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Josiah Henson, 1789-1883
The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself
Boston: A. D. Phelps, 1849.


Josiah Henson (1789-1883) was born into slavery in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm owned by Francis Newman. As a child, he was sold to Isaac Riley, who later appointed him superintendent of the farm at an unusually young age because of Henson's strength and intelligence. At age twenty-two Henson married a slave woman whose name remains unknown. They had twelve children, four while enslaved. Henson showed extreme loyalty to Riley who, in turn, entrusted him with exceptional responsibilities and allowed him to become a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. However, when Henson attempted to buy his freedom, Riley cheated him and made plans to sell him south. Fearing separation from his family, Henson fled north with his wife and children the summer of 1830. After passing through Ohio and New York, they settled in Dresden, Ontario, Canada. Henson became a preacher and a leader in the Afro-Canadian community, and he traveled back into the United States to help other slaves escape. Henson also served the British as a captain of Afro-Canadian volunteers in the Canadian Rebellions of 1837-1838, two uprisings in which the colonies of Lower and Upper Canada were in conflict over political reform. He founded the British American Institute in 1842, an Afro-Canadian community and industrial school intended as a refuge for escaped slaves. Henson made several trips to England, where he was received by high society, and he married a Boston widow following the death of his first wife. Henson died in Dresden, Ontario, in 1883.

Although he learned to read and write in freedom, Henson dictated his autobiography to an unnamed amanuensis who declares that the story remains entirely Henson's: the "substance of it . . . the facts, the reflections, and very often the words, are his; and little more than the structure of the sentences belongs to another" (p. iii). The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself was first published in 1849. The narrative was later reprinted in 1858 as Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson's Story of His Own Life, and was again reprinted in 1879 as "Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction": An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson. Both the 1858 and 1879 editions contained a foreword by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the public originally believed that Henson's life story was the basis for the character of Uncle Tom in her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which boosted its sales and likely prompted the republications. Both Stowe herself and twentieth century literary scholars have identified numerous slave narratives as influences on Stowe and inspiration for her book, so while Henson was unlikely the singular model for Uncle Tom, Stowe did point to his narrative in The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853) as proof that individuals such as those she created in fiction existed in real life.

The Life of Josiah Henson begins by describing the circumstances of his birth, his early memories of brutal abuse suffered by his parents, and the cruel separation of his family at the auction block. Riley, called "Isaac R." in the text, is persuaded to purchase both Henson and his mother by his mother's tears, so they are allowed to remain together on Riley's plantation in Maryland. Over the years, Henson serves his master faithfully and is assigned more physically demanding tasks as he grows from childhood to manhood. He achieves "great influence with my companions" and, as a young man is "promoted to be superintendent of the farm work, and managed to raise more than double the crops, with more cheerful and willing labor, than was ever seen on the estate before" (p. 8, 10).

At age eighteen, Henson's mother encourages him to attend a religious service, and he is converted to Christianity: "I date my conversion, and my awakening to a new life . . . from this day, so memorable to me" (p. 13). Henson continues to develop his spiritual beliefs and "could not help talking much on these subjects with those about me . . . I began to pray with them, and exhort them, and to impart to the poor slaves those little glimmerings of light from another world" (p. 13). Thus, Henson becomes "an esteemed preacher" within his community, embarking on a career that is confirmed by his admission to the Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1828 (p. 13).

Eventually, Henson's master falls into financial difficulty. Though Henson had served him faithfully for twenty years, he is among those sent to Riley's brother in Kentucky as part of an attempt to manage debts. By extracting a promise from him before explaining the commitment, Riley enjoins Henson to transport eighteen slaves, including Henson's wife and children, from Maryland to Kentucky. While passing through the free state of Ohio, "colored people gathered round us, and urged us with much importunity to remain with them," but Henson refuses to consider deserting (p. 23). Although Henson desires freedom, he intends to purchase it and will not consider running away because it violates his sense of honor. The slaves under his watch "probably had little perception of the nature of the boon that was offered to them, and were willing to do just as I told them," so they leave the free state with him, and Henson delivers everyone to their new master, Amos Riley. Though readers may be surprised at his naiveté, Henson reflects upon this incident many years after escaping to the North with a view altered by his later experiences, observing that "I have often had painful doubts as to the propriety of my carrying so many other individuals into slavery again, and my consoling reflection has been, that I acted as I thought at the time was best" (p. 25).

