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article imageFinding lost graves at 'Uncle Tom's' family cemetery Special

By Ken Wightman     Aug 3, 2011 in Entertainment
Dresden - Contrary to popular mythology, Uncle Tom may have been a feisty fighter. Josiah Henson, possibly the man behind the character, was an escaped slave who fled the United States with his wife and children to enjoy freedom in the future province of Ontario.
Henson was a renowned abolitionist, preacher and "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. He personally "conducted" more than 115 runaway slaves to freedom, according to Devon Robinson of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site. In all, the secret network helped almost 30,000 make it safely to Canada.
Josiah Henson s last home still stands in Dresden  Ontario.
Josiah Henson's last home still stands in Dresden, Ontario.
Clearly, Henson delivered on his promise: "I'll use my freedom well." His home in Dresden, Ontario, is now a historic site commemorating his work.
Today archaeologists from The University of Western Ontario are searching for unmarked graves hidden in the Henson Family Cemetery. A few years ago Henson's home was moved a few hundred metres (yards) to its present location beside the cemetery.
Originally, the search was to be completed before the 177th anniversary of Emancipation Day, which celebrates the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. Unfortunately, rain prevented the UWO archaeologists from mapping the areas in question before the symbolic August 1st date. The team is using sophisticated Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) which beams radar waves into the ground. It cannot be used in the rain.
UWO archaeology grad students Flannery Surette and Jim Keron searching for lost graves using ground ...
UWO archaeology grad students Flannery Surette and Jim Keron searching for lost graves using ground penetrating radar.
Hidden features and buried objects reflect the waves enabling archaeologists accurately to map anything discovered. This approach minimizes surface disturbance — very important when mapping an historic cemetery. GPR allows a thorough but respectful search by the archaeologists.
Dena Doroszenko, archaeologist for the Ontario Heritage Trust, which owns and operates the historic site, said, "This work will be extremely helpful. Because the Henson family cemetery is still in use today . . . "
A forgotten grave was unearthed at the Henson Family Cemetery during a burial — an unnerving event. "We are trying to prevent this happening again," said Edward Eastaugh, a UWO archeology supervisor and leader of Western’s survey team.
It is possible some of the unmarked graves will later be identified with the help of family members who have a knowledge of Henson Family genealogy, Doroszenko said.
Many have forgotten how influential the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was at the time of its publication. It was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, only bested by the Bible. It was a catalyst for positive, radical change, encouraging society's rejection of slavery in the States and around the world.
Shortly after the release of her book, Stowe acknowledged that Josiah Henson's autobiography, published a few years earlier in 1849, had been an inspiration for her novel. Henson, himself, republished his work as The Memoirs of Uncle Tom.
Josiah Henson in painting with Harriet Beecher Stowe  top right. This is from a work hanging in the ...
Josiah Henson in painting with Harriet Beecher Stowe, top right. This is from a work hanging in the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site visitor's centre.
Sadly, as The New York Times recently pointed out:
"Today, of course, the book has a decidedly different reputation, thanks to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — whose name has become a byword for a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race."
Clearly the original meaning of Uncle Tom has been lost or Henson would not have taken the name for the later release of his memoirs. The archaeologists from Western are finding long forgotten graves while showing great respect as they conduct their search.
Josiah Henson s grave stone is weathered but still quite legible standing in the Henson Family Cemet...
Josiah Henson's grave stone is weathered but still quite legible standing in the Henson Family Cemetery.
Josiah Henson's grave is not forgotten. It is clearly marked. But the respect for "Uncle Tom" seems to have been lost. Finding the man behind the myth is easy, but finding Uncle Tom's noble character, now obscured by time, seems much harder.
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