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The Road to Dawn
Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War
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-He rescued 118 enslaved people
-He won a medal at the first World’s Fair in London
-Queen Victoria invited him to Windsor Castle
-Rutherford B. Hayes entertained him at the White House
-He helped start a freeman settlement, called Dawn, that was known as one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad
-He was immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that Abraham Lincoln jokingly blamed for sparking the Civil War
But before all this, Josiah Henson was brutally enslaved for more than forty years.
Author-filmmaker Jared A. Brock retraces Henson’s 3,000+ mile journey from slavery to freedom and re-introduces the world to a forgotten figure of the Civil War era, along with his accompanying documentary narrated by Hollywood actor Danny Glover.
The Road to Dawn is a ground-breaking biography lauded by leaders at the NAACP, the Smithsonian, senators, authors, professors, the President of Mauritius, and the 21st Prime Minister of Canada, and will no doubt restore a hero of the abolitionist movement to his rightful place in history.
When we get a little farther away from the conflict, some brave and truth-loving man, with all the facts before him… will gather from here and there the scattered fragments… and give to those who shall come after us an impartial history of this the grandest moral conflict of the century.
IN FEBRUARY 2014, I WAS PERUSING A BOOKSHOP IN FLORIDA when I came across a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. My wife, Michelle, had been wanting the novel for a while, so I purchased a copy and stuffed it in her Christmas stocking. She read it and was moved by it, and I decided to do a little more research.
I knew that Stowe’s novel had often been credited with influencing the debate at the heart of the Civil War. But I was surprised to discover that her novel was based on the life of a real man, named Josiah Henson. Did this man’s story spark the Civil War?
When I found out Josiah’s cabin was just a few short hours from my own home, I had to visit. We drove to Dresden, Ontario, on a blazing hot summer day, and Michelle read me Josiah’s humble little memoir on the return ride.
We learned that the prime minister of Great Britain had thrown a surprise banquet in his honor, and that Earl Grey had offered him a job. The archbishop of Canterbury had wept after hearing his story. This man had been feted by queens and presidents, and he had won a medal at the first World’s Fair in London. He had rescued 118 slaves, including his own brother, and helped build a five-hundred-person freeman settlement, Dawn, that was known as one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. How had I never heard of Josiah Henson?
I spent the next few years of my life immersed in Josiah’s story, and the result is in your hands. I traveled to multiple countries, visited libraries and museums, interviewed dozens of experts, pored over thousands of documents, and produced a documentary wherein I retraced Father Henson’s three-thousand-mile journey from Maryland to Washington to New Orleans to Kentucky to Canada. I have shared meals with his descendants, visited his gravesite, and I have begun taking steps to start a foundation to ensure his legacy is never lost again.
This is the story of a man who spent more than forty years in slavery, vowed to use his freedom well, and made good on that promise. As with every slave narrative, there are gaps in the story that we may never be able to fill with anything more than speculation. And because Josiah never learned to write, and his story was filtered through the perspectives of those who recorded his story, some of the intimate details of his vocation and family life remain a mystery.
Our story’s hero was, of course, complicated and flawed. Yet he still deserves a place in the pantheon amid Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Solomon Northup, and others. This is a man whose life in microcosm represents both the history and the fate of America. It is my great privilege and pleasure to introduce you to one of our greatest lost figures, the Reverend Josiah Henson.
Jared A. Brock
Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature.
A YOUNG WOMAN NAMED CELIA STRUGGLED, ALONE, IN A FIELD far removed and hidden from the others. The woman was small, perhaps eighty or ninety pounds, with sinewy arms and strong hands. The wooden hoe rubbed her palms raw as she dug and dragged the instrument through the dirt and mud. She had been working all day, and her stomach ached with hunger.
The white overseer, who had sent her to this far field, appeared suddenly. Celia immediately knew what was coming and tried to run, but the man was too fast and too powerful.
Mason was in a distant field when he heard his wife’s screams. He dropped his hoe and sprinted through the rows of tobacco and corn, their sharp edges cutting like razors. As he ran, he lifted his hands to shield his eyes.
The assault on his wife had been brutal. He charged the rapist and began to beat him. Celia begged her husband to stop hitting the overseer, knowing the punishment that awaited any slave who hit a white man. The overseer, too, begged for the blows to cease, promising not to tell the owner what the slave had done.
