Today marks the 160th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential books in American History: Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Harriet Beecher was born June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut to notable religious parents of a fiercely evangelical Protestant stripe. Harriet was one of nine children born to Lyman and Roxana Foote Beecher. Harriet was only five years old when her mother died and had two younger siblings and six older siblings when her mother died in 1816. The next year Lyman married Harriet Porter and together they produced an additional four children.
Harriet Beecher was educated at the Harford Female Seminary, founded by her sister, Catharine Beecher, in 1823. In 1832, at the age of 21, she and Catharine joined their father in his move to Cincinnati. Catharine again started her own female seminary while Harriet taught alongside her father at Lane.
While in Cincinnati, Harriet joined a literary society; the Semi-Colon Club. It was here she met Biblical scholar, Calvin Ellis Stowe and his wife, Lydia Tyler Stowe. Lydia died in the summer of 1834 and in January, 1936 the childless widower wed Harriet Beecher and together they had seven children.
Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Cincinnati until 1850 and while there became aware of the strong abolitionist movement in Ohio, particularly in Cincinnati, and interviewed numerous escaped slaves. In 1833, when Cincinnati was in the grip of a Cholera epidemic, Harriet was sent to stay with the Marshall Key Family, whose daughter, Elizabeth, was a student at the Lane Seminary, in Washington, Kentucky. It was Mr. Key, a nephew of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, who took Harriet to witness a slave auction on the Courthouse lawn in nearby Maysville, Kentucky; an experience that left a deep impression on Harriet.
Harriet had just moved to Brunswick, Maine where her husband had taken a position at Bowdoin College when she was outraged by the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which required Free states return escaped slaves to bondage, by force, if necessary. Assisting an escaped slave became a crime punishable with up to six months in prison and $1,000 fine. People of color could be seized on the sworn oath of any claimant and the enslaved person was not entitled to judicial process.
As she sat down to write what would become one of the most influential works of fiction in human history, Harriet Beecher Stowe was also influence by a man, Josiah Henson, author of the 1849 book, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.
Josiah Henson was born in 1789 in Charles County, Maryland near the town of Port Tobacco, the same area where my first American Hamilton ancestor, James Alexander Hamilton of Scotland settled as a Plantation owner back in the 17th Century.
Josiah Henson’s mother and father were owned by different owners but his mother was leased to the same Plantation where his father was held. One of Henson’s earliest memories is of his father beaten and with one ear sliced off after his father had stood up to an Overseer who had committed a “brutal assault” on Josiah’s mother. Josiah remembers that after this beating his father, “became a different man, and was so morose and disobedient.” Soon after his father’s owner sold him to a relative in Alabama and his mother ceased working at that Plantation.
The next couple of years are recalled as sort of a golden time by Henson as he and his mother lived in the household of her owner, a physician who treated Henson as a “pet.” This interlude ended when Josiah was five years old and his owner died after drunkenly falling off his horse and drowning in a shallow stream and Josiah was sold at public auction.
He remembers, “My brothers and sisters were bid off one by one, while my mother, holding my hand, looked on in an agony of grief, the cause of which but ill understood at first, but which dawned on my mind, with dreadful clearness, as the sale proceeded. My mother was then separated from me, and put up in her turn. She was bought by a man named Isaac R., residing in Montgomery county, and then I was offered to the assembled purchasers. My mother, half distracted with the parting forever from all her children, pushed through the crowd, while the bidding for me was going on, to the spot where R. was standing. She fell at his feet, and clung to his knees, entreating him in tones that a mother only could command, to buy her baby as well as herself, and spare to her one of her little ones at least. Will it, can it be believed that this man, thus appealed to, was capable not merely of turning a deaf ear to her supplication, but of disengaging himself from her with such violent blows and kicks, as to reduce her to the necessity of creeping out of his reach, and mingling the groan of bodily suffering with the sob of a breaking heart?
Josiah was purchased by a local Tavern Keeper who, in turn, sold him to Isaac Riley, the man who had purchased his mother after Josiah fell ill.
Josiah Henson describes Isaac Riley as, “Coarse and vulgar in his habits, unprincipled and cruel in his general deportment, and especially addicted to the vice of licentiousness, his slaves had little opportunity for relaxation from wearying labor, were supplied with the scantiest means of sustaining their toil by necessary food, and had no security for personal rights. The natural tendency of slavery is, to convert the master into a tyrant, and the slave into the cringing, treacherous, false, and thieving victim of tyranny. R. and his slaves were no exception to the general rule, but might be cited as apt illustrations of the nature of the case.”
Josiah Henson became a trusted slave on Isaac Riley’s Plantation, being naturally ambitious, until he was made superintendent of the family’s farming operations.
