Josiah Henson Museum behind copies of Henson narrative and Uncle Tom's Cabin

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There was no large plantation, no slave quarter cabins, nothing but a small white clapboard house. This museum didn’t even have its own parking! The only thing to indicate there might be something of interest about this particular house was the one-room log cabin attachment at the back of the house.

Riley/Bolton House with attached log cabin kitchen
The old Riley/Bolton Family House with log-cabin style kitchen attached at back of house.

The museum and visitor center area combined were much smaller than I had expected for one of the most significant figures in American history. Or at least, the man that inspired one of the most well known characters in all of American fiction. I was visiting the Josiah Henson Museum & Park to learn all I could about the man who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character Uncle Tom.

Purchase Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe via Amazon or Bookshop

Josiah Henson Museum visitor center
Josiah Henson Museum visitor center

Master Riley and his Slave, Josiah Henson

The unassuming little house that now sits along a busy road in Bethesda, Maryland was once home to a slave owner by the name of Mr. Riley, and the slave of importance who had worked for him was Josiah Henson. Henson, although originally sold to a neighboring farm, was traded for horseshoeing services at a young age to Mr. Riley who had purchased Henson’s mother at auction. Thus, Henson spent much of his childhood and young adult years on this property. Riley was a terrible master, but despite this Henson was able to work his way up to the trusted position of overseer of the property and eventually made a deal to buy his freedom.

Unfortunately, due to Riley’s mismanagement of his own funds, he swindled his way out of his deal with Henson and sent all his slaves to Kentucky to reside with his brother. In 1830, after some time in Kentucky, Henson with his wife and children managed a daring escape and made their way to Canada where they could be free. In Canada Henson started The Dawn Settlement, a place for escaped slaves to live together, teach their children, and work the land to support themsleves. They built a school and a lumber mill. Henson often returned to the US to aid runnaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. He helped free at least 118 more slaves. He went on speaking tours, met the queen of England, and lived to see slavery abolished. Eventually he narrated his life story to Samuel Eliot, because Henson couldn’t write, and it was this published autobiography that inspired the characters and events of Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Purchase The Life of Josiah Henson via Amazon or Bookshop

Henson's desk and museum info panels.
Museum panels describing Riley tricking Henson out of freedom and Henson’s decision to escape. Henson’s desk sits between the panels.

Similarities and Differences between Josiah Henson and Stowe’s Uncle Tom

Stowe did not directly retell the tale of Henson’s life. She used elements from his narrative for several different characters. For example, the theme of family separation recurs throughout Stowe’s novel. in his autobiography, Henson relates that he witnessed his father being beaten for trying to protect his mother from being sexually abused and consequently, his father was then sold as “damaged property” and never seen again. Later Henson watched all his siblings being sold at auction as his mother pleaded on her knees with Riley to keep Josiah, her last child, before Riley kicked Mrs. Henson and sold Josiah.

Stowe, although herself a white woman, was clearly empathetic towards Henson’s loss of family and wanted to emotionally impress upon her readers that slaves and owners alike felt similarly at being separated from their loved ones. Unbelievably, it seems to us now, the white folks in the novel believe that slaves do not feel the separation of family members, however, when their own child is taken from them, there is a large display of grief.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slave Tom is sold off, separating him from his wife and children. To juxtapose the lack of emotion shown to Tom by white owners selling him and thereby separating him from his children, his new owners lose their daughter to illness and this loss is greatly mourned by all family members and household staff.

Another slave in Stowe’s novel, Eliza, overhears her owners discussing selling her small son. After having already been separated from her husband, Eliza decides to run away with her son rather than allow him to be sold. In the novel it is not Tom who makes his way to Canada, as Henson did, but rather Eliza and her child. This mother and son, are however, like many of the escaped slaves Henson helped reach his Canadian Dawn Settlement via the Underground Railroad.

When Henson and Tom’s stories are similar, they’re never quite the same. Henson relates in his narrative that it was not unusual for a slave’s master to go out drinking and rely on a particular slave to carry him home. Henson himself had to do this on many occasions for Mr. Riley. In her novel, Stowe had her character Tom take liberties that Henson could not have. One night after Tom had to carry his owner Augustine St. Clare home after a night of drinking, Tom preached to his owner, convincing him to clean up his ways.

Another element Stowe took from Henson’s narrative was the promise of freedom being just within reach before it’s cruelly taken away. In Henson’s case, as stated previously, it was due to an unethical master. For Tom, on the other hand, his dream is crushed when the master that had agreed to free him dies before setting Tom free.

The one element of Henson’s narrative that Stowe did not change was His (and Uncle Tom’s) unwavering belief in God and helping fellow slaves through preaching. While a young man, Henson’s mother convinced him to go listen to a local preacher. This preacher made the radical statement that all masters and slaves would be equally saved in the end. This idea stuck with Henson and Stowe incorporated this belief into her character.

Henson museum display above fireplace
Henson Museum display about Henson’s narrative and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and and how they changed the world.

Unfortunately, Tom -SPOILER ALERT- died in the end of the novel, whereas Henson lived and went on to help other slaves escape via the Underground Railroad. I suppose had Stowe used Henson’s ending, she would not have made Tom as sympathetic a figure to her readers. And I assume that Tom’s dying and turning other characters toward Christianity as a result, must have connected with Stowe’s readers, considering Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the second best selling book next to the Bible soon after it was published. So many people read it, and perhaps were persuaded into being more empathetic towards slaves, that it’s said President Lincoln upon meeting Stowe, called her the “little lady that started the Civil War”.