Mason relented, and looked at the injured man. His shirt was a tattered mess and stained with blood. His nose stood at a crooked angle, and his eyes were already swollen tight and black.
Mason turned and ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
“A NIGGER HAS STRUCK A WHITE MAN!”1
The word went out and had the whole county talking. No one asked what incited the incident. It didn’t matter; the law was on the overseer’s side. They were in Maryland, which, like other slave states, provided generous means of legal revenge for slave owners—and whites in general—who had been attacked by a slave.
Mason hid in the woods for days. He ventured out at night in search of food, but the overseer’s guards kept such strict surveillance that his efforts were thwarted. His supplies dwindled until he was starved out.
The day for punishment arrived. Whites from across Charles County made up the majority of the audience, though slaves from the neighboring plantations were forced to witness the scene. The overseer dragged Mason forward and tied him to the whipping post with an iron chain. He tore off the black man’s shirt.
A well-dressed white man, Mason’s owner, stepped forward. Francis Newman had been born around 1759 to a wealthy family from Devon, England, but had fled to America after getting caught in a scandal with a mistress. He had quickly remarried in the New World and had prospered financially. Newman eventually owned over a thousand acres across several plots, along with the La Grange estate, a large, well-built red-brick house about a mile from Port Tobacco. He purchased the house in November 1798 from Dr. James Craik, George Washington’s personal physician, who later became chief surgeon for the Continental Army.2
By 1798, Newman owned twenty-four slaves. Seven of them were healthy individuals between the ages of twelve and fifty, and therefore taxable. The other seventeen were either children or they were elderly, sick, or disabled. He rented still more slaves. But Newman was a cold, hard man who mistreated his enslaved workers, purchased and rented alike.3
The illiterate white audience was furious that Newman hadn’t immediately sold Mason south. Some of them believed Newman himself deserved to be lynched for not administering the “justice” they so craved. But Newman was a businessman. He knew a slave like Mason was far too valuable to be executed. No one kills a cow for trampling carrots. He would teach all his slaves a lesson this day.
Newman nodded to a heavyset man with a leather bullwhip in hand.
The burly blacksmith, Mr. Hewes, took his position a few feet away from his victim. The overseer pulled the rope until Mason’s arms were raised taut above his head. The slave shook with fear and braced in preparation.
The first lash fell. Mason howled with pain. The leather cord cut deep, its bulbous end leaving a hard bruise, while its lengthy feathered edged left a searing red stripe across Mason’s back.
Flogging was commonplace on Maryland plantations. Some people earned a good living from punishing errant slaves, and blacksmith Hewes profited greatly from his well-honed side-craft.
The blacksmith’s powerful arms worked the barbed whip with a steady cadence. The stripe gouged deeper and deeper into the slave’s flesh. Blood ran from his back. Mason’s cries could be heard a mile into the tobacco fields.
Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Fifty lashes.
Blacksmith Hewes paused at fifty strokes. Several men stepped forward to check Mason’s vitals, knowing the slave was valuable property that mustn’t be damaged. They agreed he was strong enough to handle the whole hundred.
Francis Newman wasn’t the only slave owner in the area who severely chastised his slaves. A farmer five miles south of Port Tobacco named Samuel Cox once whipped a slave named Jack Scroogins to death. When he began, the enslaved man had on a new cotton shirt; by the time Cox finished three hours later, all that remained were the collar and wristbands.4
Again and again the whip cracked against Mason’s lacerated back. The slave’s cries grew fainter, until a faint groan was the only response to the final stripes.
Upon reaching the hundredth lash, blacksmith Hewes wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. He laid down the whip, grabbed Mason’s head, and held it against the whipping post. The overseer picked up a hammer and nailed Mason’s right ear to the beam.
The blacksmith produced a long, sharp knife and, with a swift slice, left the bleeding appendage affixed to the pole.
Mason screamed as blood splattered from the open wound. A loud cheer went up from the whites in the crowd. A black woman fainted. The overseer’s cheer was loudest of all. “That’s what he gets for striking a white man!”
MASON HOWLED AS HE STUMBLED THROUGH THE DOORS OF THE wooden slave shack. He caught sight of Celia and collapsed on the dirt floor in a heap of agony. His head was bleeding badly and his back was a ragged pulp of bloody furrows that ran so deep the white of bone was exposed.
