Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Josiah Henson, 1789-1883, John Lobb, 1840-1921, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896
Uncle Tom's Story of His Life. An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom"). From 1789 to 1876. With a Preface by Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, and an Introductory Note by George Sturge, and S. Morley, Esq., M. P.
London: Christian Age Office, 1876.

Summary

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.

This 1876 version of Henson's autobiography is the first of many editions issued by British editor John Lobb. It followed the original 1849 edition and a much-expanded 1858 version, both published in Boston, as well as at least two other lesser-known reprints. Called "almost entirely the work of John Lobb" by historian Robin Winks, this version nevertheless is similar in phrasing to the American edition of 1858, up through the twenty-third chapter (xxiii). Its most significant change is to the title page, which specifies that Henson is the Uncle Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. Lobb made this claim enthusiastically in all his editions of Henson's autobiography, but Stowe herself stressed that her novel was "'not the biography of any one man'" (Winks, Blacks in Canada 193). A preface written by Stowe and first published in the 1858 version is reprinted here.

The basic story of Henson's life in Uncle Tom's Story of His Life 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. 14). 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. Both the 1858 version and this 1876 version include additional chapters about trips to England and trips back into the United States South to help slaves escape.

In addition to the material reprinted from the 1858 version, which the early chapters of this version almost exactly resemble, the 1976 version of Henson's autobiography contains eight new chapters and two appendices, a verbal "sketch" of Harriet Beecher Stowe and an excerpt from a work called "A Lost Continent" by Joseph Cooper discussing the then-ongoing sale of African slaves in Turkey, Egypt, Tunis, Morocco, and Madagascar. Perhaps the most significant of the added chapters is one in which Henson explains his relationship to Harriet Beecher Stowe and the characters in her novel. Henson notes that since the publication of Stowe's A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which she called Henson a "parallel instance" to the fictional character Uncle Tom, he has "been called 'Uncle Tom'" and feels "proud of the title" and proud that his story may have "in any way inspired that gifted lady to write" the novel (p. 158). Henson goes on to give the "real names" of other Stowe characters and says that some were acquaintances of his and some very similar to people he had known while enslaved (p. 158).

The 1876 version also includes an account of Henson's legal battles with an "English gentleman," probably John Scoble, a white man and former secretary of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, who was the official administrative head of the Dawn community from 1852 to 1868 (165). Henson and Scoble increasingly disagreed as the community began to struggle financially, and Scoble sued Henson for payment on a personal loan, which created political rifts that led to the disintegration of the Settlement (Winks, Blacks in Canada 203). Henson adds a short section about his second marriage to a widow from Boston who had been brought up in Baltimore as a free black woman. Another section briefly describes the lives of eight of his children (all from his first marriage), seven of whom are still living in 1876 (pp. 197-99). The autobiography concludes with a report of Henson's third and final trip to England and his speaking engagements there.

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

Document menu