Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson gained sudden popularity because his life experiences were an inspiration for Harriet Beecher’s 1851 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly.

Henson was born to slave parents on June 15, 1789 in Charles County, Maryland. He was given the first name of his first master, Dr Josiah McPherson, and the surname of his master’s uncle.

Henson was sold to three owners before he escaped to Canada in 1830. He was separated from his family when he was first sold away at the age of five. But he was reunited with his mother when he was sold to his third owner, Isaac Riley.

From an early age, he witnessed the prejudice and cruelties of slavery. In his autobiography, Josiah Henson recounts that when he was about three or four years old, his father had his back whipped 100 times and his right ear cut off for having defended and beaten a white supervisor who had assaulted Henson’s mother.

Henson became a trusted slave who travelled at length for his master’s business. In 1825, due to economic problems, Riley transferred his slaves to the farm of his brother in Kentucky. During his three years in Kentucky, Josiah Henson became a Methodist preacher. In 1828, Henson used a trip to see his owner in Maryland as an excuse to tour the country as a preacher and earn money to buy his freedom.

In 1828, Josiah Henson became a preacher for the Methodist Episcopal Church and was able to earn money to buy his freedom. His master took the $350 he had saved, but then raised the price to $1,000.

His owner then sent him off on a trip to New Orleans in an attempt to sell him. Luckily, his master’s son, who was transporting him, fell ill and they had to return to Kentucky. Josiah Henson then decided to escape with his wife and four children, and thanks to the Underground Railroad they reached Upper Canada on Oct. 28, 1830.

What did Josiah Henson do after he and his family escaped?

On October 28, 1830, Henson and his family settled in Dresden, Ontario. For the next four years, Josiah Henson worked as a farm labourer and preacher in the area, and had his oldest son teach him how to read and write.

He also became involved in the Underground Railroad, leading over 200 slaves to freedom. In 1849, Henson published his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a fictional portrayal of slavery in America. Beecher later revealed that one of the novel’s main characters, Uncle Tom, was based on Josiah Henson.

Henson’s involvement with the Underground Railroad and his role in the settlement of blacks in Canada earned him a place in the history of North America.

The following century, in 1983, Josiah Henson was featured on a Canadian stamp. He was the first black person to appear on Canadian postage.

Canadian History for Kids!