The Story of Josiah Henson and His Escape to Niagara

Josiah Henson was a black man born into slavery in Maryland, USA on June 15, 1789.  He is a popular figure in Niagara history and the history of the Underground Railroad to Freedom.  His journey to Niagara was long and arduous and included unimaginable experiences that he circumvented and conquered.

In his narrated autobiography which was recorded by Arthur D. Phelps in the office of the Clerk of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts in 1849, Josiah tells the story of his life.  It is intriguing and ashamedly perplexing at the same time.

Intriguing because it is the story of a life that overcame myriad trials and tribulations while always working for the betterment of his family and society.  Perplexing because his trials and tribulations were sufferance’s that came simply due to the colour of his skin.

Josiah Henson tells of a time when he was beaten so severely by his master’s brother’s overseer that he could not work for five months.  Both his shoulder blades were broken as well as his arm.  All this for accidentally pushing the man in order to save his drunken master from a bar brawl.

“…he seized a stake, six or seven feet long, from the fence, and struck me with his whole strength.  In attempting to ward off the blow, my right arm was broken, and I was brought to the ground; where repeated blows broke both my shoulder blades and made the blood gush from my mouth copiously.”

Josiah did get an opportunity to escape his master and all that it meant to live as a slave when his master entrusted him on an errand trip to Kentucky.  But Josiah a man of integrity and honour chose to remain a slave, hoping one day to be legally freed by showing his loyalty and proving himself an exceptional plantation manager.

“What advantages I may have lost, by thus throwing away an opportunity of obtaining freedom, I know not; but the perception of my own strength of character, the feeling of integrity, the sentiment of high honor, I have experienced, – these advantages I do know, and prize; and would not lose them, nor the recollection of having attained them, for all that I can imagine to have resulted from an earlier release from bondage.”

Josiah did receive his manumission papers, his freedom certificate, lawfully on March 9, 1829, however his master pretending to safeguard this paper coerced Josiah into giving it to him for safekeeping,  “you do not understand the dangers to which you are exposed.  You may meet with some ruffian slave-purchaser who will rob you of that piece of paper, and destroy it. You will then be thrown into jail and sold for your jail fees.”  His master warned Josiah.

Keeping Josiah’s freedom certificate meant his master still had ownership of Josiah and so planned to sell him while retaining Josiah’s wife and children, who would probably be sold at a later date. Josiah Henson’s master had selfishly stolen Josiah’s freedom from him and laid plans to sell Josiah, even though Josiah Henson was legally a free man.

It wasn’t long before Josiah’s master arranged for his own son, Amos and three others to travel to New Orleans to sell their goods.  Josiah knew that his work was to sell the goods, he also knew that once his work was done, he would be the last thing to be sold.

“I well knew what was intended, and my heart sunk within me at the near prospect of this fatal blight to all my long-cherished hopes…The expectation of my fate, however, produced the degree of misery nearest to that of despair; and it is in vain for me to attempt to describe the wretchedness I experienced as I made ready to go on board the flat boat.”

Josiah continues to tell of his plan to kill all four men on board so he could escape, “These were not thoughts that just flitted across my mind’s eye, and then disappeared.  They fashioned themselves into shapes which grew larger, and seemed firmer, every time they presented themselves; and at length my mind was made up to convert the phantom shadow into a positive reality.  I resolved to kill my four companions, take what money there was in the boat, then to scuttle the craft, and escape to the north.”

The mental and physical limits to which slaves were pushed is beyond anything we can possibly imagine.  Grappling with the decision to murder his owner’s son and the helpers that had come on the trip, Josiah tells of his wretched plan and the voice in his ear that prevented him from committing murder.

“My feelings were still agitated, but they were changed.  I was filled with shame and remorse for the design I had entertained…I reflected that if my life were reduced to a brief term, I should have less to suffer, and that it was better to die with a Christian’s hope, and a quiet conscience, than to live with the incessant recollection of a crime that would destroy the value of life, and under the weight of a secret that would crush out the satisfaction that might be expected from freedom and every other blessing.”

