Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson was born a slave on 15th June, 1789 in Charles County, Maryland. He was sold three times before he reached the age of eighteen. By 1830, Henson had saved up $350 to purchase his freedom. After giving his master the money he was told that the price had increased to $1,000.

Cheated of his money, Henson decided to escape with his wife and four children. After reaching Canada, Henson formed a community where he taught other ex-slaves how to be successful farmers.

His autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson(1849) was read by Harriet Beecher Stowe and inspired her best-selling novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson (1849)

My earliest employments were, to carry buckets of water to the men at work, and to hold a horse- plough, used for weeding between the rows of corn. As I grew older and taller, I was entrusted with the care of master's saddle-horse. Then a hoe was put into my hands, and I was soon required to do the day's work of a man; and it was not long before I could do it, at least as well as my associates in misery.

(2) Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson (1849)

A description of the everyday life of a slave on a southern plantation illustrates the character and habits of the slave and the slaveholder, created and perpetuated by their relative position. The principal food of those upon my master's plantation consisted of corn-meal and salt herrings; to which was added in summer a little buttermilk, and the few vegetables which each might raise for himself and his family, on the little piece of ground which was assigned to him for the purpose, called a truck- patch.

In ordinary times we had two regular meals in a day: breakfast at twelve o'clock, after laboring from daylight, and supper when the work of the remainder of the day was over. In harvest season we had three. Our dress was of tow-cloth; for the children, nothing but a shirt; for the older ones a pair of pantaloons or a gown in addition, according to the sex. Besides these, in the winter a round jacket or overcoat, a wool-hat once in two or three years, for the males, and a pair of coarse shoes once a year.

(3) Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson (1849)

We lodged in log huts, and on the bare ground. Wooden floors were an unknown luxury. In a single room were huddled, like cattle, ten or a dozen persons, men, women, and children. All ideas of refinement and decency were, of course, out of the question. We had neither bedsteads, nor furniture of any description. Our beds were collections of straw and old rags, thrown down in the corners and boxed in with boards; a single blanket the only covering. Our favourite way of sleeping, however, was on a plank, our heads raised on an old jacket and our feet toasting before the smouldering fire. The wind whistled and the rain and snow blew in through the cracks, and the damp earth soaked in the moisture till the floor was miry as a pig- sty. Such were our houses. In these wretched hovels were we penned at night, and fed by day; here were the children born and the sick- - neglected.

(4) In his autobiography, Josiah Henson described how as a child he saw his father punished for attempting to protect his wife against the plantation overseer.

The day for the execution of the penalty was appointed. The Negroes from the neighbouring plantations were summoned to witness the scene. A powerful blacksmith named Hewes laid on the stripes. Fifty were given, during which the cries of my father might be heard a mile away, and then a pause ensured. True, he had struck a white man, but as valuable property he must not be damaged. Judicious men felt his pulse. Oh! he could stand the whole. Again and again the throng fell on his lacerated back. His cries grew fainter and fainter, till a feeble groan was the only response to the final blows. His head was then thrust against the post, and his right ear fastened to it with a tack; a swift pass of a knife, and the bleeding member was left sticking to the place. Then came a hurrah from the degraded crowd, and the exclamation, "That's what he's got for striking a white man."

Previous to this affair, my father, from all I can learn, had been a good-humoured and light-hearted man. His banjo was the life of the farm. But from this hour he became utterly changed. Sullen, morose, and dogged, nothing could be done with him. He brooded over his wrongs. No fear or threats of being sold to the far south - the greatest of all terrors to the Maryland slave - would render him tractable. So off he was sent to Alabama. What was his fate neither my mother nor I have learned.

A whipped slave in the 1860s.
A whipped slave in the 1860s.