back in Maryland, he learned that during his absence, his mother had died. He found he had little time to mourn and after giving Riley the proceeds from the sale of the Kentucky slaves he broached the subject of purchasing his and his family’s freedom. Although Riley was not necessarily receptive to the idea, a deal was struck and on 9 March 1829 Henson received his manumission papers. However, the deal was not complete because Henson had agreed to pay another $100.00 to Riley to finalize the freedom for his wife and children.

When Josiah Henson arrived back in Kentucky, he realized that Riley had tricked him. Riley had added an extra zero to the amount. Moreover, Amos was instructed by his brother not to allow Henson his freedom until he paid the $1000.00. Henson therefore hid his manumission papers and when Amos asked about them, he pretended that he had lost them.

About a year later, Henson learned that Riley planned to separate him from his family and sell him in New Orleans, Louisiana. Riley thought Henson had no proof of his manumission and had no way to earn $1000 that he wanted. Henson knew that if Riley sold him, he would be forever separated from his wife and children. There appeared to be nothing he could do until Amos became extremely sick while they were heading to Louisiana.

Because Amos got so sick, they returned to Kentucky. Having barely avoided disaster, Henson become determined to escape with his family to Canada. He began thinking about it and revealed his plans to his wife. She was hesitant and worried about what would happen if they were caught. She feared going and escaping. Henson reported on his preparations for the trip:

“Some time previously I had got my wife to make me a large knapsack, big enough to hold the two smallest children; and I arranged it that she should lead the second boy, while the oldest was stout enough to go by himself, and to help carry the necessary food I used to pack the little ones on my back … and trot around the cabin … in order to accustom both them and myself to the task before us.”[3]

Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson. Author’s collection.

Eventually the time came, and Henson put his escape plan in motion. He bid one last “good night” to Amos and then in the middle of September 1830 about nine o’clock in the evening on a dark, moonless night, Henson and his children left. Nancy refused to go but seeing that her husband was determined to flee slavery she had a change of heart and at the last minute decided to go with him and her children. Josiah Henson and his family then boarded a skiff and crossed the river.

They landed on the Indiana shore and relying on their own strength and fortitude eventually reached Cincinnati. During their escape they traveled by night to avoid detection and rested during the day. It was a long and arduous trip. However, they reached Canada on 28 October 1830, about five years before Madame Tussaud would establish her famous wax museum on Baker Street in London. Of their arrival and first taste of freedom Henson remarked:

“When I got on the Canada side, … my first impulse was to throw myself on the ground and giving way to the riotous exultation of my feelings, to execute sundry antics which excited the astonishment of those who were looking on. A gentleman of the neighborhood, Colonel Warren, who happened to be present, thought I was in a fit, and as he inquired what was the matter with the poor fellow, I jumped up and told him I was free.”[4] 

Josiah Henson began working for a Mr. Hibbard, who found him to be a reliable worker of good character. Hibbard and his wife soon took a “fancy” to Henson and his family and Henson remained with Hibbard for about three years, sometimes working on shares and other times for wages. During this time Henson managed to acquire some pigs, a cow, and a horse. He also took on the job of preaching and earned a good reputation as a preacher within the community. In addition, while at Hibbard’s, Henson’s two oldest boys received an education and learned to read and write fluently.

Henson next worked for a gentleman with the surname of Riseley. Of this experience Henson stated:

“At his place I began to reflect, more and more, upon the circumstances of the blacks, who were already somewhat numerous in this region. I was not the only one who had escaped from the States. … It soon became my great object to awaken them to a sense of the advantages which offered themselves to their grasp; and Mr. Riseley … willing to cooperate with me in the attempt to make them generally known among the blacks, permitted me to call meetings, at his house … At these meeting we considered and discussed the subject, till we were all of one mind; and it was agreed, … that we would invest our earnings in land, and undertake the task … of settling upon wild lands which we could secure all the profits of our own labor.”[5]

The group then decided to settle in an area east of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. However, Henson found that going farther towards the head of Lake Erie there existed an extensive tract of land. This land was rented for a time before the self-sufficient community decided to purchase 200 acres in Dawn Township in Kent County. Henson noted that immigration from the U.S. to this settlement soon became “incessant.”

