Josiah Henson (1789-1883)
The Life of Josiah Henson
Josiah Henson is best known for having inspired aspects of the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Born into slavery in Maryland in 1789, Henson ran away with his wife and children from their Kentucky owner to Upper Canada in 1830. He established himself there as a farmer, preacher, and community leader.
Together with other fugitives, he founded a black settlement in a colony called Dawn Townships near Dresden to facilitate black economic independence through yeoman farming and education. He also founded a manual labour school there, called the British American Institute of Science and Industry. Henson published his first autobiography to great acclaim in 1849. Two years later he travelled to the United States and Britain to seek donations to support the colony.
He made a second journey to Britain in 1876 to alert audiences to the ongoing struggles of former slaves, and capitalised on his international popularity by updating his autobiography with subsequent editions.
The Narrative of Josiah Henson
His autobiography was first published in 1849 as The Life of Josiah Henson, and was later released under other titles including Uncle Tom’s Story in 1876. As one of the earliest transborder slave narratives, it tells his life story as a tale of salvation and gives valuable evidence of the social, economic, and political struggles that African Canadians faced in their new environment.
Henson models his character after Moses and St Paul from the Bible, connecting his personal experiences to those of the black community. Arguing that it was the duty of all Black Canadians to help others out of slavery in the United States, he tells how he led not only his own family but also other Kentucky slaves to freedom in Canada. He also charts the development of Dawn Townships and explains his motivation to play a leading role in it.
Observing the steady growth of Upper Canada’s black community, he says that most of the former American slaves did not have such aspirations for long-term stability and instead sought short-term economic gain. But he points out that the black settlers increasingly faced a struggle against white racism, including the refusal of white schools in Upper Canada to teach black children.
To prove that African Americans could pursue a path to success in Canada, Henson fashioned himself as self-made man who rose from American slave to Canadian yeoman farmer and earned his freedom through a Protestant work ethic. He describes how he built his followers’ economic, intellectual and spiritual independence by teaching them agriculture and entrepreneurship, and promoting Bible study. His story connects Christian values to the secular discourse of economic success through hard work. This made him a sympathetic narrator and mitigated the threat that black male resistance to slavery represented in the eyes of North American and British white readers.
Sources and Further Reading
Henson published four versions of his narrative during his lifetime:
- The Narrative of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now and Inhabitant of Canada, Narrated by Himself (1849)
- Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life (1858)
- 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 (1876)
- An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (“Uncle Tom”), from 1789 to 1881 (1881)
The last two editions cover all of his chapters about Henson’s life in Canada. Scholarly editions of the two versions are these:
- Henson, Josiah. “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. 1876. Ed. John Lobb. 2nd ed. London: Cass, 1971.
- Henson, Josiah. An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson. 1881. Introd. Robin W. Winks. 2nd ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969.
Online editions accessible for free are these:
- Henson, Josiah. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849. Available at: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/henson49/henson49.html
Selected Research Literature
- Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of African American Autobiography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
- MacLean, Alyssa Erin. Canadian Migrations: Reading Canada in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Phil. Diss., University of British Columbia, 2010. Vancouver: UBC Theses and Dissertations Collection, University of British Columbia, 2011. MacLean_Diss
- Murray, Hannah-Rose. Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
- Otele, Olivette. “Resisting Imperial Governance in Canada: From Trade and Religious Kinship to Black Narrative Pedagogy in Ontario.” The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond, ed. Boulou Ebanda de b’Béri, Nina Reid-Maroney, and Handel Kashope Wright. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. 131-148.
- Siemerling, Winfried. The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2015.
- Winks, Robin W. “Introduction: Josiah Henson and Uncle Tom.” An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson by Josiah Henson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969. v-xxxiv.
Online Sources and Links
- “Josiah Henson.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 June 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Josiah-Henson
- Pease, William H., and Jane H. Pease. “Henson, Josiah.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 11. Toronto: University of Toronto / Université Laval, 2003. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/henson_josiah_11E.html
Speeches and Journalism:
- In 1851, Henson gave a speech that praised the education offered in England to people of African descent, and emphasized the work of the Sunday School Union there. https://libraries.udmercy.edu/archives/special-collections/index.php?collectionCode=baa&record_id=363
General Interest and Educational Sources:
- Documentary on Maryland Public Television, Redeeming Uncle Tom: The Josiah Henson Story, 2019. https://www.mpt.org/stationrelations/redeeming-uncle-tom/