Great Local Black History: Did you know Uncle Tom grew up in Montgomery County?

OK, you’re right: Uncle Tom was a fictional character invented by the author Harriet Beecher Stowe as the protagonist in her 1852 ethical novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel intended to wake up the North to the atrocities going on in the South in the antebellum era.   But Stowe said she based her character on the real life historical author, abolitionist, and Methodist minister, Rev. Josiah Henson.  Born in 1789, from age 6, Henson was raised on the farm of his slave-master, Isaac Riley.  The homestead of this farm still exists today and you can find it on the corner of Tilden Lane and Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda (near the Pike & Rose).

Folks learned early on that Josiah Henson was one of those rare birds that could do anything, figure anything out, organize, plan, lead, and otherwise be successful at most anything he set his mind to.  When his owner, Mr. Riley, figured this out, he basically gave over the management of the farm to him, despite his enslaved status.  But while Henson’s loyalty, responsibility, and integrity were unflappable, he realized that he would never gain manumission (papers to be freed) and eventually took his wife and children and escaped to Canada.

Once free, his ingenuity and leadership could really take off: he sent his son to school and then had him teach his dad how to read, he pooled resources and bought 200 acres of land, there founded the British American Institute in 1842, founded the Dawn Settlement which at its peak housed 500 freed Blacks, exported prized black walnut lumber to the United States, became ordained and served as pastor of the Methodist Church in Dresden, Ontario, went back and brought other slaves North to their freedom, and before retiring had an audience with Queen Victoria of England.  He was  the first African-American to be placed on a Canadian stamp.

But Josiah Henson’s greatest contribution to the abolitionist cause was most likely a short book he wrote and got published in 1849 entitled “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.”  Of this autobiography, Stowe wrote “among all the singular and interesting records to which the institution of American slavery has given rise, we know of none more striking, more characteristic and instructive, than that of JOSIAH HENSON.”  It is widely suspected that his first-hand account of the atrocities he experienced was the primary inspiration for Stowe’s fictional novel that in many ways provided the grassroots outcry which in turn led to civil war.

You can visit the Josiah Henson museum at the same site on Fridays & Saturdays, 10 – 4, and Sundays, 12 – 4.  It’s a very nice museum and you can find out for yourself much more about one of the great 19th century abolitionists from just down the street!


  1. Kerine Simms says

    Very interesting post about Josiah Henson . Thanks for sharing. I knew about him. Did some research about him for Black History Month at my previous school. But thanks for reminding me that I need to go visit the museum. Oh my, I’ve been telling myself and the kids that we need to go visit for the longest time now. I will try my best to visit during Spring break!

    • Norm Gordon says

      Elsie and I just went last Saturday. They have a nice 15-minute film overview. And you can walk around the grounds. But the house itself is the museum proper and it has a LOT of content inside. Well worth it. I think the boys could get into it.

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