Josiah Henson was a popular figure in Niagara history and the history of the Underground Railroad to Freedom. His journey to Niagara was long and arduous and included unimaginable experiences that he circumvented and conquered.
Josiah Henson, American labourer and clergyman who escaped slavery in 1830 and found refuge in Canada, where he became the driving force behind the “Dawn Settlement”, a model community for former slaves. He was also involved in the Underground Railroad, and he served as a model for the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851–52).
Henson was born on a plantation in Maryland. From an early age, he witnessed the brutality of slavery, notably when his father tried to defend Josiah’s mother from an overseer. As punishment, his father endured 100 lashes, had an ear cut off, and was sold to another slaveowner farther south.
Henson never saw or heard of his father again. Henson passed through several owners before being bought by Isaac Riley of Montgomery county, Maryland. He subsequently became a trusted overseer, and in 1825 Henson was tasked with transporting slaves to the Kentucky plantation of Riley’s brother.
Although there were various opportunities to escape, Henson and the slaves arrived in Kentucky later that year. In about 1829, Isaac Riley agreed to grant Henson’s freedom in exchange for $450. Henson had already raised most of the money by preaching, but Riley later dramatically increased the fee. Soon after, Henson learned of plans to sell him, separating him from his wife and children.
In 1830 the Henson family fled to Canada, receiving shelter and support at safe houses along the Underground Railroad. Once established in Canada, Henson occasionally returned to the United States, where he led other runaway slaves on the long perilous trek to freedom along the Underground Railroad. It was reported that he helped some 200 slaves.
In Canada, Henson became a leader among the growing number of fugitive slaves. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the Dawn Settlement in Dresden, Ontario. Its goal was to employ and educate former slaves, and a focal point of the settlement was the British-American Institute, an industrial school. To secure financial backing for the community, Henson made a number of trips to the United States and Great Britain. In 1851 he was granted a personal audience with Queen Victoria.
Henson’s autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, was published in 1849; it was subsequently reprinted under a variety of titles. Stowe cited the work among her sources for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1983 Henson became the first black person to be featured on a Canadian postage stamp.
June 15, 1789
May 5, 1883
- In the ensuing years, he became one of the most dependable slaves of the Riley family and was ultimately made the supervisor of the master’s farm, situated in Montgomery County, Maryland (modern-day North Bethesda).
- In September 1828, Henson came back to Maryland seeking to purchase his freedom from Isaac. He attempted to do so by giving his master $350 along with a note that promised him another $100. However, Riley later put an extra zero in the paper and made it look like Henson had promised to pay him $1,000.
- Initially, Henson found work in the farms near Fort Erie and then in Waterloo. In 1834, he, along with some friends, relocated to Colchester to establish a black settlement on rented land. With the help of contacts and financial assistance, he bought 200 acres (0.81 km2) in Dawn Township, located in the neighbouring Kent County, to establish a self-sufficient community. This had always been his dream. At its peak, the community was home to 500 people.
- During the Canadian Rebellion of 1837, Henson fought in the Canadian Army. He was an officer, in charge of a black militia unit. In 1838, the unit wrested control of the ship Anne from the rebels by interrupting their supply lines to southwestern Upper Canada.
- In 1849, Josiah Henson released his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, through Arthur D. Phelps in Boston, Massachusetts. The memoir reportedly inspired the eponymous character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
- In 1999, he was recognised as a National Historic Person by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. A federal plaque has been set up in the Henson family cemetery, beside Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site.
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