Escape to Uncle Tom's Cabin

By Ilona Kauremszky

Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"When my feet first touched the Canada shore, I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand, seized handfuls of it and kissed them and danced around, till, in the eyes of several who were present, I passed for a madman."--Josiah Henson

DRESDEN, ONTARIO -- Harriet Beecher Stowe, a small-town Connecticut gal whose family was known as the "Beecher preachers" for their long lineage of ministers, was so appalled by slavery, she penned a story about one fugitive slave's life and called it "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Her novel was largely based on the autobiography "The Life of Josiah Henson Formerly A Slave." The acclaimed Uncle Tom's Cabin became America's first international bestseller. During its first year, it sold over 1-million copies in England and 300,000 copies across the US, outselling even the Bible. The year was 1852.

Uncle Tom's Cabin has remained part of the school curriculum in some parts of America and is mandatory in schools across Holland due to their strong abolitionist ideals. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has been translated into 62 languages. The book was used as a rallying cry for abolitionists during the Civil War. It's been said that president Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Harriet remarked, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."

The epic story chronicling the life of a Kentucky slave named Uncle Tom was the real life story of Josiah Henson, a Methodist preacher then living in a tiny settlement in Canada freed from his chains of bondage.

Amid the thick black walnut groves, Henson created the Dawn Settlement, a northern refuge for free slaves. In its hey day of the early 1850s, Dawn was home to 500 free black families. Henson helped found The British American Institute which was North America's first manual training school, where there was a rope factory, brick yard, saw mill, grain mill and a blacksmith shop. While many free blacks only knew about harvesting tobacco and cotton, Henson yearned to teach them about a variety of other farming methods like grain and livestock.

"Josiah Henson was a man of integrity and fortitude. He was a man that became a Methodist Minister both in the United States and in western Ontario. And as we know he loved the scriptures," says Barbara Carter, Henson's great-great-grand daughter and resident of Dresden.

Today, visitors and genealogists attempting to retrace their roots are heading to the historic site known as Uncle Tom's Cabin. The arrivals stem mainly from Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and New York. In the small town of Dresden, Ontario about a 1 -hour drive north of Detroit sits Uncle Tom's cabin. The two-storey clapboard house is constructed of cedar and tulipwood, and by the standards of its day in rural Ontario was considered a substantial building.

When Reverend Josiah Henson was only a small child he saw his family separated and always remembered the tears his mother shed when his brothers and sisters were literally torn away from her arms. Josiah would prophetically recount how his spiritual mother would pray in church.

"When I arrived at the place of meeting, the services were so far advanced that the speaker was just beginning his discourse, from the text Hebrews ii 9. 'That he by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man.' This was the first text of the Bible to which I had ever listened, knowing it to be such. I have never forgotten it, and scarce a day has passed since, in which I have not recalled it, and the sermon that was preached from it," he wrote in his autobiography, "The Life of Josiah Henson Formerly A Slave" published in 1849.

The sermon changed Henson's life. "I was in a state of the greatest excitement at the thought that such a being as Jesus Christ had been described should have died for me - for me among the rest, a poor, despised, abused slave, who was thought by his fellow creatures fit for nothing but unrequited toil and ignorance for mental and bodily degradation."

Considered by many as the most important fugitive slave of his time, Josiah Henson's life as retold in Uncle Tom's Cabin opened up America and the world's eyes to the tragedy of slavery. No one believed there could be such acts occuring in their day and age.

"It really was the first book that was an outcry against an American law. It was condemning slavery and telling about how the blacks were being treated" says Steve Cook, curator of Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site and continues, "It was Henson's autobiography which Harriet was so inspired by. What he had been through as a slave for 41 years she used to help back up her novel."

The book's popularity transformed Henson into a 19th century pop star. He traveled the lecture circuit across the United States and Canada denouncing the injustice of slavery through inspiring sermons. He traveled to Europe three times, met the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister of England, Lord John Russell.

When Reverend Henson met Queen Victoria, she penned in her journal on March 4, 1877: "Reading, in that most interesting book the Life of Mr. Josiah Henson, a fugitive slave and the original of Mrs. B. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. He is now in his 88th year, and his sufferings, energy, patient endurance, and his anxiety for the good of his suffering brethren, are admirable." A transcript of that personal note is on view along with the original framed portrait of the Queen, a gift she gave Henson on that trip.

When I visited the 5,000 square foot interpretive center housing the North Star Theater and the Underground Railroad Freedom Gallery, there was a 30-minute video on Henson's life recounting his work on the Dawn Settlement, his autobiography, his work as a Methodist Minister as well as his role as one of the grand conductors of the Underground Railroad. It's believed that Henson made over 118 trips back to America.

Over at the gallery, artifacts from the early black settlement are housed. A hand carved black walnut rocking chair hewn from the trees at Dawn is a beautiful monument to the workmanship that Henson's students created at the short-lived British American Institute. Later this year, the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site will be displaying a recently acquired rare first edition leather-bound copy of Henson's autobiography, which was a donation from a private donor.

Only vestiges of the early black settlement remain on this 5-acre site. The once thick walnut groves are long gone. There is a simple clapboard house known as the Harris House, an early example of a black settlement house that stands adjacent to an austere whitewashed church in which the interior is filled with haunting gospel music. At the front stands a simple oak pulpit, Henson's own. And of course, there is the original Uncle Tom's Cabin, Josiah Henson's house, which was moved to the current site a few years ago.

"Canada was a true haven during the Underground Railroad. It was the Great Northern Light for these blacks," says Steve and concludes, "The number one thing people say today is we can't believe we made it here. It is so hard to find. Well that's why Josiah Henson lived here because it was so hard to find."

Henson settled on Dawn, the last stop on his Freedom Trail. He died here at the age of 94 and is buried on the grounds.

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photos: OTMPC


If You Go:

Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site is located on 29251 Uncle Tom's Road R.R.#5 Dresden, Ontario Canada.
Schedule: May 23 - October 10, 2005 and open for private group tours year round.
Hours of Operation: Monday through Saturdays 10 am - 5pm, Sundays noon - 5 pm
Admission: $6.25 Adults,$5.25 Seniors/Students, $4.75 Children 6-12 years, Children under 6 are free, $20 Family Rate.

Video copies of "Father Henson His Spirit Lives On" are available for sale. VHS tapes cost $20 CDN, DVDs cost $25 CDN

For more information and to order a video copy, call (519) 683-2978 or (519) 862-2291, email info@uncletomscabin.org or visit www.uncletomscabin.org


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