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Josiah Henson, 1789-1883
Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson's Story of His Own Life
Boston: John P. Jewett, 1858.


Josiah Henson was born into slavery on June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Francis Newman. Henson's parents' names are unknown. Separated from his father and siblings in early childhood, Henson was raised by his mother on the farm of Isaac Riley in Montgomery County, Maryland. As a young man, he became the superintendent of Riley's farm. He was attacked by a neighboring overseer at age nineteen or twenty and for the rest of his life was unable to lift his arms above his head. At age twenty-two, he married an enslaved woman from a neighboring plantation whose name was Charlotte; the couple had twelve children. Riley transferred his slaves to his brother's plantation in Kentucky in 1825, and Henson lived there until he attempted to purchase his freedom in 1828. He was swindled out of $350 by his master and barely escaped being sold into New Orleans. Henson and his family escaped to Canada in 1830, and in 1838, he helped to found the Dawn Settlement for fugitive slaves, which operated a manual labor school and a sawmill. Henson traveled to England three times to raise money for the settlement, and he met Queen Victoria in 1877. After his first wife's death, Henson married Nancy Gamble, a widowed free black woman, in 1856. He died in Dresden, Ontario, on May 5, 1883. Part of the lands of the Dawn Settlement are now a historic site operated by the Ontario Heritage Trust and include the Henson family's home.

Truth Stranger Than Fiction is the first major revised and expanded edition of Henson's original 1849 autobiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. The Life of Josiah Henson had been dictated to Samuel Atkins Eliot, and it included a note reporting that Henson had dictated the story and then listened to the text read aloud, so that he could correct any errors. Truth Stranger Than Fiction does not include the notation, and there is no critical consensus as to whether the revisions to the 1858 version were made by Eliot, by another editor, or by Henson himself. The book contains a short preface by Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is also included in the later versions of Henson's autobiography published in England and Canada by John Lobb. Stowe wrote in 1876 that a sketch of Henson's life had furnished her with "many of the finest conceptions and incidents of 'Uncle Tom's' character, in particular the scene where he refuses to free himself by the murder of a brutal master," and she mentioned him in her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Winks, Blacks in Canada, 193). However, most scholars allege that Henson was instead one of many influences on Stowe's perceptions of slaves and slavery. While John Lobb, editor of the 1876 through 1890 "authorized" versions of Henson's autobiography, referred explicitly to Henson as "Uncle Tom," Stowe stressed that her novel was "'not the biography of any one man,'" (Winks, Blacks in Canada, 193).

The basic story of Henson's life in Truth Stranger Than Fiction is similar to the version given in The Life of Josiah Henson. Henson is born on the farm of Francis Newman, to whom his mother had been hired out and to whom his father was enslaved. Henson's first significant memory is of his father returning home "with his head bloody"—in fact his ear severed—"and his back lacerated," having been whipped severely for defending his wife from a white overseer's rape attempt (p. 2). When his father is sold and taken to Alabama, his mother's master, Dr. Josiah McPherson, reclaims her and her six children. McPherson dies two or three years later, and his slaves are sold. Henson and his mother are briefly separated, but after he nearly dies, his new master "sell[s] . . . him cheap" to Isaac Riley, the man who has bought his mother (p. 14). Henson grows up on Riley's farm.

Strong and intelligent, he becomes a favorite of Riley's and during his teen years is made superintendent of the farm, "practically overseer" (p. 23). He raises crop production to "more than double" and works long days overseeing the farm and taking its produce to market (p. 23). At eighteen, Henson experiences a conversion to Christianity and becomes a preacher among the slaves in his area. At age nineteen or twenty, Henson is badly injured when a neighboring overseer attacks him. From the time of this beating on, Henson cannot raise his arms above shoulder level. At age twenty-two, Henson marries a woman named Charlotte, a slave from a neighboring farm. They have twelve children, eight of whom survive.

In 1825, a lawsuit against Isaac Riley causes him to fear losing his slaves (p. 42). He gives Henson a pass to conduct all of the slaves to his brother's plantation in Kentucky. The group passes the Ohio shore by boat during the journey and are told by onlookers that they are "no longer slaves, but free men, if [they] chose to be so" (p. 51). Henson's "notions of right" are against running away, and he looks forward to the "immense admiration and respect" with which Amos Riley will regard him when he arrives in Kentucky with the entire group of slaves (p. 52). He commands the group to keep going. Henson waits in Kentucky for three years for his master to arrive and becomes superintendent of Amos Riley's plantation. During this period he is also admitted as a preacher by the Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1828, Henson hears that Isaac Riley will remain in Maryland and has decided to sell all his slaves other than Henson and his family. Henson says that his "eyes [are] opened" to the "guilty madness" of having earlier prevented the same people from acquiring freedom (p. 60). He asks permission to travel to Maryland to visit Isaac Riley. On the way he preaches in Ohio and gathers donations, and when he reaches Maryland, negotiates to purchase his freedom. Isaac Riley agrees, accepts a large down payment, and sends Henson back to Kentucky. However, he tells his brother that the remainder of the payment is $650 rather than the agreed-upon $100. Neither brother plans to allow Henson to work off the sum and, swindled and frustrated, he returns to his normal labors.

