Monday, November 26, 2012

Amos Riley Jr. and Josiah Henson, the Real "Uncle Tom"

This is an article published in the Owensboro Messenger & Examiner in 1884. It was an interview of Amos Riley Jr., son of Amos Riley and nephew of Isaac Riley, the two owners of Josiah Henson, on whom Harriet Beecher Stowe based her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin". It's a very interesting read, and certainly has a number of differing accounts of stories than relayed in Henson's auto-biography. Who was telling the truth, and who was embellishing? It's impossible to know. I recommend Henson's auto-biography as a fascinating read and you can decide for yourself.

I descend from Amos Riley Jr.'s sister, Elton Riley, a daughter of Amos Riley Sr. She married Howard Taylor and had several children, including the A. R. Taylor mentioned in the article.

                                Reverend Josiah Henson - Source: Wikipedia

This article was transcribed by me, Nathan Vaughan Marks, on November 26th, 2012.

Owensboro Messenger & Examiner
September 10, 1884
Page 1



An Interesting Interview With Judge Amos Riley, to Whose Family Henson Belonged—The Real Character of Little Eva’s Friend

[St. Louis Post-Dispatch.] “No sir; it isn’t every one [sic] who has enjoyed the distinction of being talked about in the most exalted circles of the English nobility—by royalty itself, for that matter. Yet that is what has happened in my time, and no fault of mine, either.”
The speaker was Judge Amos Riley, of New Madrid, Mo., who is sojourning in the city for a few days with his nephew, Mr. A. R. Taylor, the attorney. In response to a suggestion that he explain himself, the judge continued:

“It is some eight or ten years ago that I received by mail a copy of the London Times containing an elaborate story of a negro named Josiah Henson who was the ruling sensation in the metropolis, and had been received by Lord Palmerton, and even the Queen, as an object of the highest interest. The secret of his attractiveness lay in the fact that he was the original of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s world-famous “Uncle Tom.” Henson was talking pretty fluently to every one [sic] and every one [sic] was listening with the greatest interest to what he said. The Times had a long interview with him made up largely of what purports to be the story of his early life. It told of his rearing in Maryland; of his removal to Kentucky, and of a trip down the river to New Orleans, which formed the nucleus of the famous journey with St. Clair and Little Eva in “Uncle Tom.” The story was told in full detail and made a rather spirited narrative, but you will guess the extent of my interest when I tell you that I at once recognized in Henson a negro who belonged to my uncle, and whom I, myself, had known intimately for years. There could be no possible doubt about it, for my uncle’s name and my own were given in the article; and a number of anecdotes with which I was familiar were told with the greatest particularity. In short, the identification was complete. I will tell you about it:

The Judge’s hearers drew up their chairs in anticipation of a good story.

“My uncle, Isaac Riley, and his fathers before him for generations, lived in Montgomery county, Maryland. His brother Amos, my father, came West in early life, and settled in Daviess county, Kentucky, near Owensboro, or, as it was then called,


on the banks of the Ohio. He sent back to his family accounts of his new home so glowing that Isaac was fired with the idea of going West himself. Accordingly, in 1826 or ’27, he got together a lot of his slaves and sent them ahead by way of the river, intending to follow with his family after awhile [sic]. He put the negroes in nominal charge of a young friend named Middleton, but the party was really under the command of Josiah, or, as he was better known, ‘Si Hensen [sic], then a strapping fellow of 28 or 30, with a wife and two or three children. Si had been my uncle’s body-servant for years, and, being a shrewd, trusty fellow, enjoyed his master’s full confidence. The party arrived at Owensboro safely and ‘Si and his family went to work on my father’s farm. Si proved himself fully deserving of the character my uncle had given him and soon came to be trusted and indulged as a favorite servant. He was a large, well-built man, who would tip the beam at 175 or so, and was remarkably powerful, especially in the arms and shoulders. Many is the time I have worked with him in the wheat field. I was about 20 years old at the time and pretty stout myself, but when I tried to keep up with Si with a cradle, I invariably got left behind. By reason of his great strength he was able to use a cradle with a blade about a foot longer than mine. He would start out with this and by cutting an enormously wide swath, walk away from me in a way that I despised. ‘Come ‘long boss;” [sic] he used to shout back at me, ‘nevah do fo’ you to git lef’ behin’!’ After ‘Si had been with us a year or more (my uncle still postponing his removal to Kentucky) my father came to me one day and said: ‘If you and ‘Si want to take this cargo of hogs down to New Orleans, I’ll give you all you can get for them over $400.’ We both jumped at the proposition, and, loading the hogs into a flatboat, were under way as soon as possible. The trip was a long one and almost without incident. I remember we got off at Memphis, and ‘Si, in prowling around the town, got into a trouble with police, out of which he extricated himself by giving leg bail, escaping with no further loss than that of a big white beaver hat of which he was very proud.

