The Journal of Negro History, Volume 3, 1918
The Journal of Negro History
Vol. III—January, 1918—No. 1
THE STORY OF JOSIAH HENSON 1
No one ever uttered a more forceful truth than Frederika Bremer when she said in speaking to Americans: "The fate of the Negro is the romance of your history." The sketches of heroes showing the life of those once exploited by Christian men must ever be interesting to those who would know the origin and the development of a civilization distinctly American. In no case is this more striking than in that of Josiah Henson, the man who probably was present to Harriet Beecher Stowe's mind when she graphically portrayed slavery in writing "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Josiah Henson was born June 15, 1789, on a farm in Charles County, Maryland, where his mother was hired out. His parents had six children. The only recollection he had of his father was that of seeing his right ear cut off, his head gashed and his back lacerated, as a result of the cruel punishment inflicted upon him because he had dared to beat the overseer of the plantation for brutally assaulting the slave's wife. Because of becoming morose, disobedient and intractable thereafter, Henson's father was sold to a planter in Alabama and his relatives never heard of him again. His mother was then brought back to the estate of her owner, a Doctor McPherson, who was much kinder to his slaves. Dr. McPherson gave the youth his own name, Josiah, and the family name Henson after Dr. McPherson's uncle, who served in the Revolutionary War. Josiah showed signs of mental and religious development under the pious care of his Christian mother and for that reason became his master's favorite.
Upon the death of Doctor McPherson, however, it became necessary to sell the estate and slaves to divide his property among his heirs. The Henson family was then scattered throughout the country and worst of all Josiah was separated from his mother, notwithstanding his mother's earnest entreaty that her new master, Isaac Riley, should also purchase her baby. Instead of listening to the appeal of this afflicted woman clinging to his hands, he disengaged himself from her with violent blows. She was then taken to Riley's farm in Montgomery County. Josiah was purchased by a man named Robb, a tavern keeper living near Montgomery Court-House. Both masters were unusually cruel, in keeping with the tyrannical methods employed by planters of that time. Because of ill health resulting from the lack of proper care, Josiah became very sickly. He was then providentially restored to his mother, having been offered to her owner by Robb for a small sum, for the reason that it was thought that he would die.
His third master was "vulgar in his habits, unprincipled and cruel in his general deportment and especially addicted to the vice of licentiousness."2 On his plantation Henson served as water-boy, butler and finally as a field hand, experiencing the usual hardship of the slave. He ate twice a day of cornmeal and salt herring, with a little buttermilk and a few vegetables occasionally. His dress was first a single garment, something like a long shirt reaching to the ankles, later a pair of trousers and a shirt with the addition of a woolen hat once in two or three years and a round jacket or overcoat in the winter time. He slept with ten or a dozen persons in a log hut of a single small room, with no other floor than the trodden earth, and without beds or furniture. In spite of this, however, Henson grew to be a robust lad, who at the age of fifteen could do a man's work. Having too more mental capacity than most slaves, he was regarded as a smart fellow. Hearing remarks like this about himself, Henson became filled with ambition and pride, and aspired to a position of influence among his fellows.
At times Henson would toil and induce his fellow slaves to work much harder and longer than required to obtain from their master a kind word or act, but these efforts usually produced no more from their owner than a cold calculation of the value of Josiah to him. When, however, the white overseer of this plantation was discharged for stealing from his employer, Josiah had shown himself so capable that he was made manager of the plantation. In this position his honest management of the estate made him indispensable to his master also as a salesman of produce in the markets of Georgetown and Washington. He had during these years come under the influence of an anti-slavery white man of Georgetown and had become a devout Christian with considerable influence as a preacher among the slaves.
About this time, Josiah was serving his master in another capacity, which brought upon him one of the greatest misfortunes of his life. This was accompanying his master to town for protection and deliverance when the owners of his order indulged in excessive drinking and brawls in taverns. Sometimes in removing his master from the midst of a fracas, he would have to handle his owner's opponent rather roughly. On one occasion when Riley became involved in a quarrel with his brother's overseer, Henson pushed the overseer down; and falling while intoxicated the overseer suffered some injury. The overseer decided to wreak vengeance on Henson for this. Finding Henson on the way home one day the overseer assisted by three Negroes attacked him, beating him unmercifully and left him on the ground almost senseless with his head badly bruised and cut and with his right arm and both shoulder blades broken. Being on a farm where no physician or surgeon was usually called, Henson recovered with difficulty under the kind treatment of his master's sister; but was never able thereafter to raise his hands to his head. The culprit did not suffer for this offense, as the court acquitted him on the grounds of self-defense.
