Saturday, October 25, 2014

Threads of Memory 10: Britain's Star for Charlotte Henson

# 10: Britain's Star by Jean Stanclift

The patterns were free online for two years but now I am offering them for sale in two formats
at my Etsy shop. Buy a PDF or a Paper Pattern through the mail here:

Twelve years after the U.S. Civil War was over, an English woman described in her diary a "most interesting book" about an African-American man who'd escaped slavery and run to Canada with his wife and children. The book may have been a gift from the author whom she'd just met. 

Henson's story was told in several editions under several titles.

Josiah Henson was on a publicity tour of sorts. In their short conversation he impressed her with his concern for others. She wrote that she admired his energy and patient endurance for he had been through many trials in his long life,

She liked to think that she too had endured many trials.

Her Majesty Queen Victoria noted in that diary entry that Henson was the real-life model for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestseller Uncle Tom's Cabin

Victoria was certainly not alone in believing the myth that Josiah Henson inspired Stowe's riveting story of life in slavery. The autobiography the Queen read was titled Uncle Tom's Story of His Life but Uncle Tom, a kind, wise man who dies in Stowe's story, had very little in common with Henson's history. 

 Today few see a link between the famous fictional character and the real-life fugitive.

Nancy and Josiah Henson

Victoria also met Josiah Henson's second wife Nancy in that 1877 audience. His first wife Charlotte had died in 1852, the year Stowe's story appeared. Charlotte was often described as the model for Uncle Tom's memorable wife Chloe. In an 1881 edition of Josiah's book, the editor quoted him: "Aunt Chloe was my first wife, whose real name was Charlotte. She was famed as a good cook. Her beautiful singing of spiritual songs first won my heart." 

Chloe on the left

Stowe's Aunt Chloe is a character to make the modern reader grind her teeth, the essence of Aunt Jemima, fat and subservient, an excellent cook who guffaws while speaking in an almost impenetrable dialect.

The 1849 edition

Before Uncle Tom, Henson created a different sketch of Charlotte. In his first autobiography, published in 1849,  he revealed a woman with real fears, real intelligence and real love. His wife was "a very efficient, and, for a slave, a very well-taught girl."

Henson, living his own version of slavery's misery in Kentucky in 1830, decided to escape with Charlotte and their four young children. At first Charlotte refused to go, "terrified by the dangers." He recalled that she argued "to persuade me from it, and try to make me contented with my condition as it was." 

After fighting all night he threatened to leave her and take the children. "I said to her, very deliberately, that though it was a cruel thing for me to part with her, yet I would do it…. She wept and entreated, but found I was resolute." She agreed to go. 

Stowe's Eliza became the national image of the escapee.

Their youngest boys were too small to run, so he asked her to stitch a linen knapsack, a sort of backpack large enough for Josiah to carry them. Their trip north took them through Cincinnati, where antislavery friends sheltered them; then along an old military road through the backcountry to Lake Erie. They spent two weeks scrambling through the Ohio and Indiana woods, frightened, starving, exhausted and occasionally squabbling over who was at fault. Charlotte fainted from hunger and Josiah chanced talking to a farmwife who gave him venison and bread to carry back into the woods.
They were fortunate enough to receive provisions from the Indians who still dominated Ohio's woodlands.

At the Great Lakes they found sailors who carried them to Canada and sent them off with a dollar to invest in a new life.

The Henson's house at Dawn near Dresden, Ontario, has been preserved.

The Hensons settled in a colony called Dawn where Josiah co-founded a manual labor school that earned a reputation as a model for ex-slaves helping their brothers and sisters. Josiah's 1849 book, brought him additional fame.

While he was on his first trip to England to promote the book and raise funds for the Utopian community, Charlotte became ill. He rushed home to say goodbye.

Britain's Star by Becky Brown

After Charlotte's death, as Josiah aged, he became according to historian Fergus M. Bordewich, "an imperious and self-righteous patriarch who could admit no wrong."

Henson adopted the popular image of Uncle Tom.

He published a new version of his autobiography, reinventing himself as Uncle Tom and Charlotte as Aunt Chloe. He returned to England as a celebrity, meeting "the noblest men and women in England," including Her Majesty herself. Josiah's need for recognition, not merely as an admirable fugitive from slavery but as literature's most famous slave, led him to redraft his first wife as Stowe's fictional jolly cook.

Charlotte's memory deserves rescue from the unfortunate stereotype of enslaved women.

Britain's Star by Becky Brown
in Ladies' Album reproductions

Britain's Star is a new block in traditional fashion honoring the foresight of the British empire in outlawing slavery decades before our Civil War. Canada offered the refuge noted by Mary Jane Robinson who lived near Dawn during the Presidency of Millard Fillmore. In the early 1850s she wrote friends in New York: "I hear that OLD FILLMORE is a screwing you all up tighter still, but don't stay there, come to Queen Victoria's land, where they are not making laws to oppress and to starve you."

What We Can Learn About the Underground Railroad from Charlotte Henson's Story
Charlotte's true story reminds us that black women living in slavery were neither comic relief nor perfect heroines. Stereotypes abound in the stories of slavery and the Underground Railroad. To understand history we not only have to overcome images of stoic, jolly cooks but also unreasonable images of impossibly brave and dedicated fugitives who never faltered. We can relate to her experience as a woman justifiably frightened of the unknown, the law and her impetuous husband's will.