Sadly, since the Civil War, the character of Uncle Tom has been negatively distorted in popular culture, and the man who inspired him has been all but forgotten. According to a display in the museum, Uncle Tom has become a symbol of “race traitors”, those that want to work with whites on non violent strategies. The Josiah Henson Museum aims to set the story straight and honor the memory of Mr. Henson.

Henson museum display about Uncle Tom stereotype
“Uncle Tom” The Stereotype, a Henson Museum info panel

The Josiah Henson Museum Experience

The Josiah Henson Museum is fairly new. Despite the age of the house and Henson having lived on the property in the early 1800s, the museum only opened in late 2021. Therefore it was as much a surprise to me to learn of this museum as it was to my parents who grew up in the area! While I’ve been to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, a half-hour drive from the Henson museum, and know that there were slaves there, I had never really thought about slaves quite so close to “home”. Home, being my grandmother’s apartment where I’ve spent almost every summer up to now, which is about a five minute drive from the museum. So, with the opportunity presenting itself, it was time to learn about the area’s history, and as a bonus, the real story behind the most well-known American fictional character.

At the time Henson lived on the property, it was a 560 acre plantation. The current footprint of the museum and park is four acres. The newly constructed visitor center sits where the plantation’s orchard once was, and active archeological dig sites surround the Riley/Bolton house museum. Eventually the museum hopes to expand its exhibits as discoveries in the archeological sites are made. The overseer’s house was recently discovered, which is where Henson, as Overseer, would probably have lived at one point. For now, though, there is just the visitor center, the house museum, and a few dig sites to see.

To see inside the house-turned-museum, we purchased tickets at the visitor center reception desk for the next timed-entry and then waited until allowed into the video screening room where our tour started. I couldn’t help but notice that we were the only ones here besides a father and a son this afternoon and had our choice of seating.

After the video, the woman from whom we’d purchased our tickets reappeared and, acting now as our guide/museum interpreter, walked us the few feet to the Riley/Bolton house and let us in, not the front door, but the back door. Having visitors enter and exit via back doors in the house is intentional so that museum goers experience the house as the slaves had, who were not allowed to ever use the front door.

My initial reaction upon entering the house was surprise at how very modern and bright it was inside. Carpet covered the original floor, conservation shades hung in the windows to keep sunlight from fading artifacts, and the Bolton family had some renovation work done to the house in the 1940s. You never would have guessed this house had been standing in this spot as long as it has, except for a few giveaways. You can still hear the old floor creak underfoot and in one corner, the museum has removed a square of drywall so visitors can see the old wooden beams of which the house is constructed.

The next thing I noticed was the information panels, with built-in display cases for small artifacts, lining the walls, taking you on a path from one room to the next. This was not a house museum experience where the interior was furnished and decorated according to the time period in which Henson would have worked in and around the home. At first I was disappointed because when presented with a museum experience such as this was going to be, where I’m left alone to just read panels, I usually end up skimming the text and skipping half of them. However, willing to give this a go, I started reading the first one. Before I knew it I was engrossed.

Henson Museum info panel display
One of the many display panels throughout the Henson Museum.

The panels had intriguing illustrations drawn on them that captured my eye like a nice graphic novel, and the text was no more than you’d read on a page. The information was well written in easily digestible quantities. Going from one info panel to the next was like reading a graphic novel in which you kept wanting to turn the page to find out what happened next! And the small artifacts that had been found in the archeological digs around the property interspersed with the text and illustrations reminded you that the story in front of you had really happened. For a museum with few artifacts, this is a great museum! By the time I’d reached the exit door, I knew I had to return to the visitor center to purchase Josiah Henson’s narrative so I could read the full story, as I’d only gotten bits and pieces from the presented material.

Having toured the air-conditioned Riley/Bolton house, I pushed the door open to a rush of sweltering Maryland summer heat. I immediately felt sorry for anyone, namely Henson and his fellow slaves, who had had to work this property on a day like today.Especially those that had had to man a large kitchen fireplace in an un-airconditioned log cabin style attachment at the back of the house, which is where I headed next.

Interior of Henson Museum slave kitchen
Interior of log-cabin kitchen with large fireplace and sleeping loft above.

This kitchen was not, as I had thought upon arrival, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. It was, in fact, the kitchen of the plantation, which would have been the activity center. It also contained a sleeping loft above the fireplace. Henson would have slept and spent time here while too young to work. Henson described this kitchen as usually crowded, filthy, and had a stench. I had caught up with the father and son who we’d started the experience with and (factoring in Covid social distancing) I already thought 3 of us in this room was too many. I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would have been like with a hot fireplace, several bodies, and a horrible smell. And while I had a mask on, the current father and son did not, so I didn’t linger in the kitchen to further imagine how disease would have easily traveled among the household servants.

Feeling very sorry for Henson, and very glad he had managed to free himself and others in the end, rather than end up like Stowe’s Tom, I headed back to the visitor center to purchase copies of Henson’s narrative, The Life of Josiah Henson and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Visiting the Josiah Henson Museum

Related sites to visit:

Did you know Uncle Tom was inspired by a real man? Have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Have you familiarized yourself with the history of your own area? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Elizabeth,
    Just read this and wanted you to know how much I enjoyed it. What a fascinating story. I like the way you didn’t ‘white-wash’ any of it. The life of a slave was so terrible and it always bothers me when people talk about how the slaves felt like family and didn’t want to leave. Ha! I am inspired to purchase the books. Really enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work! So proud of my former wonderful music student.
    Ms. Boochever (Annie)

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