I have been on the trail of fugitive slave Josiah Henson (1789-1876) since working as Director of Education & Research at Andover Historical Society in Massachusetts. I first came across this amazing fellow during my extensive research on Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived in Andover at the height of her international fame and involvement with the anti-slavery movement. I wrote numerous articles about the life of Stowe and her family here and scripted a one-woman play that is still presented in schools and other community venues around New England.
Josiah Henson was among the numerous inspirations for Stowe’s controversial novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly,’ which became an immediate best-seller in 1852. After editor John Lobb published a book in 1878, claiming Henson to be the real “Uncle Tom,” the former slave could not shake this title, though it did popularize him for the rest of his long life and immensely increase his book sales.
‘People have forgotten that Mrs. Stowe’s book is a novel. My name is not Tom and never was,’ Henson said on more than one occasion. ‘I do not want to have any other name inserted in the newspapers for me than my own: Josiah Henson …always was and always will be.”
In 1879 at the age of 80, Henson said, “Since 1852, I have been called ‘Uncle Tom,’ and I feel proud of the title. If my humble words in any way inspired that gifted lady to write such a plaintive story that the whole community has been touched with pity for the sufferings of the poor slave, then I have not lived in vain.” According to Henson, her novel “was the wedge that finally rent asunder that gigantic fabric with a fearful crash. Mrs. Stowe’s book is not an exaggerated account of the evils of slavery. The truth has never been half told for the story would be too horrible to hear.”
As a former secondary school teacher, I have long been convinced that African-American History should not simply be one measly month set aside annually but needed to be integrated into all studies of our national history. I became increasingly fascinated with black history while at Andover Historical Society and eventually developed a 8-panel traveling exhibit entitled ‘Slavery, Anti-Slavery, & the Underground Railroad,’ writing an interpretive brochure to accompany the show. And Josiah Henson’s life and eventual outbreak for freedom seemed even more exciting than Solomon Northup’s personal account in his slave narrative and the subsequent, highly successful film ‘Twelve Years A Slave.’
I longed to share my enthusiasm for my favorite fugitive slave whose name and life experiences, I soon learned, were well-known in his own day but had now been forgotten. After my article “Josiah Henson: The Slave Who Inspired a Best Seller” was published by ‘Learning Through History Magazine’ in February of 2009, I realized his life story was too unique and too thrilling to be revealed in just a few pages. This amazing man required a full-length biography. Numerous other slave narratives have been reprinted and appear on the Internet, but of the many I had read, only those by Josiah Henson revealed a runaway who fled a brutal life of slavery in the United States with his entire family and then, established a community for other fugitives in Canada where they might be educated and receive occupational training.
Harriet Tubman is a familiar and deservedly beloved figure in American history, yet Josiah Henson also risked his life by crossing the border back into the United States many times to conduct others to freedom on the Underground Railroad. It is estimated that Henson brought at least 115 out of bondage, including one of his own brothers who had been sold to an oppressive cotton planter in Georgia as a child. Nor did I know of any other runaway slave who on several visits to England, had met and been admired by Queen Victoria. Oh, yes, it was time for me to get busy!
I decided to use my subject’s own words for the title, since when Henson and his family had nearly reached safety in Canada, the Scottish captain of the boat ferrying them across had advised him to ‘use his freedom well.’ Descriptions and dialogue in my book are chiefly drawn from Henson’s own three slave narratives, for if possible, I wanted to use his own words enabling him to share his personal experiences in his own way. In order to enliven scenes and characters who impacted Henson’s life, I did create imaginary dialogue (which actually classifies the book a ‘Narrative Biography’). I immersed myself in nineteenth century studies, focusing on slavery in Maryland and Kentucky and also delved into old newspapers published during Henson’s lifetime along with personal observations recorded by his contemporaries.
Born into slavery in Maryland, Henson’s narratives describe his early life in slavery, the horror of being sold away from his mother along with the loss of his brothers and sisters, and the cruel punishment he received from his master for trying to learn to read. As a teenager and young adult, Henson tried hard to act the model slave, becoming an overseer who supervised others in bondage. Determined to protect his master, he was nearly killed and was actually maimed for life. Henson’s plan was to eventually make enough money to buy his own freedom so he saved whatever he managed to earn through preaching on Sundays. Later, traveling on the master’s business, Henson passed through the free state of Ohio where he made contacts among abolitionists for his future escape. Why and how he finally made a getaway, dragging along his wife and four young children, presents a riveting tale, fraught with near-constant peril. Assisted along the way by Native Americans, the Henson family made their dangerous trek barely ahead of hounds and slave-stealers, eventually landing on Canadian soil on the verge of starvation.