“What did New Orleans look like in 1828? Oh, I couldn't begin to tell you. I remember one thing, though. All along the levee there was a row of frame shanties covered in front with a sort of canvas booths. This was the home of ‘the tiger’ in those days. Here the gamblers most did congregate to lay for the unwary ‘up river’ man. I was walking along there one day with the proceeds of the sale of the hogs in my pocket (which, by the way, didn't pan out so as to net my father anything to speak of), intending to deposit the money in bank. But it was after banking hours, and I had to take my money back in my pocket. As I was passing in front of one of these booths, a fellow rushed out of the door, grasped my hand and expressed himself as delighted to see me. I was pretty green, but when he asked me to walk in and hold stakes on a bet which he and a friend had made, I suspected that there was something wrong. I found the ‘friend’ seated at a little table manipulating an apparatus consisting chiefly of three cups and a little ball. I have since heard the game described as ‘thimble-rigging.’ My friend kept betting and losing a dollar at a time and all the while he was urging me to go in with him to the extent of $5 or $10. I kept clear of it, however, and finally bolted out of the door on an urgent call to meet an imaginary friend. Before I got away, though, I am free to say that one of the fellows got me to change a $10 bill for him, which afterwards proved to be counterfeit.


home and resumed our duties on the farm. Before long, however, there came a message from Maryland from my uncle, who had finally concluded not to come to Kentucky. He wanted all his negroes sold except ‘Si and his family, from whom he was unwilling to part. So my father gave ‘Si the money necessary for the trip and packed him off to Maryland with his family, which by this time was swelled by the accession of two or three more wooly heads to five or six. Some months afterwards we got another letter from my uncle, asking why ‘Si didn’t come. This question remained unanswered for a long time. It came to our ears though, after many years, that when ‘Si got as far as Cincinnati and found himself on the upper side of the Ohio river, the idea struck him that Canada was a might pleasant place to live, and, having a sum of money in his hand, he concluded to make the trip. We made inquiry, but neither I nor any member of the family ever saw the fugitive again. Nor would we ever have heard from him, perhaps, except for the article in the London Times.”

“When did Mrs. Stowe meet him?” asked one of the audience.

“I can only conjecture as to that. As I have said, ‘Si was a keen, sharp fellow, and I don’t imagine he stayed in Canada very long. He had a considerable gift of speech, and was much given to exhorting among the negroes. There was very little, as you have seen, in his real history upon which to base Mrs. Stowe’s conception of Uncle Tom, but he was sharp enough to tell a story that would sound well, and I don’t believe he would scruple to do so. I know that the yarn he told the Times reporter was full of inaccuracies, to say the least. Thus, he said that his master, meaning my uncle, was a wild, passionate man, given to sprees, and that he (‘Si) often had to tide the old gentleman over the difficulties incident to a debauch. This was pure fiction. He said, also, that my uncle sold him away, which, of course, was not so, because, if for no other reason, ‘Si didn’t give him a chance to do so. I think it likely he met Mrs. Stowe somewhere in the States, probably in Ohio, while she was getting material for her book, and told her just about such a story as she needed for her leading character. He was equal to it.”

“What was he doing in England?”

“Well, as nearly as I can make out, he went over there to lecture and ‘star’ the country with the very laudable purpose of making a living. He knew, doubtless, of the popularity of Mrs. Stowe’s book in England, and that the nature of his association with its history would be enough to bring him into prominence.”

“Where is he now?” was asked.

“I don’t know positively,” the Judge answered, “but I have been told that he died in Ohio some years ago.”


if he were alive now—nearly ninety, I should should [sic].”

The judge pushed back his chair at this point and insisted that his story was over.

Judge Riley, aside from his association with the historic Henson, is himself a character of no ordinary interest. He is a well preserved old man of 75, sharp-featured, gray-bearded and keen-eyed. He talks with fluency and has an unbounded fund of anecdote covering more than a half century of varied experience. He passed through St. Louis in 1837, and after roaming over the State for some years, took up his abode in New Madrid county, where he has lived ever since. The war swept away his slave property and the greater part of a large estate. He is still the owner of 1,500 good acres, the cultivation of which he superintends in person. He sat for one term as Judge of the New Madrid county court.

Of his family, which once numbered thirteen, six still live. Of them four sons are at home on the farm. One, H. C. Riley, was chairman of the Congressional convention in the Fourteenth district, which distinguished itself by balloting 479 times without a choice. Camden Riley, another son, was killed at Mt. Dallas in Northern Georgia, while serving as colonel of the First Missouri—the famous Bowen’s—regiment. 

                                                  Judge Amos Riley Jr.

Note: I got this picture off of and am not 100% sure of its origin, but I am fairly confident it originated in Godspeed's History of Southeast Missouri by Godspeed Publishing Company (1888), where biographical sketches of Amos and two of his sons are written. They can be viewed here: