JANUARY 28, 2011 11:03AM

Meet The Real-Life 'Uncle Tom'

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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.

 

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Bust of Rev. Josiah Henson
 
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Henson house -- the real "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

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Routes of the Underground Railway

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Effigies of Nancy and Josiah Henson

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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.

References:

The Dawn Settlement

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Fighting the rebels in Upper Canada

Excerpts from Josiah Henson's Book

Wm. Beecher Henson's Attestation Papers

Peculiar Institution

 

 

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Comments

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I don't care what Maryland says, this is where the legend was born.
thank you for this wonderful trip through time....I'm a fan
Wow . . . thank you so much for posting this! It is a story that deserves wider recognition, certainly.
I have been waiting for this.
This was absolutely fabulous.. I hope it makes cover.
SO WELL DONE..
HIGH FIVE and all that.
rated with hugs
Thanks for this, Bo. I think we'll have to make a trip there to see the real "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

As I'm sure you know Harriet Tubman, one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad, made her home for a decade. It has taken a while but her church is finally being upgraded and a bust of Tubman was added this past Sept.

The inscription reads: "I wouldn't trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer. I brought them all clear off to Canada".
my comment should have read,"made her home here." anyways, your arrows on the map point to it. ;)
Wonderful essay on a character that I knew nothing about. Interesting that Stowe plagurzed Henson's book in the writing of her own.
As for being ashamed of my race because of the barbaric actions of people who lived a long time ago, I personally don't feel that way. Slavery was wrong and it was cruel...that's a no-brainer...but the world has changed, thank God and I can only feel guilty or feel shame for things I have done in my own life.

Thanks, Bo for yet another well written essay that has taught me a bit of history, and about a historic figure I knew nothing about. This deserves an EP.
This is an incredible post, Boanerges...thank you...xox
stowe's house is about 10 miles from my home ... your post adds light to the distance a man, woman and child would go for freedom. this post is an EP and cover ...
Outstanding work here, bravo to you.

The continuation of the Story is how the Southern outrage over Stowe's work spawned The Leopard's Spots; how the stereotypical Dixon's evil and horrible whitewashing lies became Birth of a Nation and the genesis of cross burning, with President Wilson's implicit support, resulting in the complete nadir of race relations.

rated
What a remarkable man. American's like to think we're the land of the free but Canada walked the walk when we were just talking the talk.

I has similar feelings upon visiting the Anne Frank Haus in Amsterdam last fall. It's just amazing what we humans are capable of, on both sides of the pendulum.
Americans didn't need that apostrophe... just so you know I know. ;-)
Thanks, Elijah, and right back at ya.

Owl, it's good to see you. Yeah, the Henson/Stowe/Uncle Tom connection, and how it came about, should be taught somewhere.

Linda, it's down to you for suggesting this. Glad it lived up to your expectations. Maybe next time, I'll take a trip to Buxton and write about that. Or maybe covering Nelson Mandela's visit to Detroit.

SS, Harriet Tubman is another hero of the Underground Railway whose story should be told over and over. Glad they're doing that with the church. And what an appropriate quote.

Thanks for the kind thoughts, Torman. As to the plagiarism, Henson was actually quite proud of what Stowe did with his story. The last update of his autobiography was titled "Uncle Tom's Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson", published in 1876.
Thanks, Rockin' Robin.

Chuck, it's unimaginable to me what these people went through to get here. Is Stowe's home a museum now?

You make a good point, Oahusurfer. The tribulations and transgressions didn't end with the Emancipation Proclamation, that's for sure.

One of the factoids I didn't include in this, Cappy, was that the reason Upper Canada became a haven was because Gov. John Graves Simcoe had abolished the importation of slaves into the province in 1793. There's a lot more to that complicated story, but what it meant was that any slave who made it here was free.

And I can certainly understand that the Anne Frank haus would produce similar reactions.
I would like to be able to go back in time~~~~.
I'd have been one of those arrested or killed for helping these people.
Still would have.
Nice read, Boans.
Great history, wonderful lesson. Thank you for posting this!
Thanks for this. I didn't know about Josiah Henson, but there's a link, of sorts, between his story and my hometown. In Kansas City, Kansas, a few miles from where I live, there was a settlement called Quindaro, which was a port of entry to free territory and an important link on the Underground Railroad. I'm not sure how many escaped slaves coming north through Quindaro made it to Canada but it seems very likely that some did.
XJS, I'd like to think I'd have had the courage to do so. I already know you would have.

You're welcome, Doug, and thanks for commenting.

