The Life of Josiah Henson


In 1849, Maryland citizens could purchase a newly-published book whose origins began in their own state. Entitled The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, this volume recounted Henson’s life, including his childhood as an enslaved individual in Charles County. In and of itself, the publication of slave narratives—personal accounts of life in bondage—was not an unusual occurrence during the antebellum period. What makes this volume stand out is that it served as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The second most translated book ever published (after the Bible), Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped galvanize the abolitionist movement in the United States (Robbins 2019).

Even without the Stowe connection, Henson (Figure 1) was an interesting man in his own right. While Henson stated his birth date as 1789, he may have actually been born closer to 1798 on a plantation known as “La Grange”. Subjected as a child to multiple acts of cruelty and violence, Henson eventually ended up in present-day Rockville, Maryland, where he became an overseer for Isaac Riley. Escaping enslavement with his family in 1830, Henson relocated to Canada and helped to found the British American Institute of Science and Industry and the Dawn Settlement, a community for former slaves. Henson became active in the Underground Railroad, serving as a conductor, as well as speaking extensively about his experiences as a way to raise money for refugee slaves. He also became a Methodist minister. Before his death in 1883, Henson had visited Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle and been the guest of President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House (Brock 2018).

Henson has sparked a great deal of intellectual curiosity over the years and recently this interest has taken an archaeological turn. In 2009, archaeologists working for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Montgomery Parks began archaeological exploration at the Josiah Henson Site (18MO653). One of the goals of the project was to discover archaeological traces that could be dated to the period that Henson and another twenty enslaved individuals lived at this site. This multi-year project was featured in 2014 on an episode of the archaeological reality show Time Team America. A museum dedicated to the community enslaved at Riley’s plantation will open in late 2020 at the Josiah Henson Park.

Figure 2. Copper alloy pie crimper from the Josiah Henson Birthplace site.

In 2016, a group of archaeologists from St. Mary’s College of Maryland did work at a property known today as La Grange (18CH928) near Port Tobacco, where Henson was born (Webster et al., 2017). It was during testing of a trash midden area between the house and the quarter that a small copper alloy artifact was discovered. It was originally part of a kitchen tool known as a pastry wheel or pie crimper, used for cutting and trimming pie dough (Figure 2). The small wheel would have originally been set in a handle that allowed it to rotate freely (Figure 3). Although dating to the same period as Henson’s life at La Grange, it is unlikely that he ever used or even saw this object. Cooking was considered women’s work and the plantation kitchen would have been located near the main house and in an area probably off-limits to children.

Figure 3. Early 19th-century brass pastry wheel from a private collection. Length: 4″.

References
Brock, Jared. 2018. The Story of Josiah Henson, the Real Inspiration for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. Smithsonian. Website accessed October 28, 2019 at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-josiah-henson-real-inspiration-uncle-toms-cabin-180969094/.


Henson, Josiah. 1849. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Arthur D. Phelps, Boston.


Robbins, Hollis. 2019. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Matter of Influence. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Website accessed October 28, 2019 at https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/essays/uncle-tom%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%84%A2s-cabin-and-matter-influence


Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. John J. Jewett & Co., Boston.

Acknowledgments:  The author would like to thank Cassandra Michaud of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Montgomery Parks for providing information about the excavations at the Josiah Henson Park.

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