Josiah Henson, Where the Story Began
Josiah Henson (1789-1893) was born into a family of enslaved people in Montgomery County, Maryland. According to blackpast.org, after escaping to Canada with his wife and children through the Underground Railroad, “Henson also became a Methodist preacher. He went on lecture tours and spoke as an abolitionist throughout Britain and Canada. He also worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad between Tennessee and Ontario.”
A biography based on Henson’s autobiography and other sources was published in 2018 by historian Jamie Ferguson Kuhns. Its title is Sharp Flashes of Lightning Come from Black Clouds: The Life of Josiah Henson.
Read more about the author here: https://www.montgomeryparks.org.
Like Frederick Douglass, different versions of his autobiography emerged at different points in his life. Its title is The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849). The 76-page electronic edition can be read as an html file here: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/henson49. It is considered to be the root of the classic and groundbreaking novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a literary precursor and impactor to the US Civil War, and the fastest selling novel of the 19th century.
He also published Truth Stranger than Fiction, Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life. Read a summary of it here: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/henson58.
About “Uncle Tom”
While the term “Uncle Tom” has evolved over time, the real person the character is based on remains highly revered for his tireless work with the Underground Railroad, promotion of literacy, and advocacy for freedom. A contemporary of Harriet Beecher Stowe, he commented: “…upon learning of his connection to the novel’s hero: ‘From that time to the present, 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… I have not lived in vain; for I believe that her book was the beginning of the glorious end.’” (Smithsonian Magazine, May 16, 2018)
The Josiah Henson Museum and Park is at 11410 Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda and is typically open on weekends. According to https://www.montgomeryparks.org, it is “…the former plantation property of Isaac Riley where Reverend Josiah Henson was enslaved. This park is a historic resource of local, state, national and international significance because of its association with Reverend Henson, whose 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Archaeological excavations are ongoing.
Discover “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site” in Ontario, Canada, here: https://www.heritagetrust.on.ca. This property includes the Josiah Henson house where he and his wife lived in their later years, the family cemetery, the church containing his original pulpit, a gallery, and much more to honor the life and achievements of this influential writer and preacher.
For information on more places connected to Harriet Beecher Stowe, please visit the following links:
The Josiah Henson Museum is the fourth stop on the Maryland Author Adventures Trail.