Unmaking Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Updated)

In 2006 Montgomery County, Maryland, received international attention for purchasing a 19th century farmhouse that oral tradition suggested was the original “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The county paid $1 million for a little over an acre in suburban North Bethesda. Now, four years later the county is holding community stakeholder meetings to map out the future of what officials are now calling The Josiah Henson Site. I recall the excitement surrounding the announcement that the legendary material link to American literary and social history would be “saved” from land hungry developers gobbling up Montgomery County real estate.

After shelling out the initial million and hiring a bevy of experts – archaeologists, historians, and architectural historians – the county learned that the log cabin was not old enough to have housed Josiah Henson, whose autobiography formed much of the basis of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  County parks staff are holding a meeting tonight in Silver Spring to discuss the park’s future. Now that the county has separated the folklore from the facts, I wonder what steps Montgomery County officials will take to ensure that better historical research is done before precious resources are spent buying parks or designating properties historic.

Earlier this year the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission held a series of hearings and work sessions to evaluate the historical significance of Upcounty farms and residences in what the Planning Department calls the Upper Patuxent planning area. I wrote about the questionable history – one sitting HPC member called it “folklore” – Planning Department staff presented in its lengthy designation documents. History and historic preservation get a bad rap from many quarters and some of the criticism is well deserved. Like when a county buys a piece of folklore that it mistakes for history.

So what can the site “formerly called the ‘Riley Farm/Uncle Tom’s Cabin’” (yes, the Parks Department Website really does call it this) teach us? The site, indeed a well-preserved piece of architectural history, can teach schoolchildren and tourists about the county’s agricultural past and its reliance on slave labor. And, it can teach us about the valuable and intricate relationships between popular culture (literature) and social history. The site also can teach us how locally preserved oral traditions can be reified as historical fact. This literary site can teach our elected and appointed officials that history is an art that requires careful practice to ensure that information being used to make policy and regulatory decisions is defensible and accurate.

Josiah Henson Historic Site: Website screen capture (20 September 2010)


Update (20 September 2010): Last week the Montgomery County Planning Board was briefed by Parks Department staff on the Josiah Henson Historic Site master plan. Parks employees laid out a menu of costly approaches to develop educational plans, site maintenance plans, and staffing plans for the new park. The briefing video may be viewed at the Planning Board Website: <http://mncppc.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=2>. A hearing on the master plan was scheduled for October 28, 2010.

Update (4 October 2010): Washington Post article: After buying historic home, Md. officials find it wasn’t really Uncle Tom’s Cabin <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/03/AR2010100304022.html>

Update (4 October 2010): Former Montgomery County historic preservation staff have written that they knew that the log building was not the prototype for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Their Spring 2006 departmental newsletter suggests otherwise:

Spring 2006 Montgomery County Historic Preservation office newsletter

Update (5 October 2010): “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” segment on WNYC’s The Takeaway. Interview audio:

Update (8 October 2010): Montgomery County Parks Department responds to the Washington Post article.

Related Post: Historic Preservation: Rubber Stamp or Healthy Debate?

13 thoughts on “Unmaking Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Updated)

  1. The Montgomery County government purchased this property not because of it’s name, but because historical research had revealed that this property was the plantation where Josiah Henson was enslaved during his formative years. At no time was it stated that the fictional “Uncle Tom” or the real Josiah Henson ever actually lived in the log kitchen attached to the circa 1800 house. The fact that the kitchen attachment has been identified through dendrochronology as being erected after the time that Henson occupied the site (but still during the time that slaves lived there) does not substantially affect the interpretation of the site.

    This article is a wonderful example of the writer’s misrepresentation of history to serve political ends. It is ironic that this is exactly what happened to the fictional character “Uncle Tom.” It is the job of historians to stop these kinds of attempts to control the public memory. We do this by presenting irrefutable facts based on primary source research, and by pointing out the obvious attempts to steal history away from the people through manipulation of language and imagery.

    The writer is using emotionally charged words such as “land hungry developers,” “folklore,” and “questionable history” to lead the reader toward negative views. This kind of manipulation of the reader can be countered simply by pointing this out to the reader, and perhaps by explaining what these words mean and how they do not apply in this case. No one likes to be manipulated.

