Black History Month: The Real "Uncle Tom"

It was the 28th of October, 1830, in the morning,
when my feet first touched the Canada shore.
I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand,
seized handfuls of it and kissed them.

                                                                              – Rev. Josiah Henson


     England abolished slavery across most of its empire in 1833, but British North America, particularly what is now Southwestern Ontario, was already a haven for those seeking freedom.

     One of them was a man named Josiah Henson, who arrived at Fort Erie from Buffalo with his wife Nancy and four children Oct. 28, 1830. No one could possibly have known it, but that family's flight to the land of the Northern Star – Upper Canada – would have far-reaching consequences on both sides of the border.

     Although a preacher, Henson could neither read nor write, but he lost little time in learning. In 1849, he published his autobiography: “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.”

     It's a fascinating – and at times utterly horrifying – look at his life, both as a slave and a free man. He detailed the almost unbelievable cruelty of the “peculiar institution”, as it was known in the South, as well as how he went about starting the Dawn Settlement in Kent County, Ontario, for others like himself.

     An abolitionist named Harriet Beecher Stowe read the book, and used thinly disguised elements of it in “Uncle Tom's Cabin”, published in 1852. That book created a furore in both the Northern and Southern states when it was published, and helped light the fuse that would ignite the Civil War.

     Meanwhile, Henson was active in the Underground Railway, personally guiding as many as 100 escaping slaves to freedom. Some joined the growing settlement at Dawn, with its dream of self-sufficiency. Others went to Buxton, Puce, Colchester, Amherstburg.

     But he did more than that. When the Rebellions of 1837 – backed by American interests – erupted in Upper and Lower Canada (present day Ontario and Quebec), Henson captained the men of the 2nd Essex Company of Coloured Volunteers. Among other things, they marched 80 miles to defend Fort Malden (Amherstburg). In six months, they repelled three assaults from the US, and, in January 1838, capturing a grounded rebel schooner by wading through the ice-filled, chest-high waters of the Detroit River.

     He would later state: “The coloured men were willing to help defend the government that had given them a home when they had fled from slavery.”

     Furthermore, he set up sawmills and a woodworking business, which helped support the community, taught farming techniques to those who didn't know them, and established the British-American Institute, one of the first trade schools in the country.

     Josiah Henson died in 1883 at 93, but his legacy remains in the five-acre site near his original homestead. The house he built has been restored to its original state, and other historic buildings have been added, along with an interpretative centre and museum.

     The site is a testament to one man's unquenchable spirit, the freedom he sought – and found – in his adopted country … and the horrors that he overcame.

* * *

     It was a beautiful July afternoon, but The Redhead and I left the museum under a pall.

     The barbarous artefacts of slavery – shackles, whips, spiked iron collars, proclamations, photos – had by turns enraged, saddened and tormented us. Most of all, we were ashamed of our race.

     As we strolled around the grounds, we saw a middle-aged African-American couple; I couldn't look them in the eye.

     They must have noticed me taking pictures though, because soon after, as we were inspecting the tiny British Methodist Episcopal church, they came in and asked if I'd mind taking a portrait of them, standing either side of the lectern, with their camera. I was happy to oblige.

     Then we chatted for awhile. They were from Florida, visiting relatives in Michigan, and on a pilgrimage to the Canadian terminals of the Underground Railway – Dresden, Buxton, Puce, Amherstburg (Fort Malden), Windsor.

      Although they couldn't possibly relieve us of our burden, in that moment they gave, if not absolution, then at least the recognition that what was once, is not now, that although the battle is far from over, it has fair begun.

     Despite the abominations that they too had just witnessed in the museum, they had the generosity of spirit not to despise us for our white faces. Under similar circumstances, I doubt I could have mustered such grace. We parted with handshakes and a smile.

     And the pall lifted just a bit.


Bust of Rev. Josiah Henson
Henson house -- the real "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

Routes of the Underground Railway

Effigies of Nancy and Josiah Henson

Down the generations: Military grave marker
for Pvt. William Isaac Jacob Beecher Stowe Henson, who served
in the Canadian Forestry Corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force 1917-18


(All photos taken at the Uncle Tom's Cabin historic site, Dresden, Ontario.)

Views: 153

Comment by koshersalaami on February 24, 2018 at 2:54pm

Thanks for this

Comment by Ron Powell on February 24, 2018 at 6:43pm

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House is a historic house museum and National Historic Landmark at 73 Forest Street in Hartford, Connecticut that was once the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.Wikipedia

This is an exceptional piece of work and an outstanding contribution to the observance of Black History Month. ...
Extremely well done....

Comment by Boanerges on February 25, 2018 at 8:32am

You're welcome, Kosh.

Whoa, FM! I'm very pleased to learn it's available anywhere. The last time I read it was in book form -- rather tattered, at that -- from the public library. I needed to refresh my memory on some points. It's plain-spoken, but certainly gets its points across.

My pleasure, Ron, and thank you for the comment and compliment. I found it illuminating that his grandson's military grave marker doesn't give his full name -- William Isaac Jacob Beecher Stowe Henson -- which I discovered elsewhere, and which is (obviously) a nod to Stowe herself. Nice to see her home preserved, and thanks for the photos.

Comment by Anna Herrington on February 25, 2018 at 1:54pm

Never knew that about Windsor, either.... 

Thanks for this, Bo, much appreciated.

Comment by moki ikom on February 25, 2018 at 2:37pm

Very interesting post.  Your citing U.S. interests supported Rebellions of 1837 had me wondering.  What and where were they. 

The outcome of Lower and Upper Canada Rebellions turns out not to have led to more lebensraum for u.s. economic predations on which for most of at least two centuries was fundamentally based the u.s. capitalist economy at the time.  Institutionalized slavery and genocidal land thievery were (still are in my opinion) the creature/ the monster/our economy’s eyeballs.  Terror, guns, violence is its means.

Had the southern confederacy successfully seceeded from the u.s. union they would have had the whole of the Caribbean and south of Texas on which to prey for more lebensraum while it would be that what remained of the u.s. union would, for territoral expansion, have to fight the Brits for expansion to the north and/or fight the Confederates for expansion to the west.


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Comment by Boanerges on February 25, 2018 at 3:45pm

Glad you're liking it, FM. It is an amazing story, and I'm a little surprised no one has made a movie out of it. Well ... it IS Canada. We don't exactly celebrate heroes, unfortunately.

Glad you liked it, JT. Windsor (Sandwich, as it was known then) was, I if I remember correctly, the first city to produce an African-American newspaper.

Yeah, Moki, it was sort of a weird situation, and I should have said 1837-38, as well. When the first insurrection in 1837 faltered, the rebels retreated to the US, where in 1838, secret organizations called "Hunters' Lodges" aimed at "liberating" British North America (especially what is now Quebec) were formed across several northern states and may have included as many as 200,000 Americans (but probably not that many).

It became a national embarrassment in the US, leading Van Buren to send a military force along the border to halt any more incursions. Meanwhile, stalwarts like Henson and his company of "coloured" volunteers, as well as other local militia forces and some British regulars, garrisoned the Canadian side. The most bloody incident was probably in Windsor across the border from Detroit when Col. John Prince ordered the summary execution of four captured rebels, sending others for trial. Of those, six were hanged and the rest transported to a penal colony in Van Diemen's land. Windsor still has a street called "Prince Road".

As for your analysis of the then political situation in the US, I can't help but agree. It was terrible when it wasn't downright offensive. Gov. John Graves Simcoe abolished the sale and importing of slaves in the 1790s in Upper Canada (now Ontario), which is why, along with Nova Scotia, it was considered a haven for families like the Hensons.


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