Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

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Josiah Henson (b. 1789 - d. 1883)
MSA SC 5496-8783
Fled from slavery, Kentucky, 1830


Josiah Henson was born in Charles County on June 15, 1789 on the farm of Francis Newman. According to Henson’s narrative, his father was the property of Newman, while his mother was the property of a Mr. Josiah McPherson, also of Charles County; Henson’s mother was hired by Newman, but because of the practices of the time, Henson was the property of McPherson. A fight involving Henson’s father and one of Newman’s overseers resulted in his father’s ear being cut off, fifty lashes being applied to his back, and sold further south to Alabama.1 Henson’s owner McPherson pulled Henson and his mother from Newman’s possession shortly after the incident when he was around the age of three.

Henson stayed with McPherson, who Henson claims bestowed the name Josiah on him,2 until he was five or so when his master died. Henson and his family were split apart at the sale of McPherson’s estate. Henson became the property of a Mr. Robb, but soon after the sale, Henson became very ill, and was sold to a Mr. Isaac Riley of Montgomery County. Riley was the new owner of Henson’s mother, and under her care Henson made a full recovery.3

As Henson got older, Riley trusted him to be his personal servant, and overseer of the other slaves. Because of his “elevated” position among the slaves, Riley asked Henson to transport his slaves to his brother’s care in Kentucky.4 Riley was involved in a legal dispute with his brother-in-law and instead of conceding his property, Isaac Riley allowed Henson to take the slaves to his brother Amos. Even though the trail to Kentucky passed through free state Ohio, Henson stayed faithful to the promise he made to his master and delivered the slaves to Kentucky in 1825.5

After three years in Kentucky, Henson became heavily involved in preaching in the Methodist sect, a religion he was introduced to in his youth, and a white minister suggested that he petition for his freedom from his master.6  Amos Riley allowed Henson to return to Maryland and ask Isaac Riley if he could purchase his freedom. Henson, who had already saved two hundred and fifty dollars from his preaching, made it back to Maryland and negotiated with Isaac Riley a three hundred and fifty dollar purchase of freedom. Happy with the prospects of becoming a free man, Henson’s joy was destroyed when he learned that Isaac told his brother Amos that the price of purchase was actually one thousand dollars7.

Henson’s life as a slave continued further south into Louisiana. Henson later escaped to Canada from New Orleans, and lived the rest of his days as a minister in Ontario. In 1849 Boston publisher Arthur D. Phelps printed the self-narrated story of the life of Josiah Henson. That story is said to have been the inspiration for the world famous character Uncle Tom, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852. After the publication of the his first narrative, there were subsequent editions of his life story published in 1858 and 1876 before his death in 1883.          

1. Josiah Henson.  The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Boston: A. D. Phelps, 1849, 1.
2. Ibid, 3
3. Ibid, 5.
4. Ibid, 22.
5. Ibid, 25.
6. Ibid, 29.
7. Ibid, 36.

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