Dig in Maryland unearths pieces of Josiah Henson history

Dig in Maryland unearths pieces of Josiah Henson history

An archeological dig in Maryland has turned up fresh traces of the place where one of Canada’s most important black settlers of the 19th-century — Josiah Henson, the escaped slave whose life story inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin — toiled for a hard-hearted tobacco farmer before fleeing to present-day Southern Ontario, where he created a haven for fellow escapees at the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad.

Henson, recognized by the Canadian government in 1995 as a “person of national historic significance,” was born into slavery in Maryland in 1789 and spent about 30 years at a Montgomery County farm owned by Isaac Riley, who grew tobacco, potatoes and other crops on an acreage located about 20 kilometres from downtown Washington, D.C.

After leading Henson to believe he could one day purchase his freedom, Riley instead sold Henson — who had largely run the Maryland farm and shown considerable loyalty to his “master” — to a Kentucky slave owner.

In 1830, an enraged Henson finally escaped to Upper Canada and founded the famous Dawn Settlement near Chatham, Ont., now commemorated with a museum and interpretive centre. He would live for more than 50 years in Canada as the economic and spiritual leader of a large and thriving community of ex-slaves, vigorously promoting the abolitionist movement and — in 1849 — publishing his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.

Henson’s memoirs inspired Stowe’s fictional account of Uncle Tom, which proved to be one of most influential literary works in history, spreading abolitionist views and helping to trigger — even in the mind of then-president Abraham Lincoln — the U.S. Civil War.

The Maryland property, purchased by Montgomery County in 2006, is now managed as a heritage site that offers tours of the original Riley farmhouse and commemorates Henson’s struggles as a slave, his embrace of Christianity and his quest to be a free man.

This month’s excavation at the site, filmed for the PBS television series Time Team America, unearthed possible building foundations and what appear to be compacted dirt floors from the time when Henson lived and slaved in the surrounding fields.

“Our lodging was in log huts, of a single small room, with no other floor than the trodden earth, in which ten or a dozen persons — men, women and children — might sleep, but which could not protect them from dampness and cold, nor permit the existence of the common decencies of life,” Henson wrote of Riley’s slave operation. “There were neither beds for furniture of any description — a blanket being the only addition to the dress of the day for protection from the chillness of the air or the earth. In these hovels were we penned at night, and fed by day; here were the children born and the sick neglected. Such were the provisions for the daily toil of the slave.”

Experts from Montgomery County’s parks department and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission suspect the dig has exposed parts of a barn, blacksmith shop or kitchen quarters from Riley’s farm.

“What is so exciting,” lead archeologist Heather Bouslog told Postmedia News on Thursday, “is: could this be the original floor from when Josiah Henson was there?”

The August dig is part of a broader plan to transform the property into a national attraction paying homage to Henson’s life, exploring the enduring impact Uncle Tom’s Cabin and shedding light on the era of slavery, the Underground Railroad and the promise of freedom in Canada.

“On both a national and international level, Maryland has the potential to make a tremendous historical contribution to Henson’s life story, particularly the years before his escape to Canada,” noted a 2008 report on the Riley/Henson heritage site. “Once in Canada, Henson displayed tremendous leadership, founding a settlement … for others who had escaped slavery. Education, freedom to worship, farming and vocational training were some of the remarkable opportunities he offered to newly free people at Dawn.”

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