The book “The Life of Josiah Henson; formerly a Slave” begins ominously.
I was born, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N. about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP. But was hired by Mr. M to whom my father belonged.
The only incident I can remember which occurred while my mother continued on N.’s farm was the appearance of my father one day with his head bloody and his back lacerated. …His right ear had been cut off close to his head and he had received 100 lashes on his back. He had beaten the overseer for a brutal attack on my mother and this was his punishment.
You’ll know Josiah Henson better as “Uncle Tom,” the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
You’ll also know Henson’s home, just outside Dresden, Ontario as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
On a recent road trip down the 401 to “tobacco country,” in the Chatham-Kent area, your intrepid National History Site adventurers arrive at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum. Each year, thousands of visitors from Canada, the U.S. and beyond stop to pay tribute to both Josiah Henson and Emily Beecher Stowe.
Now largely forgotten Harriet Beecher Stowe played a significant role in the emancipation of the American Negro after the U.S. Civil War. So much so that when she was presented to President Abraham Lincoln, he is reported to have greeted her with: “So you’re the little woman responsible for starting the Great War.”
“Betrayal” set the stage for Josiah Henson’s flight to Canada in 1830. After purchasing his freedom, Henson’s master pocketed the money and prepared to put his “property” on the slave’s auction block in New Orleans.
Providence was surely on Josiah’s side for he was able to escape with his wife and 4 children. Travelling at night along the “underground railway” (a series of safe houses for runaway slaves) the family made their way into the northern states, then over the Niagara River into British North America. Here they were free.
The Henson family settled in Dawn Township near the little village of Dresden. With financial assistance from members of the American Anti-Slavery movement, Henson purchased 200 acres of land. His dream was to build a self-sufficient community for other fugitives from slavery. Henson called it “The Dawn Settlement.”it was a worthy name for those who were starting a new chapter in their lives.
Over the coming years, the Dawn Settlement prospered. The land was rich and supported farming of corn, wheat and tobacco. Virgin black walnut trees were harvested and the valuable timber was exported to Britain and the U.S. Henson also oversaw the building of a number of mills, a brickyard and a school for the manual trades.
At its peak, the Dawn Settlement was home to 500 former slaves. And life was good. But for thousands of slaves still in bondage in the southern United States, their existence was a bleak and painful one.
Then unexpectedly an unknown American travel writer named Harriet Beecher Stowe set the wheels in motion to change the lives of over 50,000 American slaves. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1842. At one time the book would be the world’s second ranked best seller. Only the Bible sold more.
Chapter One of Uncle Tom’s Cabin begins with two white men—one a plantation owner; the other a slave trader discussing a “property” deal. Eliza, a “house slave” enters the room to fetch a young child and is noticed favourably by the visitor.
“By Jupiter,” says the trader, turning to the girl in admiration, “there’s an article now! You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I’ve seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer.”
He presses his host. “Come, how will you trade about the gal. What shall I say for her, what’ll you take?”
As Josiah Henson’s memoir had begun with physical brutality and disfigurement, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s opened with no less an abomination: the trading in human lives. From childhood she’d witnessed both forms of cruelty and vowed she would do what she could to change her flawed and barbaric world.
Harriet had learned compassion and the concept of equality from her father. Lyman Beecher was Abolitionist who regularly sheltered runaway slaves from the American south. He assisted them to cross the border into Canada and freedom.
By her early 20’s, Harriet was writing regional travel articles for American journals. But her reading the book The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave in 1841 turned her thoughts to writing more serious subjects.
The passage of the American Fugitive Slave Act only confirmed Harriet’s literary direction. Under the terms of the Slave Act, any American finding a runaway slave must turn them in to authorities or risk prosecution themselves.
Appalled by this legislation, Harriet sat down to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She based her principal character “Uncle Tom” on Josiah Henson.
Given the political times, with Abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln having been elected, Beecher Stowe’s “expose” was explosive, and she was in demand to speak around the world. Her visit to England, a nation which had abolished the scourge of slavery in 1808 saw the author feted as “royalty.”
The wheels of progress moved much slower than in the British Isles. It would take 11 years and a Civil War for the United States to follow Great Britain’s lead.
“This is strange,” I remark to my husband, Louis as we approach Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum Historic Site.
“It’s not been recognized by the Canadian government as a National Site. Surely Josiah Henson’s house where he sheltered hundreds of runaway slaves lives and breathes Canadian history.”
My trusty driver is equally perplexed by the omission. “I’m going to find out why when we get there,” I announce to him. Louis is used to my “must know ways!”
The Site’s interpretive staff have a perplexing answer to my question “why?” “Josiah Henson has been declared a Person of national significance to Canada but his house is not,” offers the Curator. I’m incredulous and ask for more information.
“Because the cabin house was moved from one part of Henson’s property to another,” he answers. And Parks Canada won’t designate us as “Officially Historic” because of this.” With curious piece of bureaucratic tomfoolery, our guide gives a wry smile and shrugs his shoulders.
Restored to a sound condition in recent years, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a two story weathered timber cottage. The second story is off-limit to visitors. One downstairs room is furnished with a kitchen table, a sideboard and various kitchen equipment.
The dining room across the centre hall catches the visitor off guard. Wax representations of Josiah Henson and his wife Nancy are startlingly realistic.
Most visitors make the Cabin their first stop but other Site buildings are of interest as well. A period sawmill and a smokehouse, cunningly built into the trunk of a large sycamore tree give a notion of life in the mid-19th century.
The Dawn Settlement church displays the original organ and the pulpit where Josiah Henson preached at Sunday services. The last stop is the Henson family cemetery where Josiah and members of his family are buried.
A federal National Historic Site or not, I’d encourage you to make a visit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum. Pick up a copy of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave in the Museum’s large bookstore when you’re there.Only 69 pages, it is a window on a world, not so very long ago where men, women and children were bought and sold.