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Uncle Tom's Cabin - Pioneer Church

29251, Uncle Tom's Road, Chatham-Kent, Ontario, N0P, Canada

Formally Recognized: 2005/04/06

View of the southeast corner of the church showing location of gothic windows – December 2005; OHT, 2005
View of the southeast corner – December 2005
View of the interior of the church as seen from the front entrance – August 2005; OHT, 2005
View of the interior of the church – August 2005
View of the Henson Family Cemetery located northwest of the church – December 2005; OHT, 2005
View of the Henson Family Cemetery – December 2005

Other Name(s)

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Pioneer Church
Uncle Tom's Chapel
Mersea Church

Links and documents

Construction Date(s)

Listed on the Canadian Register: 2007/11/08

Statement of Significance

Description of Historic Place

The building at 29251 Uncle Tom's Road, commonly known as the Pioneer Church, is situated slightly southwest of the community of Dresden in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. The building is one of three historic buildings located at Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, which is a site commemorating the life of Reverend Josiah Henson and his contributions to the Underground Railroad. The single-storey, board and batten building was constructed c. 1850, moved to its current site in 1964, and is representative of the churches in which Reverend Henson preached while residing at the Dawn settlement.

In April 2005, ownership of Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site was transferred to the Ontario Heritage Trust, thereby conferring protection to the heritage elements of the site that embody its symbolic and associative values. Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site was also commemorated in 1999 when the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected a plaque recognizing Josiah Henson as a Canadian of National Historic Significance.

Heritage Value

Located near a bend in the Sydenham River slightly southwest of the Town of Dresden, Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site occupies a five-acre parcel of land within the boundaries of the original Josiah Henson farm plot. Although the Pioneer Church has been moved a significant distance from its original location near Wheatley, its rustic appearance and simple design blend well with the rural landscape of the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site. Two other historic buildings, the Henson House (c. 1850) and the Harris House (c. 1890), were relocated onto the site. A new building, the Josiah Henson Interpretive Centre, was constructed in 1994 to accommodate a museum and theatre. The Henson Family Cemetery is situated directly north of the Pioneer Church and the grave of Josiah Henson is commemorated at this location with a plaque erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The combined church and cemetery grounds serve as a reminder of the spiritual significance of the site.

The Pioneer Church is historically significant as a visual representation of the types of churches in which Reverend Henson preached while residing at the Dawn settlement. The role of the church was central to the residents of Dawn, as it not only served the spiritual needs of its members, but also assisted in the social, recreational, and educational development of the locals. In fact, the role of religion was often exaggerated in Black settlement areas, where refugee slaves used religion as a form of spiritual escapism to overcome the oppression of their former lives. In the early 1960s, as part of a plan to expand the tourist potential of Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, the site's museums committee set out to commemorate the role of religion in Henson's life. Since the Methodist Church in Dresden (the church that Henson was most closely associated with) had been destroyed by fire early in the 20th century, the museums committee began a search for a small wooden chapel that was similar in size, design, and date to the Dresden church. Eventually, a small wood frame church that satisfied the search criteria was located near the Town of Wheatley, approximately 70 km southwest of the site. This church, known as the Pioneer Church, was built c. 1850 and had a history of use as both a Presbyterian and Anglican Church during the second half of the 19th century. It was moved to Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site in 1964.

The Pioneer Church is architecturally significant as a handsome example of a one-room church in the Carpenter's Gothic style. Once a common architectural form in Ontario, this type of church is usually associated with small rural settlements and has become increasingly rare in Ontario. The single-storey church boasts board and batten cladding, contains a modest entrance at its eastern gable end and displays axial symmetry in each of its elevations. The six windows of the building are divided equally between the north, east, and south elevations, and it is their lancet-shaped openings that give the church its typically Gothic appearance. The interior of the church consists of a single room with ten pews divided into two rows, wainscoting along each wall, and a raised speaker's platform at the west end. The oak pulpit and organ that sit upon this platform are of special significance, as they both originate from the Methodist Church in Dresden where Reverend Henson preached many of his famous sermons.

Source: Trust Property Files, Ontario Heritage Trust

Character-Defining Elements

Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of the Pioneer Church include its:
- location on the original five-acre Henson farm plot
- proximity to the Henson House and Harris House
- relationship with the Henson Family Cemetery
- commemorative representation of Josiah Henson's role as a preacher
- use as an early Presbyterian and Anglican Church near the town of Wheatley
- Carpenter's Gothic design typical of early rural Ontario churches
- axial symmetry of the plan
- wood frame structural system and exterior board and batten cladding
- large lancet windows divided into pairs on the north, east, and south elevations
- simple central gable-end entrance with vertical-plank wooden door
- gable roof clad with cedar shingles
- one room layout with a speaker's platform at the west end
- wood boards on the floor and ceiling
- wainscoting decorating each of the walls
- pews, organ, and pulpit




Recognition Authority

Ontario Heritage Trust

Recognition Statute

Ontario Heritage Act

Recognition Type

Ontario Heritage Foundation Property

Recognition Date


Historical Information

Significant Date(s)

1903/01/01 to 1903/01/01
1850/01/01 to 1903/01/01
2005/01/01 to 2005/01/01
1964/01/01 to 1964/01/01
1993/01/01 to 1993/01/01

Theme - Category and Type

Peopling the Land
Migration and Immigration

Function - Category and Type


Historic or Interpretive Site


Religion, Ritual and Funeral
Religious Facility or Place of Worship

Architect / Designer




Additional Information

Location of Supporting Documentation

Trust Property Files Ontario Heritage Trust 10 Adelaide Street East Toronto, Ontario

Cross-Reference to Collection

Fed/Prov/Terr Identifier




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