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New archaeological dig focuses on former slave and will determine the future of Josiah Henson Park museum

This house on Old Georgetown Road is being restored to the way it looked during the 1800s. PHOTO BY SUZANNE POLLAK  Just a few yards off busy Old Georgetown Road in North Bethesda, archaeologists with the County Department of Parks are digging up pottery shards, buttons, thimbles, nails, and animal bones that had been used for various chores such as cooking and sewing as well as toys, all dating back to 18th and 19th centuries.

Isaac Riley owned 275 acres there. He also owned 24 slaves, including Josiah Henson, whose later journal writings became the basis for the character Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

As a young boy, Henson watched his father beaten for trying to stop his wife’s rape by the owner of a plantation, where the family was enslaved in Charles County.

Soon after that, Riley purchased Henson and kept him on the North Bethesda property as a slave until 1830. He later became the overseer for Riley and often took the wheat, barley, and corn crops grown on the property to Georgetown to sell.

While living in Maryland, Henson frequented a nearby church that was for white people only. He stood outside and listened as the preacher led the congregation in prayer and song. He developed a love for Christianity and later became a reverend.  

For several years, he strove to buy his freedom, but Riley “lies to him, tricks him,” said Cassandra Michaud, senior archaeologist for the Parks Department.

April in Maryland means that it’s Archaeology Month.  Archaeology takes place all year long, but this month we celebrate the profession and the exciting – and the mundane – finds and contributions to human history.