In the course of time Henson's master, Isaac Riley, lived so extravagantly that he became involved in debt and lawsuits which heralded his ruin. Seeing his estate would be seized, he intrusted to Henson in 1825 the tremendous task of taking his 18 slaves to his brother, Amos Riley, in Kentucky. Henson bought a one-horse wagon to carry provisions and to relieve the women and children from time to time. The men were compelled to walk altogether. Traveling through Alexandria, Culpepper, Fauquier, Harper's Ferry and Cumberland, they met on the way droves of Negroes passing in chains under the system of the internal slave trade, while those whom Henson was conducting were moving freely without restriction. On arriving at Wheeling, he sold the horse and wagon and bought a boat of sufficient size to take the whole party down the river. At Cincinnati some free Negroes came out to greet them and urged them to avail themselves of the opportunity to become free. Few of the slaves except Henson could appreciate this boon offered them, but he had thought of obtaining it only by purchase. Henson said: "Under the influence of these impressions, and seeing that the allurements of the crowd were producing a manifest effect, I sternly assumed the captain, and ordered the boat to be pushed off into the stream. A shower of curses followed me from the shore; but the Negroes under me, accustomed to obey, and, alas! too degraded and ignorant of the advantages of liberty to know what they were forfeiting, offered no resistance to my command." "Often since that day," says he, "has my soul been pierced with bitter anguish at the thought of having been thus instrumental in consigning to the infernal bondage of slavery so many of my fellow-beings. I have wrestled in prayer with God for forgiveness. Having experienced myself the sweetness of liberty, and knowing too well the after misery of a great majority of them, my infatuation has seemed to me an unpardonable sin. But I console myself with the thought that I acted according to my best light, though the light that was in me was darkness."3
Henson finally arrived with these slaves at the farm of his master's brother, five miles south of the Ohio and fifteen miles above the Yellow Banks, on the Big Blackfords' Creek in Davies County, Kentucky, April, 1825. Here the situation as to food, shelter and general comforts was a little better than in Maryland. He served on this plantation as superintendent and having here among more liberal white people the opportunity for religious instruction, he developed into a successful preacher, recognized by the Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
There he remained waiting for his master three years. Unable to persuade his wife to move to Kentucky, however, his master decided to abandon the idea and sent an agent to bring upon those slaves another heartrending scene of the auction block, though Henson himself was exempted. Henson saw with deepest grief the agony which he recollected in his own mother and which he now unfortunately said in the persons with whom he had long been associated. He could not, therefore, refrain from experiencing the bitterest feeling of hatred of the system and its promoters. He furthermore lamented as never before his agency in bringing the poor creatures hither, if such had to be the end of the expedition. Freedom then became the all-absorbing purpose that filled his soul. He said that he stood ready to pray, toil, dissemble, plot like a fox and fight like a tiger.
A new light dawned upon the dark pathway of Josiah Henson, however, in 1828. A Methodist preacher, an anti-slavery white man, talked with Henson one day confidentially about securing freedom. He thereupon suggested to Henson to obtain his employer's consent to visit his old master in Maryland that he might connect with friends in Ohio along the way and obtain the sum necessary to purchase himself. His employer readily consented and with the required pass and a letter of recommendation from his Methodist friend to a preacher in Cincinnati, Henson obtained contributions to the amount of one hundred and sixty dollars on arriving in that city, where he preached to several congregations. He then proceeded to Chillicothe where the annual Methodist Conference was in session, his kind friend accompanying him. With the aid of the influence and exertions of his coworker Henson was again successful. He then purchased a suit of comfortable clothes and an excellent horse, with which he traveled leisurely from town to town, preaching and soliciting as he went. He succeeded so well that when he arrived at his old home in Maryland, he was much better equipped than his master. This striking difference and the delay of Henson along the way from September to Christmas caused his master to be somewhat angry. Moreover, as his master had lost most of his slaves and other property in Maryland, he was anxious to have Henson as a faithful worker to retrieve his losses; but this changed man would hardly subserve such a purpose.
The conditions which he observed around him were so much worse than what he had for some time been accustomed to and so changed was the environment because of the departure or death of friends and relatives during his absence that Henson resolved to become free. He then consulted the brother of his master's wife, then a business man in Washington, whom he had often befriended years before and who was angry with Henson's master because the latter had defrauded him out of certain property. This friend, therefore, gladly took up with Henson's master the question of giving the slave an opportunity to purchase himself. He carefully explained to the master that Henson had some money and could purchase himself and that if, in consideration of the valuable services he had rendered, the master refused to do so, Henson would become free by escaping to Canada. The master agreed then to give him his manumission papers for four hundred and fifty dollars, of which three hundred and fifty dollars was to be in cash and the remainder in Henson's note. Henson's money and horse enabled him to pay the cash at once. But his master was to work a trick on him. He did not receive his manumission papers until March 3, 1827, and when Henson started for Kentucky his master induced him to let him send his manumission papers to his brother in Kentucky where Henson was returning, telling him that some ruffian might take the document from him on the way. In returning to Kentucky Henson was arrested several times as a fugitive, but upon always insisting on being carried before a magistrate he was released. He had no trouble after reaching Wheeling, from which he proceeded on a boat to Davies County, Kentucky.
