First of three articles
Author. Esteemed lecturer. Popular clergyman who once preached the Gospel despite being unable to read or write until his 40s. Former slave turned Underground Railroad conductor who led nearly 120 others to freedom.
An abolitionist who established the Dawn Settlement and built a school, known as the British-American Institute, in Canada to teach literacy and trade skills so other fugitive slaves could make a living. The first African-American to be featured on a Canadian postage stamp and whose enlightening, narrated experiences of oppression became an inspiration for the protagonist in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The life of Charles County native Josiah Henson is one of those fascinating stories that puts the ‘his’ in black history.
From retracing his roots in La Plata through groundbreaking excavations to learning about the victories and struggles that he encountered along his journey as a runaway slave seeking freedom, Henson’s once misunderstood contribution during the 19th century is now being lauded as an inspiring tale of black triumph, especially within the Afro-Canadian community.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking discovery about Henson is his roots in La Plata, having been born into slavery in 1789 at a historic home along Port Tobacco Road known as La Grange, which was built around 1760 by Scotland native James Craik.
It all started when a local developer named Michael Sullivan, having an interest in Charles County’s history, contacted St. Mary’s College of Maryland anthropology professor Julia “Julie” King to recount Henson’s unknown story as a homegrown hero.
King, with the help of two interns and three student researchers including Rebecca Webster, Scott Strickland and Alex Flick, conducted an archaeological dig at La Grange back in 2016 to investigate Henson’s likely birthplace.
“We found a complex of [slave] quarters, which we wrote about in our report, called the quarter complex. It was used at the time Henson was born,” said King, a former member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation who has three decades of experience studying, writing and teaching about archaeology. “If you read his narrative, it says Henson was born in 1789. But we now think that that is either a printer error, where the printer who may have printed his memoirs reversed 98 into 89. ... Just based on the property and how old Henson was, he could not have been born before 1796. We think he was born in 1798. But regardless of when he was born, he led a remarkable life. He really did.”
While digging on the La Plata plantation, which was once known as Moore’s Ditch and owned by English colonist Francis Newman, King and her team analyzed documentary evidence found in maps and Newman’s own records. In addition to obtaining architectural evidence from photographs, paintings and surviving buildings near La Grange, the group used a tree line to help pinpoint the probable location of slave quarters.
“In the popular media, you often see that archaeologists dig in squares which are usually tied into a grid. The grid is superimposed over a property and we tied into that,” said King. “The reason that it’s important to archaeologists is that when you’re at a place like La Grange, the grid helps you keep everything separate. There are areas where enslaved people likely lived in that house because they may have been [doing household duties]. There are also [slave] quarters for people who aren’t necessarily working in the household but who are working on the farm.”
The archaeological investigation, according to King, ultimately revealed that “a combination of documentary, literary and archaeological evidence reveals the complicated nature of American slavery as it played out in Port Tobacco,” as noted in the group’s 2017 comprehensive report called, “In Search of Josiah Henson’s Birthplace: Archaeological Investigations at La Grange near Port Tobacco, Maryland.”
“In a different area, you may find traces of brick, nails and window glass. That’s when you can say, ‘Well, here’s where another house was located.’ Other houses were the homes of where the slaves on the property lived,” King described. “That’s why that grid is important. We found a number of locations where there were probably people who were enslaved on that farm living. Are those houses 1700s, are they 1800s? Are they 1600s? What are they?”
After completing nearly 720 shovel tests at La Grange, King and the student researchers recovered more than 24,000 artifacts, including domestic and non-brick architectural materials, which have since been fully processed and transferred to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in St. Leonard.
“[King’s] knowledge and enthusiasm is just so infections,” said Charlotte Hall resident Sonja “Sunny” Scharles who witnessed the dig. “I was so excited about the whole thing. It takes a while to read through [the report] but oh my gosh, the amount of details is incredible.”
“With satellite imagery, they actually connected a grid and worked on it with small digs going in holes, at various points, so they could measure where they were from the original house to determine what they were really looking for with the slave quarters,” Scharles continued.