Other slaves rushed into the squalid hovel with water and bandages. Celia’s six children stood by as their mother carefully dabbed the bloody gashes. Mason thrashed in pain as healing salve was applied to his cuts. Upon inspection of the head wound, Celia saw that his right ear had been cut off too close to his scalp for stitching. One of the slaves heated a clothing iron on the fire—cauterization was the only way to save him from deadly infection. After the blazing brand was pressed hard against Mason’s head, he curled up in the fetal position and begged for death.
It was Josiah Henson’s first memory.
BIRTH OF A LEGEND
Josiah’s story begins in Port Tobacco, Maryland, a thriving town with fifty homes, a hotel, and a courthouse. Tobacco farmers could load goods at Warehouse Landing in Port Tobacco, float them five miles down the Port Tobacco River to the Potomac, and from there north to the markets of Washington.
Josiah claimed he was born on Monday, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis Newman. This date seems oddly specific, as a slave’s birthday was rarely recorded, and certainly not celebrated. The year 1789 may simply have been a printing typo that remained uncorrected in subsequent editions of the autobiography. In fact, research suggests Josiah may have been off by as many as ten years.
Enslaved people simply didn’t know, or weren’t allowed to know, their date of birth. Slave owners discouraged the recording of the birthdates of slaves, because one of the most effective tools of slave oppression was ignorance. A slave with knowledge of the wider world is a slave who can cause problems. A slave with a memory of the past and a vision of the future is dangerous. A slave who can say, “I was born on a particular day” is a slave who possesses self-knowledge.
We don’t know for sure what Josiah’s parents’ names were. Josiah’s mother’s name was likely Celia, and his father may have been named Mason. New purchasers often changed the names of their slaves in an effort to confound any attempt on their part to reunite at a later date. During Reconstruction, freed blacks, searching for each other, placed thousands of advertisements in newspapers that were read from church pulpits.
My mother, known in Mississippi as Susan, was moved to Alabama and I think called Sarah.
When Josiah entered the world, American domestic policy was changing rapidly. By the time he died, slavery would be illegal, but he was born into the brutal world of the transatlantic slave trade. Maryland wasn’t the worst place to be a slave, however. All the slaves knew—the northern owners made certain they knew—that down South, in the steamy and forbidding regions of Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia, slaves faced cruelty far worse than in the northern slave states. No northern slave wanted to be sold down South. The stories were gruesome: skin flayed from flesh, bodies branded with red-hot irons, whip blisters burst and rubbed with turpentine, tongues torn out, slaves fed alive to mosquitoes and alligators.5 One rumored instrument of torture was the thumbscrew, a device allowing an owner or overseer to force a slave’s thumb between two flat metal pieces fitted with ridges or spikes, which then crushed the victim’s thumb when screwed tight together. Slave trader turned Christian hymn writer John Newton wrote of the pain of the enslaved in his journals: “I have seen them agonizing for hours, I believe for days together, under the torture of the thumbscrews; a dreadful engine, which, if the screw be turned by an unrelenting hand, can give intolerable anguish.”6 It was a simple, affordable, and convenient device for punishing slaves in a barbarically torturous manner, and the very stories were enough to make a northern slave shudder. A life of misery in Maryland seemed better than the horrors that awaited any slave down South.
Slavery in the Deep South was undoubtedly horrific, but conditions were still often far worse on plantations in the Caribbean and South America, which frequently implemented a “work to death” policy. The Church of England’s Codrington plantation in Barbados relied on a steady stream of new slaves from Africa because slaves died so frequently from sickness and overwork. It was reported that four in ten slaves bought by the plantation in 1740 were dead within three years.
As for the six free states (Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine), or the free territories of the Northwest, a slave’s chances of getting to one of these places were almost as good as his or her chances of sprouting wings. Those who attempted escape and were caught—even in a free state—were beaten and sold down the river into the hungry jaws of the barbaric South.
From the day of his torture on, Josiah’s father was a changed man. He had been a good-humored and lighthearted fellow who had played the banjo at corn huskings and all-night parties, but, as Josiah put it, “the milk of human kindness turned to poison in his heart.”7 Cruelty and injustice—sanctioned by American law—had curdled his character. He refused to work. He became morose, stubborn, brooding, and disobedient. Francis Newman threatened to sell him down South, but Mason was unmoved. Once his wounds had healed, he was sent to Newman’s son in the South.