Read More:

Fergus M. Bordewich weaves the Henson's tale through his overview of the Underground Railroad. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) tells the story of their escape and Josiah's later life in Canada.

You can find several versions of Josiah's autobiographies online by going to . Search in the "full view" books for Josiah Henson to read how the story changed over the years.

1851 The  first version from 1849 doesn't seem to be available online but a second printing is. See The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave as Narrated by Himself  [to S.A. Eliot] (London: Charles Gilpin, 1851)

1858. Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Father Henson's Story of His Own Life. With an Introduction by Mrs. H. B. Stowe. (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1858)

1879. An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom"), From 1789 to 1879 (Boston: B. B. Russell, 1879)

1876 Uncle Tom's Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom") from 1789 to 1876 (London: Christian Age Office, 1876). This version is available at Documenting the American South, a web page from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

To learn about Uncle Tom's Cabin and its remarkable influence see a webpage from the University of Virginia. Stephen Railton has created Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture. Click on this link:

The illustrations and the virtual bookshelf (in the center of the home page) are particularly interesting. To view a page about Josiah Henson's role as the model for Uncle Tom click on this link:

Make a Quilt a Month

Combine two similar stars to make a 42" quilt with a 3" finished border. Alternate 4 Britain's Star blocks with 5 Jacksonville Star blocks (#8). For coloring, think outside the block. Recolor to
create a kind of Barn Raising shading with a central focus.

Is this the enduring image of Uncle Tom painted on an 1880s crazy quilt?
Collection of Julie Silber.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Abolitionist Image on the Wistar Quilt

"Remember the Slave. Rebecca S. Hart"

This month's block Lancaster Star recalls a Quaker quilt with a printed image of the kneeling slave. (Scroll down to see the September 27th post.)

Another version, this one hand-drawn, is inked on a quilt by Sarah Wistar in the collection of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum.

Wistar Family Tree Quilt, blocks inscribed 1842-1843
IQSC collection #2005.059.0001

The Wistars were a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia.

Rebecca S. Hart's block may have been
drawn from this image in the Liberator,
a leading abolitionist periodical.

Note that the figure is a woman. This kneeling slave headed the Ladies' Department in the paper during the 1830s.

See the quilt at IQSC's website here:

Read more about it at Quaker Quilt History:

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Emma Safford's Inked Civil War Quilt

"Commenced March 22' 1862
Emma S. Safford"

The great-great grandniece of Emma Safford inherited this quilt (it looks like an unquilted, bound coverlet) and has shown it in the past decade or so.

Each of the Turkey red and white blocks is inscribed
with an outline-embroidered initial E or S, or a pair of crossed flags.
In the white strips are inked inscriptions and drawings.
This block commemorates Abraham Lincoln and announces
the quilt was "Commenced March 22, 1862."

Articles about the quilt say that the inscriptions contain portraits of the first 16 (or more accurately---22) Presidents of the U.S. in the edge triangles. The quilt was probably finished before 1889 when 23rd President Benjamin Harrison took office. The 22nd and 24th President was Grover Cleveland. Each portrait is accompanied by the politician's birthday and date of election.

Other inscriptions recall major Civil War battles and items such as the 1862 national debt of $491 million dollars.

The quilt seems to have been begun during the Civil War, or at least the inked inscriptions on the white cotton were commenced in 1862. One can guess that Emma continued inking for decades. The fact that her initial E is embroidered in  flowery, outline fashion is a clue to a post-1880 date, however. This type of embroidery and patterns for such monograms tend to be after 1880.

Outline embroidered "S" on a crazy quilt.

Photo of Emma Safford passed down with the quilt.

The family knew little about her. I found two possible candidates as quiltmaker.

A woman from Massachusetts:
 Emma S. Safford (1837-1911) married to Henry H. Safford (his second marriage) and buried in the Main Street Cemetery, Hudson, Middlesex County, Massachusetts.
Here's the link:

And one from Illinois:
Emma Safford Pettit (1853-1928) born in Marengo Illinois, married in 1876 to Daniel Barton Pettit Jr. and buried in Belvidere Cemetery, Boone County, Illinois. She died at the home of her son in Columbia Falls, Montana.

I'm betting on the Massachusetts woman, about 24 in 1862, rather than the Illinois Emma who was only 9 then.

See stories about this quilt here:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War" at the Shelburne

Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War is currently on view at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont through January 1, 2015. 

The exhibit "highlights a broad range of textile artifacts and other objects to explore the Civil War. Textiles from collections across the United States, including quilts from Shelburne Museum, tell the political, economic and social histories of the Civil War through fabric and cloth."

You may have viewed the show in New York (above at the New York Historical Society) or
at the American Textile History Museum in Massachusetts but the Shelburne will be adding quilts from their collection, so this venue is worth another view.

Detail of a stuffed work flag quilt by 
Mary Green McPherson, Arkansas

Read posts I've done about this quilt here:

This show, curated by Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Bassett, originated at the American Textile History Museum. The next venue is scheduled for the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln, opening February 1, 2015.

The prize-winning catalog is available on
line from the American Textile History Museum store:

(A reader posted this comment about ordering the catalog: You can email or call Sandra Price at 978-441-0400.)