Rev. Josiah Henson’s early years were spent as a slave on a 260-acre plantation in what is now North Bethesda, Md. He escaped to Canada as an adult and in 1849 wrote a widely-read autobiography about his life as a slave. Henson’s personal story became the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1853 best-selling novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which fueled the abolitionist movement in the North.
The house built by the plantation owners, brothers George and Isaac Riley, and what may have been a separate log cabin kitchen where Henson was forced to sleep on a dirt floor for a brief period in 1828 still stand on a two-acre parcel. In 2006, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission purchased the property with plans to preserve the buildings for use as a museum. The planning commission sought federal recognition for the buildings, which was granted last week when the property was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Originally named Uncle Tom’s Cabin Special Park by the planning commission, it is now known as the Josiah Henson Special Park. The house is called the Riley/Bolten house after its two private owners.
According to the 2008 historic structure report prepared by John Milner Associates, Inc. for the planning commission, Stowe acknowledged that Henson was a “model of the character she portrayed in her fictionalized account of slavery as were several other people associated with George and Isaac Riley’s plantation.”
The current building bears little resemblance to the place Henson described in his book. According to the Milner report, in the 1930s the owner at the time wanted the 1800 farm house to be remodeled as a more fashionable Colonial Revival. The log cabin was attached to the house and a wing was added for a new kitchen and bathroom. Most of the exterior and interior original surface materials were removed, as was the front porch. The location of windows was changed to create better spacing and the interior layout was altered.
For now, the property located at 11420 Old Georgetown Road, North Bethesda, is only open a few times a year but on Feb. 4, a guided tour — “A Walk in Father Henson’s Footsteps” — will be offered. There is no charge for the tour, which will take place at noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.