A year later, Riley sends Henson to New Orleans with his son, who has instructions to sell him. Henson has the opportunity to kill Riley's son and the crew before they reach New Orleans, but as he raises an axe above a sleeping young Amos Riley, he shrinks back and decides that it would be immoral. In New Orleans, Amos, Jr., becomes seriously ill and asks Henson to take him home. When the two return to Kentucky, Henson concludes that the Riley brothers' theft of his money and attempt to sell him have voided his obligations to them, and with his wife and four children, he runs away, crossing the Ohio River in a skiff. Following a difficult journey on foot to Sandusky, Ohio, and then by water to Buffalo, New York, the family crosses to Canada on October 28, 1830. After four years of working for a farmer for shares and wages, Henson pools his earnings with those of other fugitive slaves in order to invest in land. In 1838, Henson and Hiram Wilson call a convention in order to establish a manual labor and grammar school, the British-American Institute, to "train up those who would afterwards instruct others" in order that the community might become "independent of the white man for our intellectual progress" (pp. 169-70). The Institute opens in 1842 as part of the Dawn Settlement for fugitive slaves, located between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. The original version of Henson's autobiography ends with the establishment of the Dawn Settlement and the Henson family's relocation there.

Newly divided into chapters, eight of which focus on events that do not appear in the 1849 and 1852 editions, the 1858 version of Henson's narrative also includes more detail and dialogue, turning figures like Isaac Riley into more developed characters. The 1858 version also includes full names of all the people who figure in the autobiography, whereas the original version had used abbreviations. The excerpts below demonstrate the scope of this expansion in some scenes. (Many parts of the narrative, on the other hand, are reprinted without alteration.)

From the 1849 version:
On one of these occasions, my master got into a quarrel with his brother's overseer, who was one of the party, and in rescuing the former, I suppose I was a little more rough with the latter than usual. I remember his falling upon the floor, and very likely it was from the effects of a push from me, or a movement of my elbow. He attributed his fall to me, rather than to the whiskey he had drunk, and treasured up his vengeance for the first favorable opportunity.

From the 1858 version:
On one of these occasions my master got into a quarrel with his brother's overseer, Bryce Litton. All present sided with Litton against him, and soon there was a general row. I was sitting, at the time, out on the front steps of the tavern, and, hearing the scuffle, rushed in to look after my charge. My master, a stout man and a terrible bruiser, could generally hold his own in an ordinary general fight, and clear a handsome space around him; but now he was cornered, and a dozen were striking at him with fists, crockery, chairs, and anything that came handy. The moment he saw me he hallooed, "That's it, Sie! pitch in! show me fair play." It was a rough business, and I went in roughly, shoving, tripping, and doing my best for the rescue. With infinite trouble, and many a bruise on my own head and shoulders, I at length got him out of the room. He was crazy with drink and rage, and struggled hard with me to get back and renew the fight. But I managed to force him into his wagon, jump in, and drive off.

By ill-luck, in the height of the scuffle, Bryce Litton got a severe fall. Whether the whisky he had drank, or a chance shove from me, was the cause, I am unable to say. He, however, attributed it to me, and treasured up his vengeance for the first favorable opportunity.

The 1858 narrative adds accounts of two trips Henson makes into Kentucky after his escape, in order to accompany fugitive slaves to Canada. It recounts Henson's several trips to England prior to 1858 and his participation as an exhibitor at the World's Fair in London. The narrative describes the projects of the Dawn Settlement, including its Manual Labor School and its lumbering and sawmill operation, which had been only briefly mentioned in the 1849 edition. Henson presents himself as an extremely talented leader and fund raiser without whom the settlement would have failed. Several additional versions followed this 1858 edition, each retaining most of the language of the 1858 edition but adding the most recent events in Henson's life. New versions appeared in England in 1876, 1877, and 1890, in the United States in 1879, and in Canada in 1881. The autobiography was also translated into Swedish, Dutch, Norwegian, and reportedly into other languages as well.

Works Consulted: Doyle, Sister Mary Ellen, "Josiah Henson's Narrative: Before and After," Negro American Literature Forum 8.1 (Spring 1974): 176-182; "Mrs. Stowe's 'Uncle Tom,'" Daily Globe (St. Paul, Minnesota), May 11, 1883, p. 3, available from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, (accessed July 16, 2010); Ontario Heritage Trust, Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, (accessed July 16, 2010); Pease, William H. and Jane H., "Josiah Henson," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, (accessed August 23, 2010); 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," African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., vol. 4, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008; Williamson, Jenn, Summary of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, available from Documenting the American South, (accessed July 10, 2010); Winks, Robin W., Introduction to An Autobiography of the Reverend Josiah Henson, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1969; Winks, Robin W., The Blacks in Canada: A History, Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 1997.

Erin Bartels

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