Didn't know that happened in Kansas too, Nana. Sounds like material for an interesting post. (Yes, that's an unsubtle hint.) I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some of those fleeing through Quindaro made their way here.
Very well done and informative. I did not know half of what you presented here, what they pass off as history in the United States is sometimes a far cry from reality. Thank you, older/exasperated R******
Great minds think alike; I was just now considering doing a post about the role Kansas played in the abolitionist movement. They called it Bleeding Kansas in those days, and it was a central front for the political and cultural conflicts that led to the Civil War.
EP EP... this should be an EP..
Fascinating, Boaner. I'd had no idea.
Really well-presented history of a man I wasn't aware of specifically. And I love your coda. Mixed emotions in layered veils, with basic humanity peeking through. (r)
O/E, they don't do much about teaching it up here, either. Thanks, pal. Best to M.

Nana, I remember the expression "Bleeding Kansas", but not the specific context. I really do hope you post on it.

Thanks again, Linda.

And thank you too, Matt. There's so much that goes unsaid....

Dirndl, I thought long and hard before I put the coda in because it was such a personal, visceral reaction to unbelievable ugliness. It was an unforgettable day.
This was a great and educational post that should have been an EP/Cover. I would give you mine, nowhere this good, but you'll have settle for a ScannerPick!
Henson is heroic, indeed, and your postcript strikes just the right note--it is a matter of grace, isn't it. I teach several slave narratives--Oloudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Anne Jacobs, and snatches of others--and students are uniformly appalled, can't believe such violence, such heinous conditions existed. Has history ceased being taught. Your piece is exactly the kind of historical remediation that's needed. Fine post--enlightening.
I just wanted to let you know I read your post and thought it was very good your wife mentioned it this morning. My husbands leaves a lot to be desired and yes I have his password. Take care, Michelle
Thank you, ScanMan. I'll take that any day.

Jerry, feel free to use this, if you want to. If there's any more info I can provide from up here about the African-American settlements in this region and the Underground Railway, please let me know.

Whoa, Michelle. It's kind of you to say that. Didn't realize the other Redhead had mentioned it to you. Does O/E know you have his password?
Yes I know she reads posts all the time. I just got back from the bar and noticed. She didn't comment on mine she must like you or she's pissed at me. I'm gonna hold off asking her though. Talk later......s
I rarely enjoyed history lessons at school,but these sorts of stories of real people and their struggles are fascinating. Sad, but lessons learned hopefully.

I remember the TV series entitled 'Roots' which exposed the horror of slavery. Thankfully we've come a long way since then, but there is still much to put right between races.
I so enjoyed this story, and would like to hear more like it. At this time in history when life is so difficult, it's good to remember those who faced greater odds and didn't give up, and triumphed. Thank you very much.
O/E, a wise idea.

Thanks, Linda. I remember Roots as well. Horrifying. What's more horrifying to me, at least, is that Apartheid only ended 20 years ago.

You're welcome, Latethink. They were truly courageous people, those who fled the tyranny and came here. I'm proud to live among their descendants.
Awesome ! Text and photos. I didn't know the legend's real birthplace. Shame on me ! Thank you for this - hope it does make the front page.
Sublime! This is the best start to Black History Month that I've ever seen here.

Triple Zumapick. I am tempted to flag this and demand to know why it was not an EP
No need to be ashamed at not knowing, Fusun -- hardly anyone does outside of this pocket of SouWestO. I only found out about it because I wrote a story more than 40 years ago about some kind of event there (I'm old -- the details escape me).

Xenon, your comments mean more to me than I can possibly say. I'll be writing more in Februrary -- about covering Nelson Mandela's visit to Detroit in 1990 -- and in the spring, when the museum reopens, I'm going to Buxton to research the story of the Elgin Settlement.
You always bring to light the worst and the best of us. It is no accident you were asked to take their photo...they know quality when they see it.

Sorry I missed this earlier. Be well you two.
What a treat you have given us by sharing your experience and your knowledge of this part of our history we would like to forget.
rated with love
Thanks for saying that, Buffy. We are both well, thanks very much. Trust you are as well. We've missed you on here.
RP, I certainly don't want to suggest that life was all that easy for the fugitives up here, either. There was -- and continues to be, in some pockets -- discrimination and distrust.
So much I never knew. Those of us who are descendants of oppressors, racists and bullies do feel a sense that we have a lot to atone for...and of course we cannot. We can only try by living a life where those concepts are absent and by actively speaking out when we see prejudice. (I just posted a recommendation on another blog of this book -- Gene Cheek's "The Color of Love" -- I think you'd like it.)
BV, I agree with you. It's interesting to note that Amherstburg, so ably defended by Henson and his soldiers in 1837-38, has had an African-Canadian mayor for years. He's an interesting guy, too.
this is a wonderful story!!
>>>England abolished slavery across most of its empire in 1833
I didn't know any of this either...and I did spend some time in Windsor and Leamington years and years ago. I guess history wasn't on my mind then, but I'm glad to learn this now!