Bethesda Historical Society

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Riley-Bolton House

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Riley-Bolton House at 11420 Old Georgetown Road and 3.34 acres for the Josiah Henson Park in North Bethesda are the last remnants of the 520 acres of the Riley family plantation formerly known as Willow Grove. The historical significance of the site is due to the log house kitchen wing that appears in the story of the enslaved African Josiah Henson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popularized account of his life in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Riley Family Plantation

George Camden Riley (b. 1768 – d. 1815) purchased 520 acres that was called Willow Grove in what is now North Bethesda in 1797 from a family named Collyer.     The 1804 tax rolls for Montgomery County shows that George Riley was assessed for 20 enslaved persons. Of these, six were under the age of eight years old. In 1818, the 44 year old Isaac Riley (b. 1774 – d. 1850) married the 18 year old Matilda Middleton (b. 1800 – d.1890). The 1850 Federal Slave Schedule shows that George’s brother Isaac Riley had owned five slaves in that year, which is the year he died. Of those, four of them were children. Among the enslaved on the Riley Plantation was Josiah Henson (b. 1789 – d. 1883), who escaped to freedom.

Between 1795 and 1830, Henson was enslaved for about 35 years of his life. Over the years, the size of the plantation shrunk in size with each sale. Today, what was once the Willow Grove plantation, where tobacco and wheat were grown, are the subdivisions known as Luxmanor (est. 1934), Neilwood (est. 1964), Hollyoak (est. 1981), and parts of Tilden Woods (est. 1962).

Isaac Riley and Matilda Midelton Riley are both buried at the Mount Zion Cemetery adjacent to Wildwood Baptist Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Josiah Henson is buried in Dresden, in the Chatham-Kent Municipality, in Ontario, Canada.

The Architecture of the Riley-Bolton House

The Josian Henson Park & Museum features the historic Riley-Bolten House (1800-1815) and the attached log kitchen house wing (1850-1851).

While local stories asserted that the main portion of Riley house was built by a Revolutionary War veteran, an examination of the nails used in construction, however, confirmed that the main portion of the Riley house was built between 1800 and 1815 during the Riley family’s ownership. The main house was built according to the Chesapeake Tidewater frame construction, which was the typical construction style for wood frame home in the eastern Mid-Atlantic region.

Between 1850 and 1851, a log house kitchen wing was added. This dating is at odds with the Josiah Henson’s 1849 account, which suggests that the kitchen wing may have been reconstructed or built earlier than believed.

William R. and Levina Woodworth Bolten purchased the Riley house with 3.6 acres from the Luxmanor Corporation. The Bolten’s revived the meory of Josiah Henson and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The main house and log house wing were renovated between 1936 and 1939 per the drawings of the architect Lorenzo Simmons Winslow (b. 1892 – d. 1976). The main house followed the Colonial Revial style, which was popular during the early 20th century. Consequently, the remodeled main house resembles a colonial house from Williamsburg.

The centerpiece of the Josiah Henson Park is the log cabin attached to the Riley-Bolton House. This house and property are on the National Register of Historic Places. And, at the center of that is the formerly enslaved African, Josiah Henson, who had worked the Willow Grove plantation.

Visitor Center at the Josiah Henson Park

Montgomery County Parks established the remnants of the Willow Grove plantation as the Visitor Center of the Josiah Henson Park & Museum opens in Summer 2020, and will feature a 2.400 square feet visitor center.

The centerpiece of the Josiah Henson Park is the story of Josiah Henson and the circa 1850 log cabin attached to the Riley-Bolton House. This house and property are on the National Register of Historic Places. And, at the center of that is Josiah Henson, who had worked the Willow Grove plantation where tobacco and wheat were grown.

Josiah Henson was born into slavery on June 15, 1789 on the 181 acre plantation known as La Grange ownned by Francis Newman at 201 Port Tobacco Road in Charles County, Maryland near Port Tobacco. Isaac Riley of the Willow Grove plantation in Montgomery County purchased Josiah Henson as a child thus seperating the boy from his mother.

The Abolition Movement

As early as 1786, the Quakers helped fugitive slaves to secure freedom. George Washington (b. 1732 – d. 1799), in point of fact, had complained that the “Quakers had attempted to ‘liberate’ one of his slaves.” These non violent Quakers, as well as others, who engaged in open and violent rebellion against the established order that rested on enslaved labor, like John Brown (b. 1800 – d. 1859), who was hanged in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher (b. 1813 – d. 1887), who raised funds to purchase “Beecher Bibles” – rifles to give to enslaved Africans, took different measures to help liberate enslaved Africans and help them along an underground network of safe houses that led to Canada.

The Books that Changed America

In 1849, Josiah Henson wrote his autobiography, The Life ofJosiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. After Harriet Beecher Stowe (b. 1811 – d. 1896) met Josiah Henson, she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. These books were at the center of America’s abolitionist movement and the very sparks that ignited the Civil War, which addressed with finality “that peculiar institution” left unattended to by our Founding Fathers. The Civil War (1861-1865) took place to restore the union, to free enslaved Africans, and to attempt to live up to the ideals set forth in the nation’s founding documents. The local remnants of the antebellum period exist in the historically all black community of nearby Scotland and the nearby Scotland African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Potomac, Maryland just south of the Cabin John Shopping Center along Seven Locks Road.

by Peter Herbert

Sources:

United States Department of the Interior National Park Service National Register of Historic Places Registration Form https://mht.mary1and.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/Montgomery/M;%2030-6.pdf

Prince George’s County Parks http://pgparks.com/DocumentCenter/View/12240/ADD-03-Package-C—Section-8- Image-Facsimile?bidId=

United States Department of the Interior, National Park Services https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/rileybo1ten.html

Montgomery County, Maryland Montgomery Parks https://www.montgomeryparks.org/parks-and-trai1s/josiah-henson-park/

Mueller Associates, Inc. Consulting Engineers http://www.muellerassoc.com/josiah-henson-park-museum-and-education-center

Josiah Henson Park Montgomery Parks Foundation.org MUSEUM AND EDUCATION CENTER

Montgomery County Maryland Preserving the story for the next generation https://www.montgomeryschoo1smd.org/up1oadedFi1es/departments/mcpsretirees/ news/FINAL-8pageBrochure.pdf

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin & Company, 1851 https://archive.org/details/unc1etomscabin00stow

Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849. https://archive.org/details/1ifeofjosiahhens1849hens