    The writer has obviously not read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and has no concept of the contextual history of this book or of its impact on the American people. Nor is the writer aware of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s explanation of the characters in her novel, “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” More importantly, the writer is totally unaware of the importance of Josiah Henson in the charged political and social atmosphere after the Civil War.

    The writer does not understand historical interpretation and how the general public is drawn to a historical figure but through careful interpretation of a place associated with that person can be taught important lessons about our shared historical past. This site is critical in demonstrating through historical place the continuing legacy of enslavement of one people by another. Understanding and accepting the past is crucial to reconciliation and preparing for a better future.

    It is not important that this is not the “Cabin” of the fictional character “Uncle Tom.” What is important is that this was the farm and the “Big House” where a slave grew up who wrote an autobiography that was read by a woman who was so moved by his personal story that she incorporated it in a novel that so influenced the public mind that it caused that public to rise up in indignation. This is a story of inhumanity, but also of great stoicism and heroism and humanity. It is the story of our nation.

    I am currently researching the life of Reverend Josiah Henson. This much factual information I can tell you:

    * He was a slave of Isaac Riley and lived approximately 30 years on
    the Riley plantation, growing into adulthood there and becoming a
    Christian there, an event that would direct the rest of his life
    * His first autobiography was read by Harriet Beecher Stowe and
    greatly influenced her characterization of “Uncle Tom”
    * His second autobiography was written to raise the money to
    purchase his brother, a slave of Jane Beall (of the Beall Dawson
    House in Rockville) and bring him to freedom
    * His third autobiography was written to raise money for the
    Industrial School in Canada for other refugees from the United
    States that he had helped to found
    * His four autobiographies, and one children’s book of his life
    written by his publisher, sold very well — people buying the
    later ones to find out how his life was evolving since the
    previous ones — making great profits for his publishers if not
    for himself
    * His many public talks drew hundreds and even thousands of people
    * People were drawn to him as the “real Uncle Tom,” a man who was
    not beaten to death to protect two young girls as in the novel,
    but as a real survivor — one who defeated slavery by escaping,
    and learning to read and write, and helping to form a school to
    help others grow in their independence, and becoming an important
    and influential person who was introduced to both the President of
    the United States and the Queen of England..
    * He was revered both as a hero, having escaped enslavement on the
    Underground Railroad and gone back several times to rescue others,
    and as a religious figure
    * His funeral in 1883 in Canada drew thousands from all walks of life
    * Canada issued a postage stamp with his image
    * His home in Ontario, Canada has been made into a historical
    museum, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site,” operated by the
    provincial government, which draws 9,000 to 15,000 visitors a year
    even though it is in a remote area and not open in the winter months

    So, the cabin has been dated by analysis of the age of the logs to 1850, so what. Who is to say there was not another cabin on the same site previously? The house itself has been dated to before Josiah Henson lived on the plantation. By his own words he lived on that land and was in that house on many occasions. The importance of the site is not the architecture. The importance of the site lies in the man, Josiah Henson. And the importance of this one person to the past and to the future is far more than any of us can comprehend at this point in time. The potential of this site to teaching American history and its relevance to us today is immeasurable.

    Susan Soderberg
    MA, American Studies, George Washington University

    • All good and valid points, except for the ad hominem slams suggesting that I have some political stake in this. Nothing you wrote changes the fact that all of the media hype surrounding the 2006 purchase focused on the Uncle Tom’s Cabin artifact and then the Henson story. My question is whether or not Montgomery County would have bought the property had it not been identified as the bona fide building represented in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I never denied Henson’s significance and your criticisms suggest you have more of an axe to grind than I. Historic preservation and educating the public about history, especially through artifacts, is very important.

      From the staff report presented by the Parks Department to the Planning Board:

      Oral tradition and local folklore established the cabin as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” the dwelling of Josiah
      Henson, known as the fictional character “Uncle Tom” from Harriett Stowe’s landmark novel. However,
      research shows this cabin was built after Henson had escaped to Canada in 1830.

