Josiah Henson: The true story of Uncle Tom
DAVIESS CO., Ky. (WFIE) - Hundreds pass by a small green sign on Highway 144 in Daviess County every day. It’s hard to spot if you aren’t looking for it. Hundreds more fly past another green sign right off the road on Highway 60 near Maceo.
“Josiah Henson Trail”
Who is the man behind the name on the sign?
This story goes back nearly 200 years. Eastern Daviess County looked a lot different. Local historian and author, Aloma Dew, knows this time period very well.
“At that time, this was a very agricultural area. This is where the most people were because they had come from Maryland and upper Kentucky down into this area,” Dew says. “So this was the heaviest concentration of slaves.”
That is where Josiah Henson comes in. In fact, according to his autobiography, he made that journey Dew described, and he found himself in Daviess County in the year 1825.
“I think his story in these times particularly is a story we should know, because it’s about a way of life in the south we too often discount.” Dew said.
That way of life? Slavery. Josiah Henson was born a slave in Maryland. Much of what we know about Henson’s life is what he tells us through the autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson: Formerly A Slave.” He explains the story of how he ended up on the farm of a man named Isaac Riley. Henson was just a young boy and was separated from his mother at a slave auction. When he got sick and was unable to work, he explains his owner sold him to Riley, who happened to own his mother as well. He uses the next pages to describe how he worked hard to become “an overseer,” which was similar to a management position.
However, in 1825, Isaac Riley tasked Henson with leading 18 other slaves to his brother’s farm all of the way in Daviess County, Kentucky. This is near where Maceo is now. It was a very dangerous journey. The autobiography explains how Isaac Riley told Henson he would follow him there at a later time.
Henson explains how he had the opportunity to escape when they reached Cincinnati, but he didn’t. Kathy Olson with the Owensboro Science and History Museum has studied Henson’s story as well.
“They did stop in Cincinnati for some time and at that time they could have escaped because they were in a free state, and Josiah made a promise and didn’t want to break that promise,” Olson explained. “He was persistent. He was honest with his work. He was hard working.”
She says that’s why he didn’t escape just yet. She says he made it to Kentucky where he’d work for Amos Riley, although he was still owned by Amos’s brother, Isaac Riley, in Maryland. The museum has a series of documents linked back to the Riley farm, but one particularly interesting piece, is a “travel pass.” Olson explains this travel pass was what Henson would have had to travel back and forth to local communities while working for Amos Riley.
The museum has a series of documents dating back to the Riley farm, including a journal kept by Amos Riley’s son, Camden Riley.
Henson explains in his autobiography that he again became a manager quote “in consequence of the recommendation for ability and honestly which I bought with me from Maryland.” He later discusses how he tried to buy his freedom from Isaac Riley, even making a long trip back to Maryland, but was cheated. Fearing he would be sold or possibly killed, Henson started to plot another dangerous journey. He wanted his family to be free.
“The fact that you would risk your life and run away, that’s not easy to do,” Dew explains.
But that’s what Josiah did. He goes into detail in his autobiography describing how his wife made a large knapsack to hold their two youngest children so he could carry them to freedom. Olson explains this is remarkable because he was injured earlier in his life. She says he couldn’t lift his hands above his head, but still managed to carry the children. Henson explains they escaped across the Ohio River and made it all of the way to Canada.
They were free and his story was just starting. Well...two stories. In 1852, a woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a best seller that would change the country forever, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She later revealed in a different book that Josiah Henson was an inspiration for her and her character Uncle Tom. Dew says this book played a part in the Civil War.
“That book was a major factor. Fairly short. Definitely propaganda in many ways but she was an abolitionist. and she was definitely inspired by Josiah Henson’s story and I’m sure others,” Dew said.
She says there was even an encounter between Stowe and Abraham Lincoln.
“Abraham Lincoln said ‘so you’re the little lady who started the civil war’ because that book was a major factor,” Dew said.
Once his family was free, Josiah went on to become a preacher and an abolitionist. He wrote his autobiography and according to Aloma, started a vocational school for other escaped slaves. He lived his free life to the fullest. The Kentucky Room at the Daviess County Public Library has a first edition copy of his autobiography where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the forward.
“We don’t know the names of most of the slaves. We know Josiah Henson. We know his name, who has a real name and accomplished real things.”
It’s a real name now on a sign. Near the “Josiah Henson Trail” sign on Highway 60 sits a historical marker about Henson. However, it’s his story of endurance, his story of freedom, and his story that started a movement that defines the man behind the name.
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