John W. Jones: The Male Harriet Tubman of Elmira, NY
Once in a great while, true gems of history lay obscured beneath the dust of a generation or two and dazzle the lucky treasure hunter who uncovers them. The story of John W. Jones is one of those many faceted jewels in my hometown’s history trove.
Born into slavery in Leesburg, Virginia in 1817, John W. Jones was well liked by his spinster mistress Miss Sarah Ellzey, and well treated by all accounts. It was upon her old age in 1844 and the threat of sale or separation from his siblings that Jones conspired to flee to freedom. On June 4, he and two half-brothers Charles and George Jones, plus two friends from a nearby estate slipped their bonds and began their journey North.
His personal 300 mile trek on foot took one month and a day. While still in Maryland they encountered a lame man on a lame horse, suspiciously making his way along the road in a hopscotched pace that seemed to flank them. Within moments, the “crippled” traveler disappeared and a dozen men on horseback appeared, perhaps tipped off. Jones and his band of four climbed a steep bluff where the riders could not pursue. Prior to this, they also had a confrontation at a crossroads with three slave catchers, but each of them had brought personal arms. Outnumbered five to three, the patrol backed off and Jones and his company escaped in this instance as well.
July 5, they arrived over the border of Pennsylvania into New York on the outskirts of the town of Elmira. A kind doctor and his wife took them in and fed them for a week while they recovered from a month of desperate escape, scarce of sleep and food. In later years, after John W. Jones became the sexton of two cemeteries in Elmira, it is said that Dr. Nathaniel Smith’s wife’s grave always had fresh flowers from a grateful benefactor.
John settled into life in the canal and rail town, easily making friends through an exceptionally likeable personality and strong work ethic. A local judge Ariel S. Thurston took him under his wing. Thurston’s daughter Clara owned a school for girls where John worked as janitor. Judge Thurston ensured John received an education and undoubtedly paved his way forward into Elmira’s society. By 1847 John was established in the prestigious congregation at First Baptist Church. There he served as sexton, and worked a second job as caretaker of the church’s cemetery, positions he would hold for decades.
1850 brought the federal Fugitive Slave Act, where escaped slaves in the North could be captured and sent back to their former owners. As an immediate response, The Underground Railroad joined independent “stations” of fugitive sympathizers across all states in routes to Canada. John Jones became Elmira’s primary agent. But it wasn’t until the Northern Central Railroad (the Williamsport & Elmira), which connected Elmira in 1854 to Harrisburg, PA to the south and ultimately north to Canandaigua that Jones made his lasting mark on history. With his gift of making friends, he secured the assistance of baggage handlers on the 4 AM “Freedom Car” to hide stowaways as the train bore them up into Watkins Glen and Canandaigua, to the NY Central and on to Niagara and St. Catherines, Ontario. So, with the help of this remarkable conductor, the “Underground” Railroad literally employed an active train route.
Living in a house on the property of the Baptist Church not far from the train station, Jones and his wife personally sheltered freedom seekers, as many as 30 per night. Typically the number was six to ten. Over the decade from 1850 to 1860 it is said Jones personally helped 800 souls leave their former bondage and find a new life.
Jones already had ties to the headquarters of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and its leader, William Still. Even before the Northern Central Rail’s completion, overland routes already existed through Elmira, connecting towns from Philadelphia and Gettysburg, to Harrisburg, Williamsport, Sugar Run, and Alba near the border of Pennsylvania to Elmira, then up through Big Flats, Hornell, Genesee County, the Finger Lakes, to Marysville, Pembroke, Clarence, and Black Rock in Western New York, and on into Canada via Niagara. Important Elmirans with abolitionist leanings recognized and financed Jones’ involvement. Mark Twain’s father-in-law Jervis Langdon, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, and founder of Elmira Female College Simeon Benjamin were among the notable men who conspired with Jones to feed, supply and transport former slaves through the various channels and stations in Elmira. One of the very first men to settle Elmira after the American Revolution, Colonel John Hendy, had a daughter who housed escaped slaves as well. Mrs. John Culp played an important role in the Elmira network with John W. Jones.
Jones had already led a remarkable life up to this point. But the best was yet to come. In 1859 he was appointed as sexton to a brand new cemetery in Elmira. He had saved enough money to buy a farm on the northwest of Elmira, and this cemetery abutted his acreage. After three years of Civil War, Elmira would become host for an infamous prisoner of war camp for captured Confederates. Jones was hired on by the United States to oversee burial detail for this military camp, and the 2,973 men who would die there of starvation, disease, and exposure from July 1864 through the close of war. Paid $2.50 per burial, Jones kept meticulous records of each soldier, with name, rank, and regiment. This makes him unique for his day, as most prison camps North and South employed mass graves with poor records. Not only did he give each deceased Confederate the dignity of an individual plot and an identity, but he also created wooden headstones for each soldier. Much credit is given to this former slave for the care he showed in the Christian burial of men who died fighting to uphold slavery.
A man of deep faith, he served each employer with honor and distinction, and became the wealthiest freedman in Elmira, and among the top ten wealthiest in all of Western New York. But that faith would have one more test. One day, a name he recognized came through the camp’s death roll. John Rollins had been the overseer for his former masters, the Ellzey’s. It is said that Jones personally took it upon himself to write a letter and arrange to have Rollins’s body sent home to be buried in his family plot in Virginia.
As inspiring he is in his deep reflection of forgiveness and grace, Jones was also fully human. One story reports that he learned of a man from Buffalo, born a freedman, visiting Elmira, claiming to be a fugitive and begging for help among the society he had carefully helped cultivate. Feeling understandable outrage at the impostor and protectiveness for real fugitives who might be harmed by such chicanery, the story goes that Jones confronted the man in the streets and kicked him “very severely.” One can only speculate that no one ever tried that again on Jones’s watch.
A museum honoring his legacy stands across from the Woodlawn National Cemetery. The building housing the museum was Jones’s actual farm house, salvaged and relocated less than a block of its original site.
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Kathleen L. Maher is a 21st Century gal with an old soul. Her debut historical novella Bachelor Buttons, released in 2013, incorporates both her Irish heritage and love of Civil War history. She won the American Christian Fiction Writers' Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, historical category, in 2012.
Kathleen is an avid history buff, and contributes to writing and history blogs and occasionally reviews new releases. Kathleen and her husband share an old country farmhouse in upstate NY with their two teenaged children, two rescue dogs, and three tuxedo cats.
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