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photo courtesy of Judith Wellman

The Riley/Bolten House is associated with Reverend Josiah Henson (1789-1883), whose memoirs were used to develop the main character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's landmark novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Riley farm where the house stood was where Henson lived and worked while enslaved from 1795 to 1830. The existing building is the ca. 1800 Chesapeake Tidewater-style frame domestic dwelling with a ca. 1850 log kitchen wing. Henson chronicled his journey from slavery to freedom in his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, published in 1849, after his journey to Canada on the Underground Railroad. He named his slave 'master' Isaac Riley, and identified the location of the farm as five miles outside Rockville. The bulk of Henson's narrative revolves around his life on the Riley land and the turbulent relationship with his master, described as a "grim oppressor." Riley owned at least 20 bondsmen then.

Henson's words describe interactions with his owner in the main block of this house during the 30 years Henson toiled the land, and negotiated sale of goods on Riley's behalf as the farm superintendent. In 1825 he led a contingent of fellow bondsmen to the plantation of his master's brother Amos in Davies County, Kentucky, despite the temptation of passing where escape was possible. When Henson returned to Rockville in about 1828, Isaac Riley retrieved the pass that ensured Henson's safe travel to and from Kentucky. When Matilda Riley stored this document away in her husband's desk, Henson was there and he recalled, "I heard the old prison-gate clang." Shortly thereafter, Isaac Riley’s brother-in-law persuaded Riley to manumit Henson and his family in 1829. Upon his arrival in Kentucky to gather his family, Henson learned from his wife that he had been tricked out of his rightful emancipation by Riley who then nearly doubled the price of Henson's freedom.

Giving up on legal means, Henson shed his enslaved status by self-emancipation. Persuading his wife and small children that the long journey to Canada was critical to their survival as a family was no easy feat, as his wife Charlotte knew the dangers that lay ahead. With her consent, the Henson family left the Amos Riley plantation in mid-September and moved through Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and New York before arriving in Canada in October 1830.

In Canada, Henson was a leader of the fugitive slave colony Dawn near the Detroit River and an Underground Railroad conductor. He became a speaker and writer, and his narrative received worldwide praise and readership. By 1877, The Life of Josiah Henson had sold over a quarter of a million copies. As interpreted through Stowe's book, it helped facilitate a growing abolition movement in the United States. (446)

The Riley/Bolten House is called the Josiah Henson Park and is located at 11420 Old Georgetown Road, North Bethesda, Maryland. The park is currently not open for regular tours and is open only during a limited number of dates each season. For information call 301-650-4373.

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