When Harriet Beecher Stowe sat down to write a novel about slavery in the 1850s, she used many real people and events as inspiration. One of her models was Josiah Henson, whose life as a slave the novelist reshaped to create that famous fictional character, “Uncle Tom.”

Josiah Henson was a strong, intelligent man, and he was a successful slave. By demonstrating unwavering loyalty to his owners, he won their trust and advanced to the position of overseer on the plantation. He was shocked, therefore, when he found that his owner – whom he had trusted and served – was planning to sell him away from his wife and children. He took the heartbreaking decision to run.

The Hensons made it to Canada, Josiah walking the whole way with the two youngest children on their father’s back as the family struggled through a largely unsettled wilderness. In Canada, Henson proved just as successful a settler as he had been a slave. He worked, saved his money and bought land. He also returned south a number of times as a “conductor” on the Underground Railway and led others to safety. In later years, he founded the British American Institute, where refugees learned the trades they needed to prosper in Canada.

As for Harriet Beecher Stowe, everyone read her book. It won so many northern abolitionists to the cause that it was held responsible, in part, for the Civil War.

Janet Uren (WordImage Inc.)
Maggie Fawcett, Claire Brodie, Parks Canada Agency, Multiculturalism Branch / Department of Canadian Heritage

Ontario, CANADA
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

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