Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada

Did you know that as early as 1501, Portuguese explorers enslaved 50 Amerindian men and women in Newfoundland and Labrador?  In 1619, slavery began in North America with the arrival in Jamestown, Virginia of a Dutch slave trading ship carrying 20 Africans.  Not too long after that, in 1628, a six-year-old boy from Madagascar is the first Black person to appear in records as being brought directly from Africa and sold as a slave in New France for 50 crowns. He is later baptized and given the name Olivier Le Jeune.

Today in 1830 marks the day that Josiah Henson, his wife and four children moved from Maryland to Upper Canada (now Ontario) via the Underground Railway. If you don’t remember the name, perhaps you know his story.  It is thought that Harriet Beecher Stowe modelled her story in Uncle Tom’s Cabin on his life.  The book, by the way, that Abraham Lincoln said started the U.S. Civil War, was published on March 20, 1852.

Photo of Josiah Henson
Josiah Henson in 1877

Henson was born on June 15, 1789 in Charles County, Maryland; he died on May 5, 1883, at the age of 93 in Dresden, Ontario.

In 1793,  Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe passed “An Act to prevent further introduction of Slaves, and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province.” The legislation did not immediately end slavery, but it did prevent the importation of slaves, meaning that any U.S. slave who set foot in what would eventually become Ontario, was free.

When he arrived in Upper Canada with his family, he founded a settlement and laborer’s school for other fugitive slaves at Dawn, Upper Canada. By the time Henson arrived, others had already made Upper Canada home, including Black Loyalists from the American Revolution, and refugees from the War of 1812.

He first worked on farms near Fort Erie, then Waterloo, moving with friends to Colchester by 1834 to set up a Black settlement on rented land. Through contacts and financial help there, he was able to buy 200 acres (0.81 km2) in Dawn Township, in next-door Kent County, to realize his vision of a self-sufficient community. The Dawn Settlement eventually prospered, reaching a population of 500 at its height, and exporting black walnut lumber to the United States and Britain. Henson purchased an additional 200 acres (0.81 km2) next to the Settlement, where his family lived. Henson also became an active Methodist preacher, and spoke as an abolitionist on routes between Tennessee and Ontario. He also served in the Canadian army as a military officer, having led a Black militia unit in the Rebellion of 1837.

He traveled to England three times to raise money for the settlement, and he met Queen Victoria in 1877. After his first wife’s death, Henson married Nancy Gamble, a widowed free black woman, in 1856.

Though many residents of the Dawn Settlement returned to the United States after slavery was abolished there, Henson and his wife continued to live in Dawn for the rest of their lives.

Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe may have passed the Act that ensured freedom for so many, but Josiah Henson certainly helped many blacks achieve success after slavery. To read more about Henson, I suggest the following sites: Documenting the American South, and Dictionary of Canadian Biography. There’s a 5-page biography at Digital History (I suggest looking around this site as it has so much information!) Two legacies are  National Historic Person plaque, and cemetery photo near Dresden, Ontario and Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, also near Dresden, Ontario.  You may also like to read Henson’s autobiography  The Life of Josiah Henson: Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada and the free Kindle version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


  1. What an incredible saga, TK. Tends to confirm my feeling that the truly fascinating events in history are found in the lives of obscure and/or forgotten people. Very ordinary people overcoming obstacles and making their presence felt. One of your best– many thanks!! : )

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here’s a bit to add to your excellet blog. It tells the story of how a song – “Follow the drinking gourd” – was a coded song about using the Big Dipper, specifically the North Star, to escape North to freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

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