During the period of slavery in the United States and afterward in the ongoing struggle for equality and opportunity for people of African descent, Josiah Henson was a man who lived his conviction of being honest in both word and deed. Even while a slave and enduring violence, when given the choice of defiling his word or gaining freedom, Henson kept his word. When Harriet Beecher Stowe read The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), she was determined to meet Henson. They met in 1851 and Henson's life became the basis for the character Uncle Tom in her 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. After escaping from slavery and finding freedom in Canada, Henson learned to read and write and became a religious and community leader both there and in the United States. He traveled throughout the United States, Canada, and England, preaching and speaking for the abolition of slavery. He became a conductor of the Underground Railroad and had an audience with Queen Victoria. In all, Henson was a man of integrity and determination whose life far exceeded the limits that society had placed on him.
Josiah Henson was born into slavery on June 15, 1789, in Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland. He was given the Christian name of his master Dr. Josiah McPherson and the surname of his master's uncle. During his life as a slave Henson witnessed beatings and other abuses to his family and to others. In his 1849 autobiography Henson describes the beating his father received for striking a white man who was trying to rape his mother. As his father endured the sentence of one hundred lashes, "a feeble groan was the only response to the final blows. His head was then thrust against the post, and his right ear fastened to it with a tack; a swift pass of a knife, and the bleeding member was left sticking to the place." Henson's father was never the same after this and was later sent to Alabama away from his family; neither Henson nor his mother ever knew what happened to him. Later, when Henson was five years old, his master died. Henson's brother and sisters were sold off one by one as property in an estate sale. When Henson's mother was sold to Isaac Riley of Montgomery County, Maryland, she begged that he purchase Josiah, her baby and last remaining child. She was brutally rebuked by Riley, her new owner. Henson was sold to Adam Robb, a tavern keeper in Rockville, Maryland. Robb later sold Henson to Riley in exchange for a horse-shoeing job.
Henson was tall, strong, and quick minded. Riley took full advantage of Henson's abilities by moving him from plow and horse boy to overseer to market man. Since Henson could not read or write, his having the responsibility of market man, which was most often delegated to white men, proves that Riley recognized his intelligence. This job required Henson not only to bargain for the best price for his master's produce but to bring the money back to his master. Henson's obedience and moral high ground had been proven to his master. On one occasion he came to the aid of his master in a fight when a man named Bryce Litton got the better of him. Litton retaliated against Riley by ordering his house slaves to ambush and beat Henson. They broke Henson's shoulder blade by hitting him with an oak fence post. It took five months for Henson to heal, and he could no longer raise his hand above his head. Although Henson had not been raised in a religious environment, he found an immediate connection with Christianity and began to embrace its teachings in 1807. Around the same time, Riley allowed Henson to attend a sermon by an anti-slavery preacher, and he was exposed to the abolitionist movement. These experiences gave greater meaning to Henson's life. Henson married Charlotte, a slave, in 1811. In 1825, Riley went bankrupt and had to sell his farm. Henson and twenty-two other slaves were to be transferred to Riley's brother, Amos, in Davies County, Kentucky. Riley made Henson give his word that he would deliver himself and the other slaves to Kentucky. The trip took them through Ohio, a free state, but Henson kept his word and all were delivered.
In 1828, Henson became a preacher for the Methodist Episcopal Church and was able to earn money while in Kentucky. He was able to save $350 toward his freedom. His master Amos Riley took the money but reneged on the agreed amount of $400. Riley raised the price to $1,000 and then decided to sell Henson to a new planter in New Orleans. Henson accompanied his master's son to New Orleans while he transacted some business, which included the final transaction of the sale of Henson. When the master's son got seriously ill, rendering him weak and helpless, he begged Henson to take him home safely to his father. Henson could have left his master's son and made a run for his freedom, but he instead brought him safely home to his father. Henson's act of kindness was met with no reward or appreciation. Henson was so outraged by this experience along with his growing desire for freedom, he decided to escape along with his family to Canada.
