Josiah Henson: A Real-Life Uncle Tom

Published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was tremendously influential among the American public in the years leading up to the Civil War. The novel’s descriptions of slavery fueled abolitionist sentiment among the American public. Her novel, however, was not pure fiction—it was inspired in part by the life of former slave Josiah Henson.

Born in Charles County Maryland on June 15, 1789, Henson early on had to undergo the trauma of sale.[1] When he was around five or six years old, he was nearly separated from his mother when they were bought by two different men, but because he was distraught and fell sick was sold at a low price to his mother’s new master, a man he refers to as Isaac R. After over twenty years of service for him in Montgomery County, Maryland, financial troubles dictated that Mr. R. have Henson take most of his slaves down to his brother Amos R. in Daviess County, Kentucky. Henson anticipated that they would later be joined by his master, but instead worked three years for Amos with no appearance by Isaac.

Portrait of Josiah Henson sitting next to an unidentified Caucasian man, both facing slightly left. Bradshaw and Godart, photograph, Library of Congress

At this point in the story, Henson’s narrative points to issues of manumission during the antebellum period. By the early to mid-nineteenth century, manumission was rare in the South, requiring legislative approval in the Lower South and with strict rules in the Upper South.[2] Henson, in 1828, got a pass from Amos to go see his real master in Maryland. Unbeknownst to Amos, this was the beginning of an attempt by Henson to buy his own freedom.[3] Eventually, with the help of his mistress’s brother, Henson was able to buy his freedom for $450, and received his manumission papers on March 9, 1829. However, his master was not about to let him go without a fight.

Henson left to return to Kentucky, as his pass allowed (and, likely, as law required, because it was common in Upper South states like Maryland that a manumitted slave had to leave the state).[4] However, Isaac insisted that the manumission papers be sealed and addressed to Amos, expressing to Henson his concern by saying, “You may meet with some ruffian slave-purchaser who will rob you of that piece of paper, and destroy it.”[5] Upon returning to Kentucky, Henson learned that his master had in fact upped the price—Isaac mailed a letter to Amos saying that Henson needed to pay $650 more to purchase his freedom. Unable to make money from Amos’ plantation, Henson seemed to still be trapped after all of his effort.

After this debacle, Henson began to realize that escape may be his only way out of bondage. After an attempt to take him down to New Orleans to be sold failed in early 1830, Henson gathered his wife and children and began their escape.[6] They travelled at night with no assistance until they reached Cincinnati, and from there travelled to Sandusky. From there a boat captain took the family to Buffalo, and from Buffalo they were ferried across the Niagara River to Canada in October, 1830. Though Henson and family did not pass through any of the more “traditional” stops of the Underground Railroad (Philadelphia, New York City, Boston) they were able to find those in free states who sympathized with and assisted fugitive slaves.[7]

One of the more powerful aspects of Josiah Henson’s narrative are his descriptions of the sale of slaves and separations of families that came as a result. The first instance of this occurred when he was only a few years old and his father was sold south to Alabama, a common theme during the antebellum period. Then Henson describes the trauma that occurred a few years later when his master died and the slaves were sold off. His mother, after being purchased by Isaac R., kicked and pleaded for him to buy Henson, but the man would not yield at the time, or even pay her attention.

He next describes it when Isaac R. must sell almost all of his slave except for Henson and his family. Although Henson is not directly personally involved this time, his description is perhaps stronger. “Husbands and wives, parents and children were to be separated forever. Affections, which are as strong in the African as in the European were to be cruelly disregarded; and the iron selfishness generated by the hateful ‘institution’ was to be exhibited in its most odious and naked deformity,” he said.[8]

All of this highlights how central fear of separation and sale South were to the lives of slaves during this time. As Peter Kolchin puts in in his book American Slavery, “The ultimate and most dreaded form of interference in slave family life was the forced separation of family members.”[9] Henson’s narrative shows the complexity of situations like these for masters and slaves. Isaac R.’s attempt to keep the slaves together by sending them to his brother shows that some masters would make efforts to keep families from separating, but his later command to sell them demonstrates that if it came down to slave families or personal well-being, the master’s personal well-being won every time.[10]

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Cover. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While Henson’s vivid descriptions of his feeling and experiences from life as a slave are important in understanding American slavery, what the narrative inspired is perhaps even more important. His narrative was not published until 1849 and did not gain much attention until after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s confirmation that Henson’s story was one that proved the events in her novel could occur.[11] Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been considered pivotal in gaining the support of the American (mostly northern) support for the war and is even occasionally regarded as a cause of the war.

With inspiration from the lives of Josiah Henson and others, Stowe was able to craft a book that helped lead to the freedom of the enslaved, proving the importance of former slaves like Henson sharing their stories.

[1] Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (Boston: A.D. Phelps, 1849), 1-5. [WEB].

[2] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 89-90.

[3] Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, 28-33.

[4] Kolchin, American Slavery, 90.

[5] Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, 33-34.

[6] Ibid., 47-51.

[7] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2015).

[8] Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, 27-28.

[9] Kolchin, American Slavery, 125.

[10] Ibid., 139.

[11] Jenn Williamson, “Summary” of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, Documenting the American South. [WEB]

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