In 1841 Josiah Henson established Dawn, a community in Ontario for fugitive slaves, with schools, a saw mill, gristmill, blacksmith shop, a smokehouse for preserving meat, a rope factory and a brickyard. Here, newly arrived African-American could learn trades that would enable them to succeed as free men and women in Canada.
In his Narratives, Henson describes several of the dangerous trips undertaken as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Readers travel with runaways following Henson as he defies the U. S. government and its laws by crossing the Canadian border back into the states in order to lead slaves to liberty. On trips to raise funds for his freedman settlement, Dawn and its enterprises, he visited the Queen of England and President Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House.
Josiah Henson is presently being rediscovered, not only by me and the upcoming narrative biography being published by TouchPoint but because of a recent archaeological dig in Bethesda, Montgomery County, Maryland where Josiah Henson lived and worked as a slave from 1795 to 1830. The link for “The Search for Josiah Henson” – Archaeology dig, 2014; National Science Foundation, is: http://www.pbs.org/video/2365243972
Open to visitors, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin Museum Historic Site’ is located on Uncle Tom’s Road, R.R. #5 in Dresden, Ontario. Occupying five of the original 200 acres purchased in the mid-nineteenth century to start up the British American Institute, it is located an hour and a half north of Detroit, Michigan. Established as a museum in 1948 and acquired by Ontario Heritage Trust in 2005, the historic site is open daily from Victoria Day (the Monday preceding May 25) through mid- October.
The last home where Josiah Henson and his family lived is located here along with the Henson Family Cemetery and several heritage structures including the Harris House, a final stop on the Underground Railroad. The site also encompasses a sawmill, smokehouse, and a pioneer church with the pulpit from the original church where Henson preached in Dresden. The Josiah Henson Interpretive Center and museum contains books and artifacts from the slave era, related to abolition, the Underground Railroad and Henson’s life. For more information, see www.uncletomscabin.org. Why, these days Josiah Henson can even be found on .twitter!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I decided to become an author at the age of eight when my father refused to read me any more bedtime stories until I first told him an original story of my own. Two years later I was editing a neighbor newspaper and had boldly begun submitting stories to national magazines and collecting letters of rejection. I never went anywhere without my pen, pencils and journals. Though my writing has focused mostly on history in recent years, I was certainly no early fan of the past. Indeed, history classes seemed nothing but memorizing dates and taking tests focused on men at war who then signed complicated treaties, only to wage more war. However, having always loved museums, I eventually grew to appreciate history through great paintings and ended up getting a master’s degree in art history. “Okay, so that’s why all those soldiers wearing little more than helmets and shields are pictured! It’s because they’re Greek and Roman gods!”
As a full-time author specializing in history these days, I am especially enthusiastic about researching and writing biographies. I like humanizing history such as in this upcoming book about Josiah Henson or “Raphael,” a book I wrote for educational publisher Mitchell Lane in 2010 or “The Beat Generation (Discovery Enterprises’ Perspectives on History Series, 1998).
I now have four historical novels on Kindle “Captain Redlegs Greaves – A Pirate By Mistake,” which is about my husband’s 17th century Caribbean ancestor, whom we discovered and ‘hunted down’ while living and teaching in the West Indies. Two of my e-books are for middle school audiences. “Polio War” is about a 9-year old girl hospitalized with President Roosevelt’s crippling disease during World War II. It is full of nostalgic references to life on the Home Front during the 1940s.
“The Mail-Order Puppy” is a humorous & heartfelt family story about a third grader whose brother obtains a mischievous Irish Setter in hopes of training the dog to pull him in his wheelchair. It takes place in the 1940s when it was common to ship pets via railway express, decades before Animal Rights organizations and Internet shopping.
For many years I have been fascinated with the Salem Witch Trials. After all, I lived in Andover, MA, where more men, women, and children were convicted and carted off to Salem Prison than from any other town in all New England. Under several Massachusetts Cultural Council Grants, I scripted and produced the community play “Cry Witch!-The Andovers Remember 1692.” And I recently signed a contract with TouchPoint to publish “Abigail Accused: A Story of the Salem Witch Hunt,” a historical novel based on the actual life of convicted witch Abigail Dane Faulkner, and her family.
I attended Grinnell College in Iowa, then received my degree from Tufts University, followed by graduate studies at Boston University and in Europe. I have lived in 11 states and six foreign countries and taught American Studies and English in Japan, Puerto Rico, and Spain. Before becoming a Museum Educator, I was a Youth Services and Reference Librarian. Two of my books received national awards from the American Association of State & Local History. I currently live with my family in Midcoast Maine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.