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Josiah Henson

(1789—1883) escaped slave, slavery abolitionist, and Methodist minister


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(1789–1883), slave narrator, Methodist preacher, educator, activist in the Underground Railroad,

and prototype for the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Josiah Henson was born a slave in Charles County, Maryland, on 15 June 1789. The details of his life are recorded in The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849). As a very young child Henson states that he was largely unaware that his life was in any way remarkable. It was not until the death of his master, Dr. McPherson, and the sale of his mother and siblings that the real horrors and anxieties of slave life impressed him. After his family is sold, he recalls earlier times when his mother was sexually assaulted and his father was mutilated. In spite of the cruel treatment his mother received at the hands of so-called Christians, she taught him a sense of religion. In 1828, Henson became a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1830, finally convinced that his present master, Isaac Riley, was a beast, he escaped with his wife and four children, reaching Canada on 28 October. After his escape, Henson helped over a hundred slaves escape from Kentucky to Canada.

Henson's life story was first recorded in his 1849 slave narrative, which received little public attention. Harriet Beecher Stowe, however, appreciated Henson's story and made reference to him in her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. She wrote the introduction to the enlarged 1858 text, Truth Stranger than Fiction: Father Henson's Story of His Own Life. Two other versions of Henson's life story appeared in 1876 and 1878; each of these texts was quite popular because Henson was known as Stowe's inspiration for her Uncle Tom character. Henson died in Dresden, Ontario, Canada, on 5 May 1883.

Sister Mary Ellen Doyle, “Josiah Henson's Narrative: Before and After,” Black American Literature Forum 8 (Spring 1975): 176–182.Jan Marsh, “From Slave Cabin to Windsor Castle: Josiah Henson and ‘Uncle Tom’ in Britain,” Nineteenth Century Studies, 16 (2002): 37-50

Charles P. Toombs

Subjects: Literature.


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