Famous Freemason: Josiah Henson

March 22, 2024

We all learned about the American Civil War in school, how the abolitionist movement grew throughout the North from practically the start of the country to the Surrender of Fort Sumter, but did you know that one of the pivotal pieces of novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was based in part on Freemason Josiah Henson’s life?

Before delving into Bro. Henson’s life, it’s important to point out that little is known about his Masonic career. His gravestone has a square and compass on it, and Mount Moriah Lodge No.11 in Dresdon, Canada, listed him as Secretary, but he never mentioned Freemasonry in either of his two autobiographies and it’s unclear where he was raised. A prominent theory is that he was raised right here in Boston at some point when he visited the city as an abolitionist, but we’ll never know the truth.

Bro. Henson was born into slavery in 1789 on a tobacco farm in Charles County, Maryland. When he was young, Bro. Henson watched as his father received 100 lashings of the whip and had his right ear cut off for disobedience towards an overseer. Eventually, his family was sold to different slaveholders, with his father being sold to a plantation in Alabama, and he and his mother were sold to a different slaveholder in Montgomery County, Maryland. This slaveholder trusted Bro. Henson, so much so that he asked him to supervise and sell 18 slaves to his brother all the way in Kentucky. He tried to purchase his freedom from this slaveholder, but the slaveholder changed the promissory note he was offered from $100 to $1000 and ended the conversation.

Later, he, his wife, and four children were owned by another master who planned to separate them. Josiah and the slaveholder agreed on a $300 fee, but when he went to pay the fee was increased again. At this point Bro. Henson had had enough and was determined to get to Canada for their freedom. Ontario, Canada passed a law in 1793 that gradually outlawed slavery and banned the importation of slaves, which meant that any American slave who crossed the border would be free. Bro. Henson and his family set off from Kentucky, crossing Indiana and Ohio, then took a boat to Buffalo where they finished the final leg to Canada. On October 28, 1830, Bro. Henson and his family arrived and were free.

In Canada, Bro. Henson lived a fruitful life. He raised funds to send his son to school, who then taught him how to read, and helped set up the Dawn Settlement for freed African Americans. He was an officer in the Canadian militia, a preacher, and an abolitionist who eventually went back to Kentucky to help other African Americans escape slavery. He even met Queen Victoria.

Bro. Henson went on to write two autobiographies, with the first serving as inspiration for Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He lived until the age of 93 and died on May 5, 1883. To read more about his life, click the link below!

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