Arriving at the Kentucky home, he was informed that the master had misrepresented the facts as to his purchase. He had written his brother that Henson had agreed to pay one thousand dollars for himself, the balance-of the six hundred and fifty dollars to be paid in Kentucky. As the only evidence he had, had been sent to his master's brother, it was impossible for him to make a case against him in court. Things went on in uncertainty for about a year. Then came a complaint from his master in Maryland, saying that he wanted money and expressing the hope that Henson would soon pay the next installment.
Soon thereafter Henson received orders to go with Amos Riley carrying a cargo to New Orleans. This suggestion was enough. He contrived to have his manumission papers sewed up in his clothing prior to his departure on the flat boat for New Orleans. He knew what awaited him and his mind rapidly developed into a sort of smoldering volcano of pent-up feeling which at one time all but impelled him to murder his white betrayers. Blinded by passion and stung by madness, Henson resolved to kill his four companions, to take what money they had, then to scuttle the craft and escape to the North. One dark night within a few days' sail of New Orleans it seemed that the opportune hour had come. Henson was alone on the deck and Riley and the hands were asleep. He crept down noiselessly, secured an ax, entered the cabin, and looking by aid of the dim light, his eye fell first on Riley. Henson felt the blade of the ax and raised it to strike the first blow when suddenly the thought came to him, "What! Commit murder, and you a Christian?" His religious feeling and belief in the wonderful providence of God prevented him.
Riley talked later of getting him a good master and the like but did not disguise the effort to sell him. Fortunately, however, Amos Riley was suddenly taken sick and becoming more dependent on Henson then, than Henson had been on him, he immediately ordered Henson to sell the flat boat and find passage for him home in a sick cabin at once. Henson did this and succeeded by careful nursing to get Amos back to his home in Kentucky alive. Although he confessed that, if he had sold Henson, he would have died, the family showed only a realization of an increased value in Henson rather than an appreciation of his valuable services. He, therefore, decided to escape to Canada.
His wife, fearing the dangers, would not at first agree to go, but upon being told that he would take all of the children but the youngest, she finally agreed to set out with him. Knowing of the hardships that they must have to experience, Henson practised beforehand the carrying of the children on his back. They crossed the river into Indiana and proceeded toward Cincinnati, finding it difficult to purchase food in that State, so intensely did the people hate the Negro there. After two weeks of hardship, exhausted they reached Cincinnati. There they were refreshed and carried 30 miles on the way in a wagon. They directed themselves then toward the Scioto, where they were told they would strike the military road of General Hull, opened when he was operating against Detroit.
They set out, not knowing that the way lay through a wilderness of howling wolves and, not taking sufficient food, they did not pass homes from which they could purchase supplies on the way. They did not go far before his wife fainted, but she was soon resuscitated. Finally, they saw in the distance persons whose presence seemed to be the dark foreboding of disaster, but the fugitives pressed on. They proved to be Indians, who, when they saw the blacks, ran away yelping. This excited the fugitives, as they thought the Indians were yelling to secure the cooperation of a larger number to massacre them. Farther on they saw other Indians standing behind trees hiding. After passing through such trials as these for some time they came to an Indian village, the dwellers of which, after some fear and hesitation, welcomed them, supplied their wants and gave them a comfortable wigwam for the night. They were then informed that they were about twenty-five miles from the lakes. After experiencing some difficulty in fording a dangerous stream and spending another night in the woods they saw the houses on the outskirts; of Sandusky.
Using good judgment, however, Henson did not go into the village at once. When about a mile from the lake, He hid his family in the woods and then proceeded to approach the town. Soon he observed on the left side of the town a house from which a number of men were taking something to a vessel. Approaching them immediately he was asked whether or not he desired to work. He promptly replied in the affirmative and it was not long before he was assisting them in loading corn. He soon contrived to get in line next to the only Negro there engaged and communicated to him his plans.4
He told the captain, who called Henson aside and agreed to assist him in getting to Buffalo, the boat's destination, where the fugitives would find friends. It was agreed that the vessel should leave the landing and that a small boat should take the fugitives aboard at night, as there were Kentucky spies in Sandusky that might apprehend them. Henson said he watched the vessel leave the landing and then lower a boat for the shore and in a few minutes his black friend and two sailors landed and went with him to get his family. Thinking that he had been captured his wife had grown despondent and had moved from the spot where he left her. With a little difficulty, he found her, but when she saw him approaching with those men, she was still more frightened. She was reassured, however, and soon they were received on board in the midst of hearty cheers. They arrived at Buffalo the next evening too late to cross the river. The following morning they were brought to Burnham and went on the ferry boat to Waterloo. The good Captain Burnham paid the passage money and gave Henson a dollar beside. They arrived in Canada on the 28th day of October, 1830. Describing his exultation Henson said: "I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand, seized handfuls of it and kissed them, and danced round till, in the eyes of several who were present, I passed for a madman. 'He's some crazy fellow,' said a Colonel Warren, who happened to be there. 'O, no, master! don't you know? I'm free!' He burst into a shout of laughter. 'Well I never knew freedom make a man roll in the sand in such a fashion,' Still I could not control myself. I hugged and kissed my wife and children, and, until the first exuberant burst of feeling was over, went on as before."