Edna M. Troiano, a Waldorf resident and professor emerita of African-American literature at the College of Southern Maryland said she became so intrigued by Henson’s story that she recounted Henson’s life in a book called, “Uncle Tom’s Journey from Maryland to Canada: The Life of Josiah Henson,” which was released earlier this year.
“He lived an amazing life. I was fascinated by him and really couldn’t stop thinking about him. I became curious about why he had faded from history,” Troiano told the Maryland Independent during a December 2018 interview. “I went [to the dig at La Grange in 2016] because I’m interested in local history and archaeology. A friend of mine invited me and that’s where I met King. She said they were looking for the birthplace of Josiah Henson and I had never heard of him.”
Troiano ended up contacting The History Press and wasted no time working on her book. She even offered to assist with researching and other necessary duties in an effort to put the missing pieces of Henson’s life together.
“It’s such an astonishing story,” said Troiano. “I asked [King] why people haven’t heard of Henson. She said that was a common thing that many others also asked. Even [the current owner of La Grange] had never heard of Josiah Henson until [King] went to him and asked for permission to do a dig on his property.”
Having witnessed the dig at La Grange, Troiano was able to obtain background information about Henson’s birthplace. She then interviewed other experts and park curators, met with some of Henson’s descendants and even visited the places outside of Maryland where he had lived including Kentucky and Canada.
“But the missing piece of the puzzle that really bothered me was why nobody knew about this man,” said Troiano, a board member of the Charles County Literacy Council. “What I found out was that when Harriet Beecher Stowe created the character of Uncle Tom, she actually had a Christ-like figure in mind — someone who sacrificed himself to save others or was tortured and beaten to death. She did read about a lot of the enslaved people and refugees. She read Henson’s story, too. He was one of the inspirations [behind Uncle Tom]. But at the time, it was a great honor to be considered an Uncle Tom figure. That really increased [Henson’s] fame.”
Scharles, a California native who is a mutual friend of Troiano and King, was just as fascinated with Henson’s story after learning about him on a history hike of the Underground Railroad in Montgomery County.
“It was really interesting going through the woods and seeing how people hid themselves and the measures they went through to cover up their tracks,” said Scharles said. “The name Josiah Henson came up because there was a park [dedicated in his name] close by. They said he was born in Charles County and my jaw dropped. I have lived here for nearly 20 years but never heard of that name before.”
“I personally don’t know why [Henson] faded from history but I think that the ‘Uncle Tom’ badge probably had something to do with it,” Scharles added. “This is someone who was celebrated in Canada, visited Queen Victoria in England and was an international celebrity. But in Charles County where he was born and spent the first [few] years of his life, there’s absolutely [no explanation]. I wish I could tell you why. But that’s why Edna wrote her book – to try to open that window. It’s a wonderful book; the research she gives is compelling.”
The “labor force and reorganizations of the plantation landscape carried out” by white property owners, as King and her team declared in their 2017 report, suggests how Henson viewed La Grange “as a place of violent brutality.” The key takeaway that King said she wanted people to get from the report is that “the site of one of the more impressive, and intriguing, historic houses in Charles County” ultimately acts as an “overlooked” memorial depicting how blacks like Henson struggled to live their lives “in an unlivable system.”
“Whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ masters were kind to their enslaved workers or not kind,” King said, “it’s the injustice of slavery that doesn’t make it right.”
Some of the most intriguing discoveries made from the archaeological dig, according to the report, were fragments of decorated pottery that suggests Newman’s slaves were “making their own intricately patterned cups and plates, perhaps in an attempt to beautify their surroundings.”
King is convinced this evidence will give people “a sense of how” African-Americans adapted to unimaginable living conditions.
“Being a slave was more difficult than people are willing to acknowledge. [Henson] had an opportunity to run away with some slaves when he was in Ohio, but he didn’t,” said Keenan Holmes of Columbia, an archaeologist who is youth programs specialist at Montgomery Parks. “In his brain, if he ran away, then Henson was stealing himself away from his owner. That may sound silly in 2019 but back then, when you were viewed as someone else’s property and saw trauma almost every day at a young age like Henson, who had witnessed his father being beaten and ear mangled, you don’t [challenge] the system. Henson definitely spent the rest of his life making up for it and doing what he could.”