      And, Sue, you wrote, “At no time was it stated that the fictional “Uncle Tom” or the real Josiah Henson ever actually lived in the log kitchen attached to the circa 1800 house.” In 1979 when Montgomery County was evaluating the property for designation in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation M-NCPPC historian Mike Dwyer told the Washington Post that Henson “slept there often.”

      With Montgomery County in a sub-billion-dollar budget hole and begging for money to pay for portable toilets in parks, is this the best way to be spending precious County resources?

  2. David, to say that county ownership of the Riley Farm/ Uncle Tom’s Cabin site is “Like when a county buys a piece of folklore that it mistakes for history.” means the county bought a pig in a poke which turned out to be a rat is ludicrous. The claim that the parallel association and history of Josiah Henson and Riley at this farm is based on folklore and oral history rather than solid historical research is simply not true. The history is well documented by records of legal actions in the Montgomery County court by Riley against the person who broke Henson’s shoulder, in recorded manumission papers and transactions, historic maps, and research on the other persons in Henson’s autobiography. It was well known in historical circles that the log structure was a log kitchen and not “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” long before the property was put up for sale and it was certainly known when the county purchased it.

    Henson lived on this farm property for most of his young formative life- his view of the world and its people was Montgomery County. Both the Canadian National site in Ontario and the National Register “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” site in Kentucky are total reconstructions. They still represent a period of time and accomplishment in Henson’s life. Historians have known since it was first identified that Josiah Henson did not live in the log kitchen. His first Rockville purchaser, Adam Robb, owned property in East Rockville and operated a freight hauling company and public house. He traded the sickly Henson boy to Riley for horse shoeing services. Henson relates that he and his mother lived in slave housing.

    It was hoped that the log kitchen was the kitchen that Henson mentioned as sleeping in during the trip to the Riley house to purchase his freedom, but this was always a question. An old photo shows the kitchen further away from the house, so it could have burned or been damaged or just replaced.

    When I lecture about Josiah Henson and Riley through the Montgomery County Historical Society, I joke that calling it Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fib; But it is where Henson lived and worked for most of his formative years. The farm and surrounding area, and the people and ideas he encountered were the setting described in his memoirs of his early life.

    This site by any name is a rare interpretive opportunity to explore slavery from both sides in this era, and we are fortunate to have it available to the public. It is worth every dollar spent and when completed, will be a marvelous educational attraction and interpretation of this difficult time that will make Montgomery County proud.

    Judy Christensen

    • Judy, the County thought it was buying the building in which Josiah Henson worked/slept/visited. The log cabin at the site was built more than a decade after he left the Riley plantation. I don’t deny for a moment the architectural significance of the vernacular log building or the farm’s historical significance. I simply have problems with the fact that the County bought a building it thought was the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the building that is there now does not support the oral tradition identifying it as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Had the County not thought that the building was in fact where Henson spent some time and was in fact the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin I doubt it would have invested amounts that may approach 1.5 to 2 million dollars in developing a park there.

      What would you do if you bought at an antiques auction for $1 million a guitar Jimi Hendrix reportedly played at Woodstock and when you got home you found it that Hendrix never played the guitar. Rather, it was his guitar tech’s instrument that traveled in the same trailer as Hendrix’s instruments?

  3. Received via email from Montgomery Preservation, Inc.:

    From: Judy Christensen [mailto:jchris43@gmail.com]
    Sent: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 5:48 PM
    To: ‘David Rotenstein’
    Subject: What’s up?

    David, what in the heck is going on? I wanted to say in my reply to your piece about the Henson site that any historian interested in the subject of Josiah Henson would have known that the log kitchen at the Riley Farm was not Uncle Toms’ Cabin, despite the name associating the two. Everyone was aware of that. Oral History? Folklore? No. This Riley/Henson association has been thoroughly documented by myself and others. It is a great site and has far more integrity than Ontario and Kentucky, and a lot more to teach and illustrate. We have a real historical site where you can track Henson’s narrative in present day Rockville and Montgomery County. It makes his autobiography come alive. Maybe I misunderstood your comments. I don’t think for a moment that this purchase was based on folklore or oral history, and I don’t think that the HPC staff sinks to that level, ever! Help me understand what your point is.