It was by sheer luck or the design of a higher power that Amos was very ill when he arose the next morning.  Josiah Henson cared for his master’s son and brought him safely back to the plantation with no appreciation received for all that he had done to save Amos’s life.  It took more than a month for Amos to recover, but that experience proved to Josiah that he would be of no more value than the dollars he could fetch as a marketed slave, even though he had given his life and loyalty with undisputed honesty.

So, Josiah planned his escape.  It took some time to convince his wife.  He would not leave without her or his children.  It was a very long and challenging journey, through the wilderness, many parts on foot and covering many miles.  However, Josiah persevered with some help along the way and eventually made his way to Sandusky, Ohio which lies on the US side of Lake Erie.

Josiah was fortunate to meet a captain of a boat that gave him a bit of paid work for the day, while his family hid in the woods.  Understanding Josiah’s plight the captain offered to take Josiah and his family to Buffalo where they could take a ferry across the Niagara River and into Canada to freedom.

Suspense mounted when Josiah came back with the captain’s men to retrieve his family and couldn’t find them.  They had hidden deeper into the woods and it was at the very last minute that Josiah found them and they were on the boat bound for Buffalo, NY.

The next day Josiah and his family were at Black Rock, Buffalo.  “…and the friendly captain whose name I have gratefully remembered as Captain Burnham put us on board the ferry boat to Waterloo, paid the passage money, and gave me a dollar at parting.”

It was the morning of October 28, 1830 that Josiah Henson landed on the Canadian shores of Niagara at Fort Erie. 

Josiah’s statement of “Waterloo” is not to be confused with the town of Waterloo, Ontario.  Note that Waterloo was indeed the name of the village on the Canadian side of the Niagara River directly across from Black Rock.  It was part of the now Niagara Region whose borders had not yet been defined.

The Story of Josiah Henson and his escape to Niagara
The plaque at Freedom Park also called The Crossing

The area that Josiah landed is now a park, Freedom Park in Fort Erie, 134 Niagara Blvd., and a plaque denotes the spot of Josiah’s joyous landing.  “My first impulse was to throw myself on the ground…A gentleman of the neighbourhood, Colonel Warren, who happened to be present, thought I was in a fit, and as he inquired what was the matter with the poor fellow, I jumped up and told him, I was free!”

The Story of Josiah Henson and his escape to Niagara
Looking across to the US from about where Josiah Henson landed in Niagara

Josiah settled for a while in Niagara with his family until he earned enough to search for and purchase his own land in 1942 in the town of Dawn, Ontario, building a settlement there.

Josiah always promised that he would, “use his freedom well.” With wisdom he would lecture and minister at local churches and with courage returned many times to the US to free others of his race.  He continued to use the Underground Railroad (not an actual railroad, but a route or passage) as did many escaping slaves in various areas of Niagara throughout the mid 1800s.

So, Josiah Henson is a fixture in Niagara history.  His courage and tenacity still serve as a reminder to all about the value of human integrity, sacrifice and perseverance.  Josiah Henson’s story also serves as a motivating reminder to find and live our own dreams, and a salient reminder that the kindness of strangers can make those dreams possible.

Excerpts in quotation marks are from the book, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. This and other books about Josiah Henson are available wherever books are sold. It is a must read and I encourage you to pick up a copy.

I am intrigued by the fact that Josiah Henson may have come through Bertie Hall in Fort Erie, a safe house for escaping slaves. Read my post on Bertie Hall here, a historic home with a sometimes heroic and sometimes sinister history. Heroic because Bertie Hall was part of the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves. Sinister because there are local tales of its hauntings.

Bertie Hall Fort Erie

If you do visit, Freedom Park it is at 134 Niagara Blvd. in Fort Erie on the end of Bertie Street. While Bertie Hall is at about 657 Niagara Blvd. on the corner of Phipps Street.

The Story of Josiah Henson and his escape to Niagara
A Goole Maps image showing the location of Freedom Park and the proximity to Bertie Hall.
Notice Black Rock, on the US side, circled on the map.