After buying historic home, Md. officials find it wasn't really Uncle Tom's Cabin

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 7:51 PM

In 2006, at the height of the housing bubble, Montgomery County paid $1 million to buy a two-story colonial in North Bethesda with a log cabin jutting out on one side. The house had been on the market only a couple of months, but county officials felt compelled to act quickly: This might be their only chance to save the real Uncle Tom's Cabin - the former home of Josiah Henson, the model for the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's seminal antislavery novel.

Since 2006, state and county officials have spent another $1 million to expand and study the property, and in recent months, Montgomery has held public meetings to solicit ideas on how to turn the old farmhouse into a public museum.

There is just one problem, though. The house on Old Georgetown Road is not the real Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The house was once home to the Riley family, who held Henson as chattel, and the years Henson spent on the 3,700-acre Riley plantation, from 1795 to 1830, did form the basis of his memoirs, which Stowe, in turn, relied heavily on. But historians have determined that Henson never lived in either the house or the cabin, which was then a kitchen. He lived in slave quarters that are long gone.

"I seriously doubt the county would have spent upwards of $2 million if they had known the cabin was not the real Uncle Tom's Cabin," said David Rotenstein, who was on the county Historic Preservation Commission at the time of the purchase.

Henson does refer to spending at least one night in the Riley kitchen, but it was probably not in the room that survives. A 2008 analysis of the tree rings on the cabin's logs found that the cabin wing was built around 1850 - more than a decade after Henson had fled the United States for Canada, where he established a fugitive slave community called Dawn.

That inconvenient truth presents an immediate challenge to county officials: what to call the place. The site's official name is still Uncle Tom's Cabin Special Park.

But starting in 2007, parks officials began referring to it as the Josiah Henson Historic Site (formerly Riley House/Uncle Tom's Cabin). The name change has not been formally approved and is awaiting public comment. So far, county residents have split into roughly two camps - those who want to keep the association with the book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" front and center, and those who say it's more important to focus on Henson, according to park and planning official Rachel Newhouse.

At a meeting last month, the planning board said it needed more time to figure out what name best tells the chapter of slave history that unfolded in Bethesda.

"It looks like they have to spend more money to make lemonade out of lemons," Rotenstein said. The buyer's remorse he has suffered since learning that Henson never lived in the cabin has only been exacerbated by the county's current budget crisis.

The purchase of the Riley House, which is now open to the public only rarely, was "driven by oral tradition" and not rigorous research, Rotenstein argued. "As a taxpayer, I'd like to see the money spent elsewhere. As a historian, I'm torn. I am not trying to minimize the property's historic significance, but the county needs to be more careful about what it designates as historic."

A notable life

What is undisputable is Henson's historic significance. Born in Charles County in 1789, he rose from slavery to write a series of best-selling memoirs. In them, he described being sold to a farmer named Isaac Riley.

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