Josiah Henson’s preaching activities expanded, and he 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 Canadian Rebellion of 1837. Moreover, though many residents of the Dawn Settlement returned to the United States after slavery was abolished in the states, Henson and his wife continued to live in Dawn for the remainder of their lives.

Josiah Henson - the Dawn settlement

Plaque for the Dawn settlement. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Josiah Henson also gained a reputation as a great spiritual leader within the Black community and in addition, in 1849, he published the story of his life under the title of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Henson’s escape to freedom was also publicized in American newspapers and supposedly, Harriet Beecher Stowe, an American abolitionist, author, and member of the well-known religious Beecher family, read these reports.

Harriet Beecher Stowe. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

She then reportedly “utilized” them when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted the harsh conditions that enslaved African Americans experienced. It was published in 1852 and became famous reaching millions of readers. It was also influential in the United States and Great Britain and helped to energize anti-slavery forces in northern America while provoking widespread anger in the South, and in fact Southerners accused her of misrepresenting slavery.

Stowe was then forced to publish The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853 to prove the authenticity of what she had stated in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and to prove that she had not lied or exaggerated. “She succeeded in proving indeed that her case against slavery was well founded, although she never really proved that Josiah Henson was Uncle Tom. Nevertheless, Josiah Henson and Uncle Tom’s name were [thereafter] irrevocably intertwined in history.”[6]  

As Stowe was proving her case, Henson’s fame continued to grow along with his reputation. Before long he was invited to Great Britain to meet the illustrious Queen Victoria. It happened in 1877, a year after Mark Twain published his Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Henson and the Queen’s meeting was lauded in newspapers under headings such as “‘Uncle Tom’ and the Queen.” Furthermore, the Freeman’s Exmouth Journal stated on 10 March 1877:

“The presentation to her Majesty, by special command, of the Rev. Josiah Henson, occurred on Monday at Windsor. As previously arranged the negro patriarch was accompanied by Mrs. Henson and by his friend, Mr. John Lobb. The party reached the castle at one, and were received. … At three her Majesty, accompanied by his Royal Highness Prince Leopold, and her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice, appeared in the corridor leading to the Oak Room … The rev. Josiah Henson (‘Uncle Tom’) was then presented to her Majesty by Sir T.M. Biddulph. Her Majesty expressed pleasurable surprise at the coloured clergyman’s strikingly hale and hearty looks considering his great age. … Her Majesty was also pleased to say that for many years she had been well acquainted with his history, and presented to him … her portrait. Mr. Henson thanked her Majesty on his own behalf for the great honour conferred upon himself, as well as on behalf of his coloured brethren in Canada … of her Majesty’s dominions for her august protection when they were poor fugitive slaves … Mr. Lobb was then presented by Sir T.M. Biddulph to her Majesty as the editor of Mr. Henson’s Autobiography, a copy of which had been graciously accepted by her Majesty, who was pleased to say that she had read it with much interest and pleasure. At her Majesty’s gracious request the autographs of the Rev. Josiah Henson and Mr. J. Lobb, with the date of the birth of each, were then inscribed in her Majesty’s private album.”[7]

Josiah Henson died in Dresden, Canada on 5 May 1883 at the age of 93. Both American and English newspaper reported on his demise. Among the items mentioned was the fact that Henson had 44 grandchildren and a dozen or so great-grandchildren. It was also reported that he suffered paralysis in his later years and that he had declared that he thought this infirmity was caused by several cruel beatings he underwent while enslaved.

“On one occasion his master, immortalised as ‘Legree,’ broke both his arms with a cudgel. Yet, … Henson, it is stated, was cheerful and jovial to the last, despite his past sufferings, his infirmities, and his age.”[8]


  • [1] J. Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849), p. 5.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 24.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 49–50.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 58–59.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 66–67.
  • [6] Chicago Tribune, “The Cabin at Journey’s End,” June 8, 1975, p. 361.
  • [7] Freeman’s Exmouth Journal, “‘Uncle Tom’ and the Queen,” March 10, 1877, p. 3.
  • [8] Dundee Courier, “Death of ‘Uncle Tom’,” May 24, 1833, p. 3.

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