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The Dawn Settlement

Dawn Settlement provincial plaque, Dresden
Provincial plaque commemorating the establishment of the Dawn Settlement, Dresden

Josiah Henson used his freedom to help establish the Dawn Settlement – a community where Blacks could share their skills, labour and resources to help each other and give aid to newly arriving settlers. This spirit of co-operation was embodied by the church, one of the Black community’s most important institutions. The church served as a place of worship and a centre for meetings, educational, recreation and social activities.

At the Dawn Settlement, crops such as wheat, corn and tobacco were harvested by the settlers. Locally grown black walnut lumber was also exported to the United States and Britain. A key element of the settlement was a vocational school co-founded by Henson – one of the first in Canada – that taught a variety of skills. Called the British American Institute, the school had access to the community’s farm land, sawmill, gristmill, brick yard and rope manufactory. The Institute opened in 1842 with a mandate to “cultivate the entire being, and elicit the fairest and fullest possible development of the physical, intellectual and moral powers.” Students would spend one part of the day in the classroom and another working at a trade. Items manufactured by the students were sold, with the proceeds going to the school. Female students learned domestic skills and male students worked at the mills or in the fields. A provincial plaque commemorates the Dawn Settlement and its many significant contributions.

Some members of the community returned to the United States after emancipation was proclaimed in 1863. Others remained, contributing to the establishment of a significant Black community in this part of the province.

The first edition of Henson’s autobiography was published in 1849 under the title The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Six editions would eventually be published, between 1849 and 1883. Harriet Beecher Stowe used Josiah Henson's memoirs as reference material for her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Henson's dramatic experiences and his connection with Stowe's book made him one of the most famous Canadians of his day.

Rev. Henson died on May 5, 1883. He is buried adjacent to Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site in the Henson family cemetery. He had continued to preach in Dresden’s British Methodist Episcopal Church each Sunday until his death. Henson was survived by several children and his second wife Nancy Gambril. His first wife, Charlotte, predeceased him in 1852.


Slavery to freedom
Slavery to freedom
During the 19th century, thousands of enslaved and many free African-Americans fled the United States and made their way to freedom in Canada. Ontario was one of their primary destinations.
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