New archaeological dig focuses on former slave and will determine the future of Josiah Henson Park museum
Just a few yards off busy Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda, archaeologists with the County Department of Parks are digging up pottery shards, buttons, thimbles, nails, and animal bones that had been used for various chores such as cooking and sewing as well as toys, all dating back to 18th and 19th centuries.
Isaac Riley owned 275 acres there. He also owned 24 slaves, including Josiah Henson, whose later journal writings became the basis for the character Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
As a young boy, Henson watched his father beaten for trying to stop his wife’s rape by the owner of a plantation, where the family was enslaved in Charles County.
Soon after that, Riley purchased Henson and kept him on the North Bethesda property as a slave until 1830. He later became the overseer for Riley and often took the wheat, barley, and corn crops grown on the property to Georgetown to sell.
While living in Maryland, Henson frequented a nearby church that was for white people only. He stood outside and listened as the preacher led the congregation in prayer and song. He developed a love for Christianity and later became a reverend.
For several years, he strove to buy his freedom, but Riley “lies to him, tricks him,” said Cassandra Michaud, senior archaeologist for the Parks Department.
“He tried to learn to read here in Maryland, and he was beaten for it,” she said.
Henson eventually fled to Ontario, Canada, where, as a free man, he built a school and a lumberyard for freed slaves.
In 1849, he published his autobiography, the manuscript that Stowe used to help her write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
His journal continues to be used to learn about life in those days, especially because very few slaves could read and write or keep a journal of their life.
Having Henson’s perspective about being enslaved here from 1795 to 1830 “is fantastic,” Michaud said. “This is the heart of the story we are trying to tell, the slaves’ story.”
Realizing the historic significance of the site, the Department of Recreation purchased about three acres of the Riley farm in 2006 but has done little with it since then, opening its doors to the public only a few times a year.
All that is about to change, Michaud said.
By 2020, the park is expected to be open to the public on a regular basis. The Josiah Henson Park will consist of a small visitors’ center, the Riley home, and a walking trail around the accompanying land.
The Riley Home will be a museum, depicting life in the 1800s. The current structure was added to and renovated in 1936, and County staff members currently are working to restore some of the rooms, especially the kitchen, to as close to its original look and materials as possible.
Twice each week, a handful of people, including volunteers, have been digging at the site on Old Georgetown Road, near its intersection with Nicholson Lane.
On the section closest to the Riley home, they have found mostly cooking items as well as buttons and pins. Further away, where they believe the slave home in which Henson lived was located, they have found many of the same items, only less elaborate. While the Rileys’ pottery and dishes had designs and were of several varieties, items used by slaves did not, Michaud said.
According to Michaud, the plan is to finish excavating and redoing the Riley home within the next two years.
“In Montgomery County, you don’t really hear about slavery,” Michaud said. However, she noted, during the time Henson lived, “30 to 40 percent of Montgomery County’s population was enslaved.”
Michaud is anxious for people to learn about the period and to understand that the Riley house was a working plantation. Besides the crops, the farm raised hogs, cows, and chickens, and milk and butter were sold.
Michaud is looking forward to having schoolchildren visit and learn about the working farm. Included in the exhibit will be a display of numerous copies of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in various languages, in different editions, and as a comic book.
While Michaud wants everyone to realize that Stowe based her famous novel on a slave who lived in Montgomery County, she also wants to make sure they understand that the Riley house is not Uncle Tom’s cabin.
That’s fiction, Michaud pointed out. The Riley house and the life of Josiah Henson are real.