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.
GIVEAWAY: Win choice of $10 Amazon gift card or hand painted tile. To enter be sure to leave your email address and answer one of the following questions: Does your town have an unsung hero from history? Or was it a station on the Underground Railroad? Share for a second chance to win. Giveaway ends February 12th...and good luck!
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.
Find Kathleen on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mahereenie And on Amazon: amazon.com/author/kathleenlmaher
Marietta, Ohio was an Underground Railroad Hub before the Civil War started. Also, Charles G. Dawes, 30th Vice President of the United States (1925–29) was born here in Marietta. Marietta was also named after Marie Antoinette, Marietta being an affectionate nickname for the Queen. Thanks for the giveaway and good luck everyone.ReplyDelete
I never knew Marietta was an affectionate name for Marie Antoinnette. I love the name. I actually use that name for the heroine and my Civil War novel.Delete
Thank you for sharing about your hometown history!
Oh my! What a wonderful story! I am woefully bad at remembering history. I know that near my hometown is a marker commemorating a woman who was a hostage of an Indian tribe. I will try to find and post a link for it. This was WONDERFUL!! I will share this post on FB.ReplyDelete
Thank you Connie. I love stories like that would enjoy hearing more about it. Good luck and thanks for sharingDelete
Here is some info on the above-referenced event.ReplyDelete
In August 1754, the Johnson family, who lived outside of Fort 4 in Charlestown, NH, was kidnapped by members of one of the Abenaki nations. Mrs. Susanna Johnson was nine months pregnant. She wrote the following about her capture, “Here, after being hurried from home with such rapidity, I have leisure to inform the reader respecting our Indian masters. (Susannah, as she writes her memoirs of her captivity, here, speaks to the readers of her account) They were eleven in number; all men of middle age, except one, a youth of sixteen, who, on our journey discovered a very troublesome disposition. According to their practice he who first laid hands on a prisoner considered (the prisoner) his property. My master, who was the one who first took my hand was as clever an Indian as I ever saw. He even evinced, at numberous times a disposition that showed he was by no means void of compassion. The four who took my husband claimed him as their property. My sister, three children, Labaree and Farnsworth had each a master. When the time came for us to prepare to march I almost expired at the thought of leaving my aged parents, brothers, sisters and friends and travel with savages through a dismal forest to unknown regions in the alarming situation in which I then was with three small children. The eldest (child) Sylvanus (Johnson) was but six years old. My sister Miriam (Willard) was fourteen. My husband was barefoot and otherwise thinly clad. His masters had taken his jacket. My two daughters had nothing on but their shifts and I had only the gown handed to me by the savages. In addition to the sufferings which arose from my own deplorable condition I could not but feel for my friend, Labaree. He had left a wife and four small children behind - his situation was extremely unhappy. The Indians pronounced the dreadful word, "munch", (march) and on we must go.
I was put on the horse; Mr. Johnson took one daughter and Mr. Labaree took the other. We went six or eight miles and stopped for the night. The men were made secure by having their legs put in split sticks somewhat like stocks and tied with cords which were tied to limbs of trees too high to be reached. My sister much to her mortification must lie between two Indians with a cord thrown over her and passing under each of them. The little children had blankets and I had one for my own use. The fatigues of day obliged me to sleep for several hours in spite of the horrors which surrounded me. The Indians observed great silence and never spoke but when necessary. My children were much more peaceable than could be imagined. Gloomy fear imposed a deadly silence.
The Indians captured a stray horse, which Mrs. Johnson rode. On the second day of their journey, they encamped in Reading, VT, when Mrs. Johnson went into labor. According to the Indian Stone markers on Rt 106, on the border of Reading and Cavendish, about a mile up the brook from where the stones are now, she delivered the child, Elizabeth Captive Johnson. The stone marker information would suggest that the first white child born in Cavendish would have been Elizabeth “Captive” Johnson.
The day after the child’s birth, they continued traveling northward. Starvation eventually forced the Indians to kill the horse Mrs. Johnson rode and use him for food. Given the choice of being left behind with her baby, Mr. Johnson carried his wife on his shoulders.
Once in Canada, the family was divided between Indian and French families. Mr. And Mrs Johnson were both imprisoned where they developed small pox. It would be four years before the family was reunited. Mr. Johnson’s freedom was short lived as he would die from wounds sustained at Fort Ticonderoga. Susanna Johnson lived to be 80-81 and wrote a book about her experiences “Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson Containing A Account of her suffering during Four Years with the Indians and French.” Her diary and story was the basis for Elizabeth George Speare’s 1957 book “Calico Captive.”
This came from Cavendish, VT Historical Society.Delete
Wow. What a strong woman to survive that and then write about it. New Hampshire into Vermont is still such rugged terrain. I can't even imagine.Delete
I grew up in Elgin, Illinois-- famous for Elgin watches. They aren't there anymore, having moved and renamed a town in the south years ago. My father was born in Waynesboro,Pa.( Mad Anthony Wayne) and 20 miles from Gettysburg. We took a lot of historical jaunts every summer when we visited my Grandparents. I love history. paulams49(at)sbcglobal(dot)net. ThanksReplyDelete
Thanks for the interesting post and giveaway opportunity, Kathleen!!ReplyDelete
My small town does have a house that was part of the Underground Railroad, and although I can't recall any heroes in our town - there are some in my ancestors.
