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.


Suzanne A said...

All these versions of Henson's life are fascinating. It is an intetesting question how much of any of the slaves' stories published pre-Civil War were written by educated abolitonist's rather than the slaves themselves, although possibly based on fact. And I can imagine that after the sensation of Uncle Tom's Cabin the motive to create another best-seller had a great deal of influence on content beyond Henson's book. These books swayed public opinion and are helpful to us, but one wishes there had been a way to record the real stories.

Anonymous said...

Don't we need to cut four squares for "A", not two?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insight into the truth of human beings, whatever their color or experience.

Anna said...

the photos are amazing.