Josiah Henson endured the hardships and brutalities of Southern slavery until resolving to take his family to Ohio and on to Canada in order to live as free people.
Born in 1789, Josiah Henson spent most of his life in bondage as a slave in the pre-Civil War South. From childhood on, Henson experienced the frequent brutalities of the master-slave relationship. Like Nat Turner, who led the most serious slave uprising of that time in Virginia in August 1831, Henson was a deeply religious man who knew the Bible well. Unlike Turner, Henson refused to use violence – even when given the opportunity to do so, and became the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom.”
Josiah Henson as a Slave
As a young child, Henson experienced the painful separation from most of his immediate family, a typical occurrence in the slave south where black families were frequently separated and sold to different plantation owners. He witnessed the brutal beating and humiliation of his father, someone he would never see again after his father was sold to a plantation owner in the Deep South.
Josiah Henson was highly intelligent and a leader, a characteristic noticed by his master, and was made an overseer, something rarely done in the case of slaves. After defending his master against another white man, Henson was severely beaten by the assailant, suffering from broken shoulders that never truly healed.
As a young man, Henson listened to the sermons of traveling preachers and memorized parts of the scriptures. Eventually, he was ordained a Methodist minister and began to preach himself, earning money he intended to use to buy his freedom and that of his wife and children. His Maryland master, however, had lied to Henson and sent him and his family to a brother’s plantation in Tennessee.
Josiah Henson’s Opportunity to Murder and Flee
Henson became bitter. Ordered to accompany the new master’s son to New Orleans, Henson was certain that he was destined to be sold in the New Orleans slave auctions, never to see his family again. During the voyage on the Mississippi, Henson crept into the son’s room at night with an axe, intending to kill the young man. As he attempted to raise the axe, he was overcome with the horror of his actions and left the room.
Upon arriving in New Orleans, the young man became ill and Henson nursed him back to health. Having concluded his business in the city, the son and Henson returned to Tennessee. By this time, Henson knew that he had to flee the South with his family. Late one night, he took his wife and children and fled toward the shores of the Ohio River. Beyond the river was Ohio, a free state.
Even after reaching Ohio safely, however, Henson realized that they had to make their way to Canada. Although Ohio was a free state, and most inhabitants opposed slavery, there was no guarantee that southern bounty hunters might not find his family and bring them back to Tennessee in chains. Canada was the only truly secure option.
Freedom in Canada for Josiah Henson’s Family
Settling as a free man in Canada, Henson developed a community that assisted other fugitive slaves. He was a preacher and a teacher, creating fine furniture from wood. His exceptional life story became the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in 1852. Stowe’s portrayal of slavery was a pivotal literary argument that helped to further polarize North and South during one of the most significant decades of the 19th century.
Josiah Henson died in 1883. The Civil War had ended 18 years earlier. Ostensibly “free,” southern blacks were re-enslaved by Jim Crow laws and the hated doctrine of “separate but equal.” Henson’s long life, however, was a reminder of perseverance and ultimate delivery.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Harper Classic, 1965)
- Josiah Henson: The Real Uncle Tom (VHS produced by Day of Discovery, RBC Ministries, 2005)
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site