In the summer of 1830 Henson, his wife, and their four children fled Kentucky. They endured sickness, wolves, starvation, and the ever-present fear of being captured, punished, and returned to slavery. A tribe of Native Americans and the Underground Railroad helped Henson and his family. After traveling through Cincinnati, Buffalo, and New York, they crossed the U.S. border into Canada on October 28, 1830. Henson and his family settled in Dresden, Ontario, near Lake St. Clair and south of the Sydenham River. For four years Henson worked as a farm laborer and preacher in the area. To better himself he had his oldest son teach him how to read and write. Only a short time passed before Henson got involved in the Underground Railroad. As a conductor he made several trips south and led over two hundred slaves to Canada to freedom. During the Canadian Rebellion of 1837-38, Henson served as a captain in a troop of Afro-Caribbean volunteers.
In 1834, Henson and a dozen of his associates rented government land in Colchester, and with the help of sponsors from the United States and England, Henson began plans for an Afro-Canadian community and industrial school. Henson's plans for an exclusive black settlement was aided by Hiram Wilson, the missionary sent by the American Anti-Slavery Society, and James Cannings Fuller, a Quaker philanthropist of Skaneateles, New York. Henson formally organized the Afro-Canadian community in 1842 when he, Wilson, and another partner purchased two hundred acres in Dawn Township, Upper Canada. The land that was purchased in Chatham, Ontario, was a place in which escaped slaves were taught various skills such as how to clear land for farms and how to support themselves and their families. The institute did not exclude whites or Indians. Also in 1842, Henson bought two hundred acres of adjoining land and moved his family to this site.
In 1849, Henson published his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. It was reprinted in 1858 and renamed Truth Stranger than Fiction: Father Henson's Story of His Own Life, and published in 1879 as Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction; An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson. The last two editions had forwards by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe read Henson's 1849 autobiography and was interesting in talking with him. The opportunity came in 1850 after Stowe had moved to Maine. Henson was passing through on an anti-slavery tour and met her. Stowe was so interested in Henson's story and his life that she wanted to know of other peculiarities regarding slaveholders. Henson shared more experiences. Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin published in 1852 was met with claims of misrepresentation and anger from the South. In response to this Stowe wrote A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. This book referred to the actual slaves who were the basis for her characters and events in the book. The most benevolent of her characters was Uncle Tom whom Stowe states in her book was based on Josiah Henson. For a few years Henson made lecture tours as the "real Uncle Tom."
As an active abolitionist, Henson traveled through New England, Canada, and England, preaching against the evils of slavery and sharing his life story. In England in 1849 and 1851, he met the archbishop of Canterbury, was honored at a private party by Prime Minister Lord Jim Russell, and was invited by Lord Gray to travel to India. Henson's first wife died in 1852, and he married a Boston widow, Nancy Gambles, in 1856. On Henson's last visit to England in 1876 he visited the World's Fair and became the first ex-slave to have an audience with Queen Victoria. The queen gave Henson a personal gift of her photograph in a gold frame.
Henson died on May 5, 1883, in Dresden, Ontario. His contribution to the cause of freedom and equality touches both the United States and Canada. The state of Maryland named an underdeveloped state park site in Montgomery County after Henson in 1991. Henson became the first black person to be featured on a Canadian stamp and honored by the government in 1999 with a plaque designating Henson as a Canadian of National Historical Significance.
- The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, 1849.
- Truth Stranger than Fiction: Father Henson's Story of His Own Life, 1858.
- Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson, 1879.
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1853, pp. 19, 26-27.
- Vicary, Elizabeth Zoe. "Henson, Josiah." In American National Biography. Vol. 10. Eds. John A Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 621-22.
- Richman, Michael. "Uncle Tom's Montgomery Cabin," Washington Post, 10 December 1997.
- The African American Registry. "Josiah Henson, a true abolitionist." http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/954/Josiah_Henson_a_true_abolotionist (Accessed 12 March 2006).
- The National Archives Learning Curve. "Josiah Henson." http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAShenson.htm (Accessed 12 March 2006).
- Richman, Michael. Uncle Tom's Montgomery Cabin. www.innercity.org/columbiaheights/newspaper/cabin.html (Accessed 12 March 2006).