Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Finding lost graves at 'Uncle Tom's' family cemetery

UWO grad students Flannery Surette and Jim Keron surveying Henson cemetery.
Contrary to popular mythology, Uncle Tom may have been a bold fighter for freedom. Josiah Henson, possibly the man behind the Uncle Tom character, was an escaped American slave who fled the United States with his wife and children to enjoy freedom in Upper Canada, the future province of Ontario.

Josiah Henson's last home still stands in Dresden, 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.

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.

Archaeologists find lost graves with ground penetrating radar.
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.

Hidden features and buried objects reflect the waves enabling archaeologists accurately to map anything they discover. 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.

Josiah Henson shown with Harriet Beecher Stowe, top right.
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 when it came to 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.

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 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, no GPR necessary, but finding Uncle Tom's noble character, now obscured by time, seems much harder.

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