Josiah never saw his father again.
SLAVERY HAS EXISTED SINCE AT LEAST THE BEGINNING OF RECORDED history. The first civilizations in Sumeria held slaves, along with ancient China, Egypt, Iran, and many others. When the Romans and other powers made conquests, they often took captives to be used as slave labor.
The institution of slavery in the United States began shortly after the arrival of the Europeans, and it lasted for more than three hundred years. But American slavery was cruelly worse than the slavery practiced in other countries at the time. In Europe, people could become slaves as a result of debt or crime, but could eventually earn their freedom by paying their debts. Even in these scenarios, neither the slaves nor their children were considered the property of their debtors. In America, people could be purchased as slaves and held like any other form of property.
In the early stages of the transatlantic slave trade, African leaders would trade war captives or criminals to Europeans who were traveling to the United States. In return, the African leaders would receive alcohol, firearms, and other items. Naturally, the number of criminals very quickly diminished, but the European demand for slaves did not.
The early slave trade was driven almost entirely by economics. As European nations colonized America, a labor force was needed to work the vast plantations. Slaves provided a lifetime source of free labor that replaced itself with offspring. The profit margins were massive compared to those in Europe, and suddenly the New World was rich with cash crops such as rice and tobacco.
Slavery soon became an arms race between the warring African tribes. If they didn’t capture and sell other Africans in exchange for guns, nearby groups might do the same to them. Additionally, European merchant ships bound for the Americas would first stop in West Africa to raid villages for slaves. Africans were kidnapped from their homes, transported across the Atlantic Ocean, and sold into slavery for generations to come.
The only certain way to escape slavery was death. When some slaves realized the misery that lay ahead, they took their own lives.
There are many accounts of slaves refusing to eat and starving to death. Others hanged themselves. Captain Thomas Phillips of a slave ship called the Hannibal recalled twelve slaves drowning themselves to escape what they judged would be a worse fate. Slaves would cut their wrists in an attempt to bleed themselves to death, and in one case, a slave twice attempted to slit his own throat with his fingernails. After his hands were tied, he resisted food until he starved to death ten days later.8
Between 1525 and 1866, almost 500,000 Africans arrived in North America. In total, over 12 million Africans were shipped to the New World, with almost 2 million dying during their treacherous trip across the Middle Passage. Insurance companies—such as Lloyd’s of London—only compensated investors for slaves who drowned at sea, so captains often threw the sick or dying into the ocean. However, in one particularly egregious case, a captain named Luke Collingwood threw more than 130 enslaved Africans overboard simply because the ship was running low on drinking water.9 In this case, the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, ruled that the insurance company shouldn’t have to pay, saying it “was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.”*
By the time Josiah was born, slavery in the New World was a brutal institution that was fully integrated into American life. The system became so deeply ingrained that slaveholders simply didn’t see a problem with turning a profit from enslaving, abusing, torturing, or even killing their fellow man.
ALTHOUGH JOSIAH WAS BORN ON FRANCIS NEWMAN’S PROPERTY, and fathered by Newman’s slave, he legally belonged to his mother’s master, Dr. Josiah McPherson. It was common practice for slave owners to rent their workers to others, especially during periods like springtime and harvest, and the doctor had rented Celia to Newman.
Josiah considered McPherson a kind man, and that kindness toward the family may have been unwittingly fostered by the little boy himself. Josiah was the last child born to his mother, but the first slave child ever born to the doctor’s household. Josiah quickly became the man’s special pet.
Dr. McPherson took a liking to the little lad. He gave him his own first name, and he also gave the boy a last name, Henson, in honor of his own uncle, who had been an officer in the Revolutionary War.
In 1664, the Maryland Assembly ruled that children of enslaved mothers should also be held in slavery for life. This was a break from English common law, which held that the social status of a child was derived from his or her father. In Maryland and other slave states after 1664, no matter who impregnated her, a slave woman’s offspring was the property of her owner. This seemingly subtle change had a devastating effect, making slave-breeding a simple, efficient, and profitable business.
Josiah’s mother believed her prayers had been answered when word of Mason’s torture reached her owner. Josiah McPherson immediately recalled Celia and her six children to his property, never again renting her to another slave owner.