Working under Amos Riley, Henson still desires to purchase his freedom. Encouraged by a white Methodist minister, Henson obtains permission to travel to Maryland and visit his old master, raising money by preaching on the way. Though Isaac Riley welcomes Henson's visit and negotiates a price for manumission, he is surprised by Henson's accumulated earnings. He agrees to a price of four-hundred and fifty dollars, taking Henson's cash earnings of three-hundred and fifty dollars as a down payment. Unfortunately, he tricks the unsuspecting Henson by promising to forward the manumission papers to Amos Riley on his behalf, sending a letter that raises the agreed price to one thousand dollars.

Henson discovers the trick upon returning to Amos Riley's plantation and despairs of ever raising the needed funds. As a further betrayal, his master decides to send him to New Orleans and sell him. During the trip Amos Riley's son, who is superintending, falls ill. The conscientious Henson nurses him and returns home with the son alive. Yet, instead of gratitude for saving the son's life, Henson discovers that "My merits, whatever they were, instead of exciting sympathy, or any feeling of attachment to me, seemed only to enhance my money value to them" (p. 47). Henson, therefore, resolves to escape with his wife and four children. They walk, Henson carrying the two smallest children in a bag on his back, from Kentucky to Ohio, fighting exposure, exhaustion, and hunger. They are aided by Native Americans in the Ohio wilderness as well as sympathetic boatmen who carry them across Lake Erie to Buffalo, New York.

From New York, the family travels to Canada, where Henson finds work on the tenant farm of a Mr. Hibbard. He resumes preaching, and his oldest son, Tom, attends school. Henson is proud of his son's learning, and it creates a moment of crisis and growth for him as well. He describes a pivotal moment in which he must admit to his son that he can't read the Bible from which he draws his sermons. Tom generously offers to teach his father to read, and "The little fellow was so earnest, there was no resisting him," Henson recalls (p. 64). "I was delighted with the conviction that my children would have advantages I had never enjoyed," he admits, "but it was no slight mortification to think of being instructed by a child of twelve years old. Yet ambition, and a true desire to learn, for the good it would do my own mind, conquered the shame" (p. 64).

In Canada, Henson works to organize the Afro-Canadian community and becomes involved in several projects that emphasize independence from white patronage. Ventures include attempts to purchase land for an autonomous Afro-Canadian community and the establishment of a school for Afro-Canadian children. Building on this wish for self-sufficiency, Henson closes his narrative with gratitude for his liberty and expression of faith in the future of his community:

I will conclude my  narrative by simply recording my gratitude, heartfelt and inexpressible, to God, and to many of my fellow-men, for the vast improvement in my condition, both physical and mental; for the great degree of comfort with which I am surrounded; for the good I have been enabled to effect; for the light which has risen upon me; for the religious privileges I enjoy, and the religious hopes I am permitted to cherish; for the prospects opening to my children, so different from what they might have been; and, finally, for the cheering expectation of benefiting not only the present, but many future generations of my race. (p. 76).

See also

Works Consulted: Hudson, Peter, "Henson, Josiah," Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition. Eds. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Oxford African American Studies Center. 12 January 2009; Stowe, Harriet Beecher, A Key To Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work, Bedford, Mass: Applewood Books, 1998, 26-27; Vicary, Elizabeth Zoe, "Henson, Josiah," American National Biography Online, 12 January 2009.

Jenn Williamson

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