Josiah Henson was an African-American abolitionist, author, and minister. Born into slavery, he escaped to Canada to start a Black community focused on educating those who had been enslaved.
His story later became the inspiration for the lead character in the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
A Brief History Of Josiah Henson
Born into slavery in 1789 on a plantation in Maryland, Josiah Henson was sold 3 times before he was 18 years old. Eventually, he was bought by a man named Isaac Riley in exchange for some horseshoeing work.
During his time with Riley, he was a market man. That meant he was in charge of selling the farm’s produce. While doing this work, Henson met many respected lawyers and businessmen who taught him about the world of business. He also took to preaching. Unable to read at the time, he memorized passages to share with parishioners.
He later became an overseer for Riley. During this time he helped ensure the other enslaved people had better food and treatment. In 1811, Riley married an enslaved woman. They would become the parents of 12 children, four of whom were born while the pair were enslaved.
Around 1829, Riley told Henson he would give him his freedom if he paid $350. Having raised the sum, Henson brought the money to Riley only to be told the price had increased to $1,000.
Henson then learned that Riley was planning on selling him in New Orleans and separating him from his family. So in 1830, Henson made the decision to escape enslavement with his wife and children. Receiving shelter and support along the Underground Railroad, Henson and his family made it to Canada.
He would later return to the United States on multiple occasions to help others find freedom via the Underground Railway. It’s believed he helped nearly 200 enslaved people.
Making A Difference In Canada
Once in Canada, Henson formed a Black community called the Dawn Settlement in 1841 with the support of abolitionists. Here, he and his partners opened the British-American Institute. The school would teach students of all ages, with a focus on teaching the trades.
The Dawn Settlement grew around the institute with residents farming, going to school, and working in local industries. In addition to working at the school, Henson opened a gristmill, bred horses, and built a sawmill.
In 1949, Henson wrote an autobiography called The Life of Josiah Henson: Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. The book would later inspire the main character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
After that, he continued to inspire people to stand up against injustice and spoke out at churches and conventions. Josiah Henson died on May 5, 1883, after a life of speaking out against the injustices of slavery.
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