Although Henson’s birthplace is well known to readers of Stowe’s novel, King and her team claimed that his childhood experiences in Maryland “have been overlooked,” as it was the “the plantation on which Henson was born” and the “brutal treatment of Henson’s parents” that ultimately shaped his “views about slavery at the young age of four or five,” the report noted.
“It is very important for Maryland to acknowledge all of their heroes,” Holmes argued. “People were more immersed in the knowledge of [Stowe’s] fictitious book than [Henson’s] own memoirs. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is one of America’s most popular books and was read almost on the level of the Holy Bible at the time. It is a literary classic giving a somewhat fictitious account of a man that was a homegrown local hero who lived in North Bethesda. I read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in the eighth grade, but I did not know the real man behind that book was enslaved four miles from my school. We have a responsibility to bring up his real name, his real story.”
Due to the positive and negative influence that Stowe’s anti-slavery novel had on perceptions regarding Uncle Tom in the 19th century, Canadian author-filmmaker Jared Brock said that “history itself didn’t remember [Henson] kindly because of his connection to the fictional hero,” according to an article that Brock wrote last year for Smithsonian Magazine.
“I think two of the principal reasons that Henson might have faded from history is one, he went to Canada. In the end, he dies as a Canadian and not a U.S. citizen. The other thing is the book, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’” King said. “The name ‘Uncle Tom’ has become a pejorative phrase for those of us living in the modern-day age. Whereas in the 19th century, Stowe was writing for a voting white audience. She revealed to them the horrors of slavery. It’s a complicated book — she shows that there are ‘good masters’ and ‘bad masters,’ but there really is no difference. The real crime, and the real injustice, is slavery.”
Brock argued that “pro-slavery advocates” interpreted Stowe’s novel “as sectarian propaganda” and tried to discredit it.
“[Stowe’s] book becomes a very important political document on the eve of the American Civil War,” King said. “It was written for white audiences and published in many languages. It represents [Uncle] Tom almost as a Christ-like figure in his suffering. I found that we were always battling against the Uncle Tom modern-day legacy. It was a very important and powerful novel that helped galvanize this country toward a more better union.”
When white theater owners adapted Stowe’s novel, Brock said they made a mockery of Uncle Tom through kitsch minstrel shows. These shows consisted of white men in blackface that would depict the fictional character as “an old hunchback with poor English” and someone, specifically of African descent, who “would happily sell out his own race to curry favor with his owner,” a “perversion” of Uncle Tom that stuck around throughout the early 19th century, according to Brock’s article.
“It was originally a very positive thing. This was a man who figured out what the system was and how to work within it for the improvement of the lives of those enslaved, whom were in his realm of work,” said Scharles. “[Henson] was an overseer and so, of course, all of the others followed him and did what he said. But once the Uncle Tom thing was put out there and [became distorted through racist minstrelsy] during an awful, ugly time, people just weren’t able to get out of that way of thinking.”
Rather than accepting Stowe’s intent to recount “what life was like for enslaved people in the 1800s,” by allowing others to “witness the character of an intelligent, brave and compassionate man” through a fictional account, naysayers back then disdained Henson’s lauding as an international celebrity by questioning his sacrifices and role in ultimately helping to abolish slavery during an era of black oppression, according to an online review published by Maryland Public Television.
“He did a lot of things,” Holmes said. “He carried his [two youngest] children on his back [along their journey to freedom] from Kentucky to Canada. He freed slaves by way of the Underground Railroad. He started a settlement in Canada to teach people skills and trade post-slavery.”
King said she is optimistic that the discoveries made at La Grange, the “overlooked birthplace” site of Henson located just east of Port Tobacco, will “raise awareness about African-American history in Charles County” and “how that history is told.”
From being an Uncle Tom to joining a pantheon of heroes, Holmes said Henson’s story deserves to be restored in its rightful place in history.
“If people aren’t familiar with Stowe’s fictional book or Josiah Henson’s real story, then they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s that Uncle Tom!’ when they hear about him. But no, that’s not true,” said Holmes. “He is a local hero. He was enslaved in Montgomery County [but his real journey began] in Charles County — and, that’s important.”