The slave grapevine brought Celia no news of Mason, however. In the meantime, like many slaves, she dreamed of freedom and even of escape. But for the slaves on Dr. McPherson’s farm, the impulse to escape was blunted by their belief that living as a slave on some other plantation could be far worse. Even little Josiah had heard things, awful things. He shuddered when he thought of what his absent father could be enduring. By contrast, the doctor never allowed his slaves to be struck by anyone.
Two years passed. The workload was lighter, the conditions less harsh, and the constant threat of violence no longer lingered over Josiah’s mother as it had on Francis Newman’s plantation. But that would all change when the good doctor suddenly died.
ALTHOUGH DR. MCPHERSON HAD MAINTAINED A REPUTATION FOR “goodness of heart and an almost saint-like benevolence,” his drunkenness had steadily gained ground in his life, and it eventually brought about his death.11 One night, McPherson went out drinking and fell off his horse while crossing a stream on his way home. Being too drunk to stagger across, he drowned in less than a foot of water.
A few days later, a fellow slave pointed out the spot to little Josiah. “There’s the place where massa got drownded at,” the man said.12
The funeral had barely concluded when McPherson’s heirs started squabbling about the inheritance. They eventually agreed to break up the property and divide the proceeds among themselves.
THE SOUL AUCTION
Dr. McPherson’s estate was inventoried and appraised on April 9, 1805. It contained five enslaved persons, including Josiah, who was nicknamed “Sye” and estimated to be nine years old, along with Josiah’s brother John, age twelve, and a woman who was likely Josiah’s mother, Celia, age fifty. Josiah was valued at $30*—and both he and his mother were listed as “infirm.”
The administrators of McPherson’s estate, Elisabeth B. McPherson and Josiah Hanson, petitioned the Charles County Orphan’s Court the following day, claiming McPherson’s debts could only be cleared if they were allowed to sell all his property. The court gave them permission to sell everything, provided they advertised for at least three weeks in order to attract the highest number of potential buyers.
The greedy heirs of the deceased doctor were callous to their property’s condition and oblivious to the heartbreak they were about to inflict on them. For weeks, while the details were being worked out, the slaves were frantic at the thought of being sent down South and split from their families.
The practice of separating families was strategic as well as practical. Rending family ties, separating mother from child, brother from sister, husband from wife, and sending them to live among strangers was disorienting and made slaves less trusting of their peers, and therefore more dependent on the master for their survival and well-being. For the massive slave system to work, the slaves needed to be kept ignorant, in a state of anxiety, and fearful of the cost of rebellion or escape.
In 1845, forty slaves who tried to make their way to Canada were discovered by a volunteer slave patrol in Rockville, Maryland. The volunteers surrounded them and opened fire. One runaway was hit in the neck with a musket ball, while another was shot in the back. A third had his arm shattered, and a fourth had his cheek blown away. Others were shot in the face and left to die slow and painful deaths. One of the volunteers lamented that not all the slaves had resisted, which deprived him of “the pleasure of shooting them all down.”13 The fugitives were arrested and marched through Washington in ox chains. Those who survived their wounds were sold south to Louisiana. The very thought of such a fate was enough to break most slaves.
The separation of family was one of the slave trade’s most vicious features. Occasionally a buyer would take a sibling set or a mother and child, but rarely did a seller try to keep a family together if he could make more money by selling them separately. In 1857, Pierce Butler sold 429 of his slaves in order to pay off his debts. It is thought to be the largest sale of humans in US history. An acquaintance of Butler’s who was familiar with the sale, Sidney George Fisher, wrote that “families will not be separated, that is to say, husbands and wives, parents and young children. But brothers and sisters of mature age, parents and children of mature age, all other relations and the ties of home and long association will be violently severed.” The sale, which took place in Georgia, lasted two days. It was not recorded how many families were broken up in the process.14
On the day of the McPherson auction in Maryland, a crowd surrounded the stand to inspect the huddled group of slaves, along with the doctor’s furniture and medical instruments. The purchasers felt the slaves’ muscles and checked their teeth as they would livestock. They ran strength and agility tests while the auctioneer looked on with bored impatience. Once the inspection was complete, the slaves were put on display, one by one. Men clamored to place their bids.
- On Sale
- May 15, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages