The autobiography of Josiah Henson (1789-1883), an African American slave who escaped to freedom in Canada, was widely read by abolitionists, and he became mistakenly known as the model for Uncle Tom in the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Josiah Henson was born June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Md. As a child, he saw his father beaten and his family sold away. After almost dying of neglect, he was sold to rejoin his mother, a slave of Isaac Riley. Henson grew to be an intelligent, strong worker and was made superintendent of his owner's farm. After conversion at the age of 18, he became a respected preacher. In a quarrel with a white man, he suffered an arm injury that crippled him for life. At the age of 22 he married a slave girl and fathered 12 children.
Henson was so trustworthy that Riley entrusted him with supervising the move of 18 slaves to his brother's farm in Kentucky. Though the group had opportunities to escape, Henson honored his promise and delivered them to Kentucky. After 3 years there he returned to Maryland, having earned enough as a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church to purchase his freedom. However, Riley raised the price beyond Henson's reach, then sent him to New Orleans to be sold away from his family. The owner's son decided not to sell Henson, however, and returned him to Kentucky.
In 1830 Henson fled with his wife and four children to Canada. Working as a farmer, first for hire and then on land owned jointly by a group of escaped slaves, he adjusted quickly to freedom. He became a preacher in Ontario. Other blacks acknowledged his leadership, and whites also regarded him highly. In 1842 he moved to the all-black community of Dawn, Ontario, founded with the support of American and English abolitionists. Henson was the community's natural leader and, although funds were short, the settlement prospered. He was also an agent for the Underground Railroad, by which American slaves escaped to freedom in Canada.
To raise more funds, Henson told his life story to Samuel A. Eliot, who published it as The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada (1849). This would probably have remained just another slave narrative among the many then circulating were it not for the widespread success of Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Though Stowe probably had neither met Henson nor read his story until after her novel was published (1852), Henson became popularly identified with Uncle Tom, and he did not discourage this mistake. Fame followed, and he met celebrities in America and Britain, including Queen Victoria. His autobiography was revised under various editors and titles, with introductions and forewords by various notables, including Stowe. During his later years Henson continued working for Dawn's development. However, he did not wear his fame lightly and offended many associates. Nevertheless, he successfully raised money for Dawn. He died in Dresden, Ontario, on May 5, 1883.
Further Reading on Josiah Henson
The numerous accounts of Henson's life are all essentially based on his autobiography. The most complete edition, An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (1881), was republished in 1969 with a thorough introduction by Robin W. Winks. Other relevant works are Brion Gysin, To Masta—A Long Goodnight: The Story of Uncle Tom, A Historical Narrative (1946), and Jesse L. Beattie, Black Moses: The Real Uncle Tom (1957). A biographical sketch is in Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968), in the International Library of Negro Life and History.
Additional Biography Sources
Bleby, Henry, Josiah, the maimed fugitive; a true tale, Miami, Fla., Mnemosyne Pub. Co. 1969.
Cavanah, Frances, The truth about the man behind the book that sparked the War Between the States, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975.
Henson, Josiah, Uncle Tom's story of his life: an autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson, 1789-1876; introduction by C. Duncan Ric, London, Cass, 1971.