“It was the 28th of October, 1830, in the morning,
when my feet first touched the Canada shore.
I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand,
seized handfuls of it and kissed them...."
– Rev. Josiah Henson
England abolished slavery across most of its empire in 1833, but British North America, particularly what is now Southwestern Ontario, was already a haven for those seeking freedom.
One of them was a man named Josiah Henson, who arrived at Fort Erie from Buffalo with his wife Nancy and four children Oct. 28, 1830. No one could possibly have known it, but that family's flight to the land of the Northern Star – Upper Canada – would have far-reaching consequences on both sides of the border.
Although a preacher, Henson could neither read nor write, but he lost little time in learning. In 1849, he published his autobiography: “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.”
It's a fascinating – and at times utterly horrifying – look at his life, both as a slave and a free man. He detailed the almost unbelievable cruelty of the “peculiar institution”, as it was known in the South, as well as how he went about starting the Dawn Settlement in Kent County, Ontario, for others like himself.
An abolitionist named Harriet Beecher Stowe read the book, and used thinly disguised elements of it in “Uncle Tom's Cabin”, published in 1852. That book created a furore in both the Northern and Southern states when it was published, and helped light the fuse that would ignite the Civil War.
Meanwhile, Henson was active in the Underground Railway, personally guiding as many as 100 escaping slaves to freedom. Some joined the growing settlement at Dawn, with its dream of self-sufficiency. Others went to Buxton, Puce, Colchester, Amherstburg.
But he did more than that. When the Rebellions of 1837 – backed by American interests – erupted in Upper and Lower Canada (present day Ontario and Quebec), Henson captained the men of the 2nd Essex Company of Coloured Volunteers. Among other things, they helped defend Fort Malden (Amherstburg) for six months, repelling three assaults and, in January 1838, capturing a grounded rebel schooner by wading through the ice-filled, chest-high waters of the Detroit River.
He would later state: “The coloured men were willing to help defend the government that had given them a home when they had fled from slavery.”
Furthermore, he set up sawmills and a woodworking business, which helped support the community, taught farming techniques to those who didn't know them, and established the British-American Institute, one of the first trade schools in the country.
Josiah Henson died in 1883 at 93, but his legacy remains in the five-acre site near his original homestead. The house he built has been restored to its original state, and other historic buildings have been added, along with an interpretative centre and museum.
The site is a testament to one man's unquenchable spirit, the freedom he sought – and found – in his adopted country … and the horrors that he overcame.
* * *
It was a beautiful July afternoon, but The Redhead and I left the museum under a pall.
The barbarous artefacts of slavery – shackles, whips, spiked iron collars, proclamations, photos – had by turns enraged, saddened and tormented us. Most of all, we were ashamed of our race.
As we strolled around the grounds, we saw a middle-aged African-American couple; I couldn't look them in the eye.
They must have noticed me taking pictures though, because soon after, as we were inspecting the tiny British Methodist Episcopal church, they came in and asked if I'd mind taking a portrait of them, standing either side of the lectern, with their camera. I was happy to oblige.
Then we chatted for awhile. They were from Florida, visiting relatives in Michigan, and on a pilgrimage to the Canadian terminals of the Underground Railway – Dresden, Buxton, Puce, Fort Malden, Windsor.
Athough they couldn't possibly relieve us of the shame, in that moment they gave, if not absolution, then at least the recognition that what was once, is not now.
Despite the abominations that they too had just witnessed in the museum, they had the generosity of spirit not to despise us for our white faces. Under similar circumstances, I wonder if I could have mustered such grace. We parted with handshakes and a smile.
And the pall lifted just a bit.
Routes of the Underground Railway
Effigies of Nancy and Josiah Henson
Down the generations: Military grave marker
for Pvt. William Isaac Jacob Beecher Stowe Henson, who served
in the Canadian Forestry Corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force 1917-18
All photos taken at the Uncle Tom's Cabin historic site, Dresden, Ontario.