'When my feet first touched the Canada shore, I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand, seized handfuls of it and kissed them and danced around, till, in the eyes of several who were present, I passed for a madman.'
- Josiah Henson
Harriet Beecher Stowe, a small-town Connecticut woman whose family was known as the "Beecher preachers" for their long lineage of ministers, was so appalled by slavery, she penned a story about one fugitive slave's life and called it "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Her novel was based largely on the autobiography "The Life of Josiah Henson Formerly a Slave."
The acclaimed "Uncle Tom's Cabin" became America's first international bestseller. During its first year, it sold more than 1 million copies in England and 300,000 copies across the US, outselling even the Bible. The year was 1852.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin," which has since been translated into 62 languages, was used as a rallying cry for abolitionists during the Civil War. It's been said that President Lincoln, upon meeting Mrs. Stowe, remarked, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."
Josiah Henson, the model for Uncle Tom, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church who, with his wife and four children, escaped from slavery in 1830, and spent six weeks on a journey to freedom in Canada.
Amid a thick grove of black walnut trees, Henson created the Dawn Settlement, a northern refuge for free slaves. In its heyday of the early 1850s, Dawn was home to 500 free black families. Henson also helped found the British American Institute, North America's first manual training school, which included a rope factory, brickyard, sawmill, grain mill, and a blacksmith shop. Since many free blacks only knew about harvesting tobacco and cotton, Henson yearned to teach them a variety of other farming methods and skills.
"Josiah Henson was a man of integrity and fortitude," says Barbara Carter, his great-great-granddaughter and a resident of Dresden.
Today, visitors and genealogists attempting to retrace their roots are heading to the historic site known as Uncle Tom's Cabin, about a 1-1/2-hour drive north of Detroit. The two-story clapboard house, constructed of cedar and tulipwood, was, by the standards of its day in rural Ontario, considered substantial.
When Henson was a small child, he saw his family separated and always remembered the tears his mother shed when his brothers and sisters were literally torn from her arms. He would also recount how his mother would pray in church.
"When I arrived at the place of meeting, the services were so far advanced that the speaker was just beginning his discourse, from the text Hebrews II: 9. 'That he by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man.' This was the first text of the Bible to which I had ever listened, knowing it to be such. I have never forgotten it, and scarce a day has passed since, in which I have not recalled it, and the sermon that was preached from it," he wrote in his autobiography, which was published in 1849.
Henson was considered by many to be the most important fugitive slave of his time, and his life story, as retold in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," opened the eyes of many around the world to the tragedy of slavery.
"It really was the first book that was an outcry against an American law. It was condemning slavery and telling about how the blacks were being treated," says Steve Cook, curator of Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site. "It was Henson's autobiography which Harriet was so inspired by. What he had been through as a slave for 41 years she used to help back up her novel."
The book's popularity transformed Henson into a 19th-century "pop star." He traveled the lecture circuit across the US and Canada, denouncing the injustice of slavery through inspiring sermons. He traveled to Europe three times, and met the Archbishop of Canterbury and the prime minister of England.
When he met Queen Victoria, she penned in her journal on March 4, 1877: "Reading, in that most interesting book the Life of Mr. Josiah Henson, a fugitive slave and the original of Mrs. B. Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' He is now in his 88th year, and his sufferings, energy, patient endurance, and his anxiety for the good of his suffering brethren, are admirable."
A transcript of that personal note is on view at the historic site, along with the original framed portrait of the queen she gave Henson.
In the interpretive center housing the North Star Theater and the Underground Railroad Freedom Gallery, a 30-minute video on Henson's life recounts his work on the Dawn Settlement, his autobiography, his work as a minister, and his role as one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad, for which it's believed that Henson made more than 118 trips back to the US.
Only vestiges of the early black settlement remain on this five-acre site. The once-thick walnut groves are long gone. A simple clapboard house known as the Harris House, an example of an early black settlement house, stands adjacent to an austere whitewashed church whose interior is often filled with haunting gospel music. At the front is a simple oak pulpit, Henson's own. The original Uncle Tom's cabin, Josiah Henson's house, was moved to the current site a few years ago.
"Canada was a true haven during the Underground Railroad. It was the Great Northern Light for these blacks," says Steve. "The No. 1 thing people say today is, 'We can't believe we made it here.' It is so hard to find. Well, that's why Josiah Henson lived here, because it was so hard to find."
• Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, 29251 Uncle Tom's Road R.R. #5 Dresden, Ontario, Canada. Telephone: (519) 683-2978 or (519) 862-2291, e-mail email@example.com, or visit www.uncletomscabin.org. It's open to the public daily from May 23 until Oct. 1.