This Week in History


Josiah Henson - Birth of a Leader

For the week of Monday June 12, 2000

On June 15, 1789, Josiah Henson was born into slavery at Charles County, Maryland. Finding freedom in Canada, Henson became one of the most famous people of his day for his association with Harriet Beecher Stowe's main character in Uncle Tom's Cabin. More than just a character, Henson was a leader.

Portrait of Josiah Henson

Portrait of Josiah Henson
© Courtesy of St. Clair Parkway Commission

While many slaves escaped north where slavery had been abolished, Henson believed buying his freedom was better than life on the run. He was so trusted that he was put in charge of escorting 21 other slaves to Kentucky. While returning to Maryland, Henson preached along the way, earning him enough to buy his freedom. Betrayed by his master, Henson was sold. Deciding to flee, Henson took his family and connected with the "Underground Railroad (UGRR)," an informal network of people who assisted fugitive Blacks in gaining freedom. After a perilous six-week journey, they reached Upper Canada (now Ontario) on October 28, 1830.

In Upper Canada, Henson became a leader in the UGRR community. His involvement brought him into contact with Hiram Wilson, an American anti-slavery missionary. Together, they discussed founding a vocational school with the idea of having an organized community of UGRR refugees grow around it. In 1842, with money to establish the school secured, Henson founded the settlement of Dawn near Dresden, Upper Canada.

Dawn was open to all people regardless of colour. Henson, the spiritual and symbolic leader of Dawn, encouraged settlement of the area and promoted various industries to help offset the expense of the settlement's main focus—the British-American Institute. This vocational school provided the training and education to the area's population that was often denied by white schools. Sadly, Dawn's days were numbered.

'Uncle Tom's Cabin' at <br>Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, Dresden, ON

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" at
Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, Dresden, ON

© Courtesy St, Clair Parkway Commission

Tensions between Henson and other administrators of Dawn caused dissension within the community. Also, many UGRR refugees returned to the south to fight for the Union Army during the American Civil War. With a dwindling population, the Institute closed its doors in 1868 and Dawn, as an organized settlement, disappeared. Henson, however, remained in Dresden until his death in 1883.

Henson's memoirs and his association with "Uncle Tom" made him a central figure in the fight against slavery. Rev. Josiah Henson is commemorated as a person of national historic significance for helping improve the lives of Upper Canada's black population and for his role as a conductor of the Underground Railroad.

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