The man who partly inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character of Uncle Tom was born into slavery on 15th June 1789 in Charles County, Maryland, on the farm of Francis Newman. Newman owned his father and leased his mother from Dr. Josiah McPherson. As a child Josiah witnessed his father receiving one-hundred lashes followed by the cutting off of his ear. The punishment was meted out because his father attacked a white overseer for assaulting Josiah’s mother. Later, Newman sold Josiah’s father to a new owner in Alabama, never to be seen by his family again.

After the sale, Josiah and his mother returned to the estate of Dr. McPherson who named the young slave after himself. According to Henson, the doctor was a kindly man but a drunkard who was found drowned in a stream that he was apparently too inebriated to cross safely. McPherson’s estate was sold off by his heirs, the sale included Josiah’s mother and five older siblings. Josiah was initially sold to a tavern keeper called Robb, he was neglected and became sickly. As a result he was sold at a bargain price to his mother’s new owner, Isaac Riley, after Josiah’s mother begged Riley to let her tend for her youngest child.

Josiah repaid Riley’s kindness by working hard on his land, eventually becoming the farm manager. While on the estate of Riley’s brother, Amos, in Kentucky, he became a Methodist preacher and raised a family of his own. Nevertheless, he yearned for freedom and in 1829 gave his owner the $350 he had saved from preaching to buy his freedom, only to learn that Amos Riley had increased his price from the agreed $450, with $350 initial cash payment, to one-thousand dollars. His hopes of manumission dashed, he later learnt that he and his family might be sold again so he resolved to escape to freedom.

Henson, his wife and children crossed the Niagara River in October 1830, setting foot in the Province of Upper Canada where they effectively became free. Wishing to help his fellow escaped slaves, Josiah used money he had raised in the four years after arriving in Canada to found a two-hundred acre self-sufficient community in Dawn Township, near Dresden in Kent County. Over five hundred people lived at the Dawn Settlement, which exported black walnut to the United States and Britain.

He travelled to England a number of times to promote the community’s wares and also to speak at meetings. In 1851 he travelled across the ocean to show his wares at the Great Exhibition. When Queen Victoria passed his display she asked whether he was indeed a fugitive slave, since his works carried the legend: “This is the product of the industry of a fugitive slave from the United States, whose residence is Dawn, Canada.”

Josiah Henson died on 5th May 1885, in Dresden Ontraio, aged 94. Since his death he has received many honours: he was the first black man to appear on a Canadian stamp; his home and other buildings on the site of Dawn Settlement are preserved; and, in 1999 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada declared him a National Historic Person and installed a plaque outside his relocated and restored cabin.

The University of North Caroline hosts a hypertext version of “Uncle Tom’s Story of his life.” An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom”). From 1789 to 1876.