Josiah Henson

"Time Team America" is a PBS series that combines archaeological discovery with storytelling, exploring a different region and time in U.S. history through the eyes, ears and expertise of a team of adventurous archaeologists: Joe Watkins, Allan Maca, Meg Watters, Chelsea Rose and excavator Jeff Brown. They join forces with host Justine Shapiro to uncover historical secrets buried beneath the soil, applying the latest technology and the team’s collective expertise to solving the riddles of the past, against a ticking clock: the team has just 3 days to find out what it can at each site.

In a recent episode, which I stumbled upon while researching something else, the show headed to the tiny historic Riley plantation, tucked away in a suburb of the nation’s capital in order to learn more about Josiah Henson, a black man and escaped slave whose memoir is believed to have been an inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel "Uncle Tom’s Cabin."

While Henson might not be a household name, he nonetheless played a pivotal role in American History. Much of Henson’s influential memoir was written about his time at the Riley Plantation, his role while there, and his subsequent escape. With Henson’s own account as inspiration, the archaeologists wanted to see if they could help find archaeological evidence linking the modern landscape with the early nineteenth century plantation that Henson worked and called home with his wife and children. The crew attempts to answer some significant questions, including whether evidence of Josiah Henson can be found on the plantation, as well as if there is any archaeological evidence of slavery?

In 2009 the Park department purchased an adjoining property in order to create a larger historical park, and began working on a master plan for the Josiah Henson Special Park. A National Park Service grant aimed at Saving America’s Treasures was received to help pay for park improvements and preservation. The Josiah Henson Special Park is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

To find out what happened when the Team went in search of Josiah Henson, right in the middle of a bustling suburban neighborhood, watch the hour-long episode of "Time Team America" below, which aired last month. If you're fond of science and history (being fully aware of what the term "Uncle Tom" has come to represent today), and want to know more about Josiah Henson, you might appreciate this: