Cover of 'Bound for Canaan'
Most American history textbooks paint a romantic picture of the the Underground Railroad. In his new book Bound for Canaan author Fergus Bordewich challenges those images, telling the story of a bi-racial movement animated by moral outrage, religious fervor and radical politics.
Fergus Bordewich, author, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: An Evil Without Remedy
The Negro Business is a great object with us. It is to the Trade of the Country as the Soul to the Body.
— Joseph Clay, slave owner
Josiah Henson's earliest memory was of the day that his father came home with his ear cut off. He, like his parents, had been born into slavery, and knew no other world beyond the small tract of tidewater Maryland where he was raised. He was five or six years old when the horrifying thing happened, probably sometime in 1795. "Father appeared one day covered in blood and in a state of great excitement," Henson would recall many years later. His head was bloody and his back lacerated, and "he was beside himself with mingled rage and suffering."
Henson was born on June 15, 1789, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, on a farm belonging to Francis Newman, about a mile from Port Tobacco. His mother was the property of a neighbor, Dr. Josiah McPherson, an amiable alcoholic who treated the infant Henson as something of a pet, bestowing upon him his own Christian name. In accordance with common practice, McPherson had hired out Henson's mother to Newman, to whom Henson's father belonged. Newman's overseer, a "rough, coarse man," had brutally assaulted Henson's mother. Whether this was an actual or attempted rape, or the more mundane brutality of daily life, Henson does not make clear. Perhaps he didn't know. Whatever the cause, Henson's father, normally a good-humored man, attacked the overseer with ferocity and would have killed him, had not Henson's mother intervened. For a slave to lift his hand "against the sacred temple of a white man's body," even in self-defense, was an act of rebellion. Slaves were sometimes executed, and occasionally even castrated, for such an act. Knowing that retribution would be swift, Henson's father fled. Like most runaways, however, he didn't go far, but hid in the surrounding woods, venturing at night to beg food at nearby cabins. Eventually, hunger compelled him to surrender. Slaves from surrounding plantations were ordered to witness his punishment for their "moral improvement." One hundred lashes were laid on by a local blacksmith, fifty lashes at a time. Bleeding and faint, the victim was then held up against the whipping post and his right ear fastened to it with a "tack." The blacksmith then sliced the ear off with a knife, to the sound of cheers from the crowd.
What the real sentiments of the slaves watching this punishment might have been no one can say. Perhaps they cheered in a desperate effort to reassure their masters that they, unlike Henson's father, were docile and trustworthy, and harbored no thoughts of rebellion. Or perhaps with relief, seeing a "troublemaker," whose deed had caused their masters to become more vigilant and harsh in an effort to forestall further rebellion, now getting his just deserts. Or perhaps, to people so brutalized by their own degradation, the cruelty may even have seemed a form of gruesome entertainment. Afterward, Henson's father became a different man, brooding and morose — "intractable," as slave owners typically described human property that no longer responded compliantly to command. Nothing could be done with him. "So off he was sent to Alabama. What was his after fate neither my mother nor I ever learned."
Following his father's disappearance, Henson and his mother returned to the McPherson estate. Even after years of freedom, Henson would remember the doctor as a "liberal, jovial" man of kind impulses, and he might well have lived out his life in passive oblivion as a slave had not it been for another stroke of fate that abruptly changed his life yet again. One morning, when Henson was still a small child, McPherson was found drowned in a stream, having apparently fallen from his horse the night before in a drunken stupor. McPherson's property was to be sold off, and the proceeds divided among his heirs. The slaves were frantic at the prospect of being sold away from Maryland to the Deep South, where it was well known that overwork, the grueling climate, and disease shortened lives. Even sparing that, an estate sale commonly meant that parents would be divided from children, and husbands from wives, lifelong friends separated from one another, a relatively benign master suddenly exchanged for a cruel one. For female slaves, the future might mean rape and permanent sexual exploitation. The only thing that those about to be sold did know was that the future was completely uncertain, and that they had not the slightest power to affect their fate.
In due course, all the remaining Hensons — Josiah's three sisters, two brothers, his mother, and himself — were put up at auction. The memory of this event remained engraved in Josiah's memory until the end of his life: the huddled group of anxious slaves, the crowd of bidders, the clinical examining of muscles and teeth, his mother's raw fear. His brothers and sisters were bid off one by one, while his mother, holding his hand, looked on in "an agony of grief," whose meaning only slowly dawned on the little boy as the sale proceeded. When his mother's turn came, she was bought by a farmer named Isaac Riley, of Montgomery County, just outside the site of the new national capital at Washington. Then young Henson himself was finally offered up for sale. In the midst of the bidding, as Josiah remembered it, his mother pushed through the crowd, flung herself at Riley's feet, and begged him to buy the boy as well. Instead, he shoved her away in disgust...
Excerpted from Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
Hear Bordewich read from the book