Josiah Henson: Model for Uncle Tom

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The Civil War

Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the most influential novels of all time, exposing the evils of slavery to a great many people who knew nothing so terrible was happening. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the book's author, is said to have gotten idea for her book from reading the autobiography of Josiah Henson.

This is his story.

Henson was born into slavery on June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland. He was sold three times before he was 18, ending up in Kentucky. He became a Methodist minister and gave talks, for which people would pay him money. By 1830, he had saved up $350 to buy his freedom. His master at the time had quoted that figure but increased it to $1,000 when Henson gave him the money. Josiah decided to take his family and escape. With the help of a Native American tribe and the Underground Railroad, they made their way to Canada.

He founded The Dawn Institute, a settlement for fugitive slaves near Ontario. At this place, former slaves would learn how to be successful farmers. He also began work on the Underground Railroad himself, helping hundreds of slaves to freedom in Canada.

He publisher his autobiography, Life of Josiah Henson, in 1849. Uncle Tom's Cabin came out a few years later, and Henson traveled in Canada and England, giving lectures on his life as "Uncle Tom." In fact, he retitled his autobiography My Life as Uncle Tom.

He died on May 5, 1883, in Dresden, Ontario.


  • He is the first black person to be featured on a Canadian stamp.
  • His great-grand nephew was Matthew Henson, who accompanied Robert Peary to the North Pole.

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Social Studies for Kids
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David White