    Judith Christensen
    Executive Director
    Montgomery Preservation Inc.
    P.O. Box 4661
    Rockville MD 20849-4661
    Phone (h) 301-926-2650
    MPI’s Mission: “To Promote The Preservation, Protection and Enjoyment of Montgomery County’s Rich Architectural Heritage and Historic Landscapes.”

    • Judy,

      Your comments about what was communicated about the log building are not supported by the historical record. I never once questioned the association between Josiah Henson and the former Riley farm. Here are just a few points where the documentary record conflicts with your comments:

      The log section of this house is associated with Josiah Henson whose memoirs helped inspire Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Places from the Past, p. 247

      “This is where he lived as a slave,” said Gwen Wright, acting chief of the county planning division. “This is really it.” The Washington Post, December 13, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/12/AR2005121201387.html

      Although it is doubtful Henson actually lived in that cabin, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning historian [Mike] Dwyer claims Henson slept there often. Henson was a trusted slave on the Riley farm and his master sent him on marketing to Georgetown and Washington. On return from these trips, Henson stayed in the cabin, Dwyer said in an interview. The Washington Post, July 19, 1979.

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  5. I just got a call from a reporter with the Washington Post about this topic and hope that I provided her with helpful information. She is the person who alerted me to this discussion on David’s blog.

    It really makes me very sad that such an important project is being questioned and will probably be made to look ill-conceived in the newspaper – hopefully, the reporter will not try to sensationalize.

    Anyway, having been intimately involved with the decision to purchase this historic property, I want to make a number of points:
    – First, in my quote above, I believe that I was referencing the Riley Farm as a whole, not the log wing specifically. At the time of purchase, it was completely understood that the log wing was a kitchen, not a slave cabin – during tours that I gave of the site, I emphasized this point. Indeed, Henson’s biography addresses the fact that, when he returned to the Riley Farm later in his life, most of the outbuildings were gone (he writes about the changed look of the farm.) Thus, we can be pretty sure that the slave cabins he lived in never even survived into the 20th century.
    – Secondly, at the time of purchase, it was believed to be likely that the log wing dated from the same period as the main house – based on a visual inspection of the structure. As it turns out, more detailed dendrochronological investigation has revealed that the building is from the mid-19th century instead of the early-19th century. I would assert that there was no way to know that the log wing was 1850 instead of 1830 without this type of physical investigation and this level of investigation was impossible to do before owning the property (I believe that no seller would allow a potential buyer to do this level of physically invasive investigation.)
    – Finally, I would hope that David would applaud the very detailed and professional level of investigation that is being done by MNCPPC on this property. Going through the effort to date the cabin through dendrochronology is a first for historic sites in Montgomery County. Even though the investigation has revealed that the cabin is mid-19th century instead of early-19th century, this fact is not being glossed over or hidden. Rather, it is being integrated into the interpretation of this very important historic site. It seems to me that this is exactly the kind of research that should be supported and encouraged. By using the results of the research to say that the purchase of the historic site was a mistake will only serve to discourage future efforts to do professional historical investigations (no good deed goes unpunished!)

    Anyway, just my two cents. Sorry that the preservation community in Montgomery County continues to get distracted and divided over issues like this…


    • I do “applaud the very detailed and professional level of investigation that is being done by MNCPPC on this property” and have said that repeatedly. I think that the research should have been done ahead of the purchase and less emphasis put on the log building being “the cabin.” None of the documentary record, unfortunately, supports the comments that everyone — County Council, the Maryland Legislature, the press, historians, the public, et al. — believed that the log building was there when Henson lived at the Plantation and that it was a slave quarter.

      • Yesterday I was interviewed for the second time by the reporter who interviewed Gwen Wright and about which she commented above. What the reporter told me was more troubling than my myopic history-centered view of what happened surrounding the purchase of the former Riley farm with the log building so publicly billed as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

        If in fact there was a cadre of historic preservationists working in and with the Montgomery County Planning Department who knew with such certainty as Soderberg, Christensen, and Wright wrote above that the log building was not contemporaneous with Josiah Henson’s life on the Riley Farm, then I have one additional question: Why were the Montgomery County and Maryland state lawmakers who authorized the purchase, the media, and the public not dissuaded from believing that the log building was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

        That, in my opinion, is a far greater failure than poor research.

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