Hi bonnie thanks for commenting. Feel free to share about your heroic ancestors. Good luck in the contestDelete
I live in San Diego, California, and I was fascinated to learn that members of the Mormon Battalion helped establish our city with community improvement projects by building the first brick kiln west of the Mississippi, then built a brick courthouse, a blacksmith shop, bakery, and tannery. They also dug several wells and lined them with bricks. I thought it was neat that when the time came for them to move on the locals didn't want them to leave and actually formed a petition asking them to stay :)ReplyDelete
colorvibrant at gmail dot com
Wow Heidi. Sounds like these people were really smart and ingenuitive. That's proud history. Good luck in the contestDelete
Hi, Paula. How awesome to live so close to the turning point battle of the Civil War. Did you or your family members ever take a metal detector and go hunting for artifacts in and around there? A reenactor friend once gave me a Minie Ball from Gettysburg. I don't believe they allow that anymore, but there was a time people did.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing!
As far as I have researched our town does not have an unsung hero, although I do love finding out about the "lesser" known facts in history. They are like hidden gems. truckredford(at)Gmail(Dot)comReplyDelete
History can be addictive can't it? Thanks for stopping by! Good luck in the giveawayDelete
I spent my growing up years in the Niagara area in Ontario. I remember learning all about the Underground Railroad and we explored the area that those fleeing had taken. I still have vivid memories of the area, although I'm sure it has changed by now. Thanks for the giveaway. bettimace at gmail dot comReplyDelete
Betti, I would love to pick your brain about what you remember! :-) That is fascinating. Thanks for sharingDelete
Wow, I learn something else new about NY , grew up in Cayuga County Myself and currently live in Wayne County. We often wonder if our current home was part of the Underground Railroad... was built in 1853 ! Thank you Katie for the History Lesson for Today ! Love itReplyDelete
Linda Marie Finn
faithfulacresbodysoulspirit at gmail dot com
Thanks Linda. How exciting that would be to find out that your home welcomed fugitives on their way to freedom. I guess there are things will only know For sure when we get to heaven. Thanks for coming by and good luck in the contestDelete
What a great post, Kathy! Thanks for sharing! Thanks, too, for being my critique partner for Love's Escape, where my heroine escapes slavery with some unusual conducting help! Can't wait to read your latest revision of your beautiful Civil War novel! Blessings!ReplyDelete
Hi, Carrie! Thanks so much for stopping by. We share a fascination for the Underground Railroad and NY state history. Can't wait to read the rest of your riveting novella!Delete
I have walked Woodlawn Cemetery countless times. I don't know how many times I've stopped at John's grave and was always curious about him and his story. Thank you for sharing what you have found. Maybe one of these days I'll visit the museum!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Jill. It's so cool of you to stop by here. Woodlawn Cemetery is such a beautiful, peaceful place, and I'm sure it has much to do with this good man's legacy. I haven't visited the museaum yet, either. Let's make it a plan. :)
Thanks Kathy for this post. My hometown of Sandusky,Ohio (which is by Lake Erie) was a part of the underground railroad and a local house owned by the Follett family was one of the stops. Today the Follett house stills stands as a local museum which people can take tours through.ReplyDelete
Hi, Lynne. I love these snapshots of hometown history. I wonder if anyone has ever calculated how many conductors on the Underground Railroad there were. There must have been thousands. If I'm ever in Sandusky, that's a tour I would love to take. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.Delete
Wow, what a moving post! I love knowing such care was taken for burials during a time when so much was happening. I wish we had more men like Jones! No such heroes that I know of in my little town. lattebooksAThotmailDOTcomReplyDelete
Hi Susan. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and were inspired by Jones's character and heroism. In many ways he is an example to speak to today's racial divides. Thanks for leaving a comment.Delete
History is so interesting. I think of our hilltop homeland and wonder about those time periods with our tall oaks. Enjoyed reading all of these comments! Kathleen ~ Lane Hill House lanehillhouse[at]centurylink[dot]netReplyDelete
Hi, Kathleen! Yes, wouldn't it be amazing if we could somehow get the trees to tell us the history they've witnessed? Some have been around for a century or more. Sweethearts stealing kisses beneath their shade, soldiers marching by... it stirs the imagination. Thanks for coming by.Delete
I have never heard anything about the Underground Railroad associated with my town. I do live in the south so it was very likely that it was here. I have heard much about my area associated with the civil rights movement...ReplyDelete
Hi, Patty. The Civil Rights movement was a fascinating time, too. All history has something to teach us, doesn't it? Thanks for sharing.Delete
I love this post! As far as I know my town doesn't have an unsung hero from history.ReplyDelete
psalm103and138 at gmail dot com
Hi, Caryl. Thanks for coming by and enjoying this snapshot of my hometown hero. Good luck in the contest.Delete
Congratulations to truckredford(at)Gmail(Dot)com. Random.org selected you as the winner for the giveaway. I will contact you shortly via email.ReplyDelete
Thanks once again to everyone who read and commented on my post this week. It was such a pleasure to share John Jones's story.