Merlene Davis: Canadians knew 'Uncle Tom's' Daviess County connection before Kentuckians

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 15, 2012 

Josiah Henson, reportedly the model for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, went to Canada from Daviess County.

During my interview with Sarah Hall for another story, the Lexington attorney just let it drop that her father was instrumental in discovering that Josiah Henson, reported model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, lived in Daviess County.

See, Hall and I both are from Owensboro in Daviess County, and we were traipsing down memory lane when she let it slip.

I had known Henson was enslaved in Daviess County, but I did not realize how recently that fact had been uncovered or the story behind the revelation.

Three Owensboro residents — Edith Bennett, Hugh Potter and Hall's father, Dr. David Orrahood — played a role in letting Kentucky know what Canadians were already celebrating.

Bennett, an author and longtime Owensboro resident, said she and her father were vacationing in Canada in the 1960s when her car broke down and was towed to Dresden, Ontario.

The mechanic noticed they were from Daviess County by her license plate and suggested she visit the newly-opened Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site in Dresden dedicated to Henson, an escaped slave who fled a plantation near Owensboro.

"I didn't know," Bennett said. "We went to the little museum that had a lot of tools Henson had used and to his two-story home nearby and to a little cemetery."

The curator, she said, wasn't sure how the tools were used, but her father was able to fill him in.

When they returned to Owensboro, Bennett told her boss, Hugh Potter, manager of the WOMI radio station, what she had learned.

"He said, 'Edith, someone is pulling your leg,'" she recalled.

Meanwhile, Orrahood, chief of pathology at Owensboro-Daviess County Hospital and an amateur historian, had visited a farm outside Owensboro to discuss genealogy with Susan Hawes, a member of a well-known family.

Hawes mentioned that her great-grandfather, Amos Riley, had owned Henson.

"My husband said, 'Who is Josiah Henson?'" recalled Joyce Orrahood, who now lives in Lexington. "She said he was Uncle Tom."

Orrahood relayed the story to Potter.

"He said he was going to have to apologize to Edith," Bennett said last week.

The three got together, researched more details and the story was published in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer newspaper on Oct. 22, 1967. The Canadian curator of the Henson museum visited the site where Henson had lived while in Daviess County.

I have no idea why the connection wasn't made much earlier than that.

From 1825 to 1830, Henson served as an overseer on the 10,000-acre Amos Riley Plantation, located between Owensboro and Maceo.

According to his 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, Henson was born in 1789 in Maryland. He and about 20 other slaves, including his wife and two children, were sent to Riley by Riley's brother, Isaac, who was experiencing financial troubles and didn't want the slaves sold to settle his debts.

Henson, a minister by then, brought the group to Kentucky, ignoring suggestions along the way that the small party should simply disappear, especially in Ohio, a free state. But he kept his word and delivered himself and the other slaves to their new master.

"I have often had painful doubts as to the propriety of my carrying so many other individuals into slavery again, and my consoling reflection has been, that I acted as I thought at the time was best," he wrote in his book.

After being tricked out of money he thought would purchase his freedom and after Riley's failed attempt to sell him in Louisiana, Henson escaped with his wife and four children, helped by Native Americans and boatmen along their dangerous six-week journey to Canada.

Once there, Henson got involved with the Underground Railroad, leading more than 200 people from slavery to Canada. With financial help from Quakers, Henson set up a 200-acre colony in Dawn, near Dresden, in 1842. There was a sawmill, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop and the first vocational school in Canada, where freed slaves could learn trades.

The school closed in 1868 because of tension between administrators and after many of the refugees returned to the United States to fight for the Union. Henson remained there, however, until his death in 1883.

After reading about Henson in a pamphlet, Stowe invited him to her home and is believed to have gathered material for her book, which was published in 1852.

He also was granted an audience with Queen Victoria and was the first former slave to be granted that honor.

Bennett, who is finishing a book of her own, said an historic marker now sits at the site of the plantation and there is a play retelling Henson's life story. When the museum in Canada was celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth, the curator invited Owensboro's mayor to attend. The mayor sent Bennett instead.

"I really enjoyed that," she said.

It is strange how history is uncovered sometimes, but it is always good that facts are brought to light.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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