In 1825, Isaac Riley had married a young woman of eighteen, a fraction of Mr. Riley’s age, who proved to be a harsh mistress. At the same time, Isaac Riley had become involved in several legal disputes and was afraid the Sheriff would seize his slaves and sell them to settle his debts so he sent Josiah and his family, a wife and two children, along with 18 fellow slaves, to his brother Amos Riley’s Plantation in Yellow Banks, Kentucky, which by then had changed its name to Owensborough before settling on the name my hometown is now known by, Owensboro.
When Josiah Henson and his party reached Ohio “we were frequently told that we were free, if we chose to be so. At Cincinnati, especially, the colored people gathered round us, and urged us with much importunity to remain with them; told us it was folly to go on; and in short used all the arguments now so familiar to induce slaves to quit their masters.”
Josiah Henson had longed dreamed of freedom but freedom with what he perceived as “honor” in that he intended to purchase his freedom and had saved forty dollars toward that goal.
“I have often had painful doubts as to the propriety of my carrying so many other individuals into slavery again,” Henson later recalled, “and my consoling reflection has been, that I acted as I thought at the time was best.”
Josiah Henson arrived in Daviess County, Kentucky with his human cargo in April, 1825. He found the Plantation of Amos Riley, situated five miles south of the Ohio River and extending all the way to the water, to be, “in many respects more comfortable than that I had left. The farm was larger, and more fertile, and there was a greater abundance of food, which is, of course, one of the principal sources of the comfort of a slave, debarred, as he is, from so many enjoyments which other men can obtain.”
Although Isaac Riley had stated he and his bride would be relocating to Kentucky soon, Josiah spent the next three years working for Amos Riley with no Isaac in sight. By 1828, Isaac Riley announced that he could not persuade his wife to move to Kentucky and for Amos to sell all of the slaves belonging to Isaac except for Josiah and his family and this was done.
During this time Josiah met a local Methodist Minister who took a great interest in Josiah, who had already learned something of the Christian faith from his mother who had taught him the Lord’s Prayer, and soon Josiah became a lay preacher. A trip to the Methodist Conference in Ohio earned him more money to the point where he had a fine suit of clothes, a good horse and $350 in his pocket. He now wrangled a pass from Amos to return to Maryland to negotiate for his freedom.
Arriving in Maryland, Josiah Henson met up with a man who helped him negotiate with Isaac Riley who agreed to sell Josiah his manumission papers for $350 in cash and a $100 note to be worked off by Josiah. Josiah agreed to these terms.
Returning to Kentucky, Josiah found his owner now claimed he owed a thousand dollars for his freedom. He continued to work for Amos for another year before Amos began telling him that Isaac was demanding his money. Soon after that, Amos Riley ordered Josiah to accompany Riley’s 21-year-old son, Amos, Jr., to New Orleans to sell some goods, among them, Josiah himself. It was only through providence in the form of “river fever” striking Amos, Jr., that Josiah escaped his fate.
Josiah accompanied the gravely ill younger Amos back to Kentucky where the Riley family was astounded by his return, Rather than expressing any gratitude for Josiah’s care of Amos, Jr., they instead talked about how Josiah’s actions made him a more valuable commodity. Josiah vowed to escape and escape he did, in 1830, taking his wife and children with him, to Ontario, Canada where he served in the Canadian military, purchased 200 acres of land, founded a utopian Black settlement called Dawn of Tomorrow in the town of Dawn and dictated his autobiography.
Harriet Beecher Stowe began Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1850, work-shopping it among the students and faculty at Bowdoin. The first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared June 5, 1851 in the National Era magazine to be followed by 39 more installments. The serial proved so popular that it was published in books form on March 20, 1852.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved immensely popular, selling over a half a million copies of the first printing in the United States in Britain. Josiah Henson republished his memoirs with a forward by Harriet Beecher Stowe. His renewed popularity led to a speaking tour where he met many heads of State. He died in the settlement of Dawn on May 5, 1883, at the age of 93. The settlement of Dawn, near Dresden, Ontario, became the five acre Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site complete with interactive exhibits. There is also a cabin, though not a slave cabin, from the Isaac Riley house in Maryland set to open to the public this year and a Historical Marker on Highway 60 commemorating the spot where Amos Riley’s Plantation once stood on Highway 60 in Owensboro, Kentucky. In 1983 he became the first Black person to be featured on a Canadian stamp.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was also honored on a postage stamp, in 2007, when the United States Postal service included her in their special seventy-five cent “Distinguished Americans” series. There are also several houses where she lived; in Cincinnati, in Florida, in Maine, in Connecticut, that are kept as shrines to her memory. Harriet Beecher Stowe died July 1, 1896 having spent the last twenty years of her life as Mark Twain’s next door neighbor.
No history exists of whatever fate befell those eighteen souls that Josiah Henson could have liberated back in 1825 when he was traveling through Ohio on his way to Kentucky where, “I had a sentiment of honor on the subject, or what I thought such, which I would not have violated even for freedom.”