The first movement was begun in 1836, by Rev. John Frost (pastor at First Presbyterian Church), John Selover, and Dr. Norman Smith, the former and latter being original 'dyed-in-the-wool' abolitionists, while Elder Selover began as a colonizationist with Gerrit Smith of Utica, New York. When the Utica people drove the anti-slavery men and women from their city to Peterboro', Gerrit Smith was no longer a colonizationist, but a zealous emancipationist, and Elder Selover experienced his change of heart on that subject about that time."
I was surprised to find this association between Gerrit Smith and a strong abolitionist here in Elmira. Gerrit Smith of Utica is listed as a land speculator and abolitionist in my encyclopedia and his father was in business with John Jacob Astor. The family was obviously quite wealthy. He supported a number of causes, but "The cause that captured the greatest portion of Smith's attention was the campaign to end slavery. At first Smith supported efforts to colonize slaves in Africa, but in 1835 he joined the more militant abolitionist movement that demanded immediate emancipation of the slaves… Although he publicly denied it, Smith gave warm encouragement and financial assistance to John Brown's attempt to incite a large-scale slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry in 1859."
We do know that Gerrit Smith gave thousands of acres of unimproved land in upstate New York to poor black families to help them become economically independent. Also, once they were land-owners, they could vote. John Jones, his brother George, Jefferson Brown, and Sandy Brandt were 4 of the 14 from Chemung County who received land in the Adirondacks in this manner.
Dr. Nathaniel and Sarah Smith were the people from South Creek who sheltered John W. Jones and company for a week in their barn. That barn and those people probably gave shelter and aide to many others, too.
John Turner was born in Rensselaer County in 1800. He was married to Ulissa, daughter of Robert Tifft, also of Rensselaer County. In February 1827, Mr. and Mrs. Turner moved to Veteran Township, coming all the way with an ox-team and sled, and located upon the farm about 11 miles from Elmira on what was known as the Ridge road. (The Chemung County Fairgrounds are named after his son, Robert T. Turner). Mr. Turner was a pronounced anti-slavery man, so strong that in the memorable canvass of 1844 he was one of 7 in the township, who voted for James G. Birney for President in opposition either to James K. Polk or Henry Clay. It was these votes for Birney in the State of New York that gave the election to Polk.
Riggs Watrous's business was as a hardware merchant at 101, 103 Water Street and later 112 Water Street. His home was at 53 Lake Street at the corner of Market. He is the only abolitionist we know of from First Baptist Church. His name is listed in various histories as having been involved with the UGRR. When John Jones died, a son of Charles G. Manley of Alba, Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to the editor of The Star reminiscing about Mr. Jones and the work of the UGRR. He said, "My father, Charles G. Manley was the man to whom the runaway slaves were sent from Williamsport. From Alba father sent them here to Elmira to Riggs Watrous. I did not know Riggs Watrous, but I do know that many a poor black man and woman can thank him and my father and others for their freedom." Another source says that Riggs Watrous would hide the slaves in the upper chambers of his house, which was the first residence on Lake Street north of Market Street.
William P. Yates was a jeweler and his business was located at 147 Water Street. He was a member of Trinity Church and later one of the original members of Grace Church. He was mentioned in Holmes's book as one who was ready to respond to a call for a contribution to send the penniless fugitives on their way.
Last of our list of prominent Elmira abolitionists, but not least, Jervis Langdon was born in 1809 in Oneida County. He began working in 1827 in a country store at age 18. For a little more than 10 years he was engaged in similar occupations in Vernon, Ithaca, Enfield and Salina. The Presbyterian Church of Enfield was organized in 1832 and Jervis Langdon was one of the prominent members.
Mr. Langdon first came to Chemung County to the little hamlet of Millport. His partner here was Myron Collins. In Millport Mr. Langdon became interested in the lumber trade. Here is where his business life really began. A Presbyterian church was organized in Millport about 1836. Myron Collins and Jervis Langdon were leading members. Mr. Collins and Mr. Langdon were both listed in Towner's history among the early settlers in Millport as was another early settler from Ireland, Patrick Quinn, tanner. It says that Mr. Quinn took sides with the anti-slavery movement and was one of its strongest advocates until slavery was abolished. I wonder if Mr. Langdon and Mr. Quinn ever discussed anti-slavery ideas?
Here in Elmira, Mr. Langdon is listed as being a wholesale dealer in coal and iron and his business was located at the corner of Fifth and Hatch Streets. His home was on East Union. John Selover was in business at the corner of Fifth and Canal, just a block down Fifth Street.
A letter written in 1876 or 1877 by Augustus F. Holt to his daughter Gratia Holt Stedman when he was in Coburg, Ontario, Canada, states:
It was on this spot in 1844 [3 years before Jones arrived in Elmira] that Bro. Langdon, Ed. Messer and I sent a band of fugitives of 39 from Elmira, hotly pursued by slave hunters from the south.
It was a stirring scene as on that clear star-lit night at the quiet hour of 12 our two companies of fugitives; one led by Bro. Messer, the other by a colored preacher coming from different points, 9 miles distance, both met at the exact hour. Bro. Langdon and I came from Elmira, 9 miles in a carriage well filled with supplies for their journey. We rode to the appointed spot and gave the signal to which Messer from behind a fence responded in person and blowing a whistle, a like answer came from a swamp a mile away, bringing the other band.
We distributed among them a good supply of clothing and making up to each $5.00 and to each of the pilots $10.00, which I had begged from friends in Elmira.
Then a Virginia newspaper was produced containing an advertisement of the company giving a minute description of each individual and as it was read, each responded to his real name. Then all knelt down on the grassy carpet by the wayside and Bro. Langdon, in such a prayer as I hardly ever heard before or since, commended them to the care of the fugitive's Friends. They started on their way in double file singing a plaintive Negro melody.
They traveled by night on the public roads, sheltered and cared for by day by some good friends who kept the UGRR station until they reached the neighborhood of Oswego, then full of slave catchers.
A small schooner was chartered which came around to the cove where they went on board and the free winds of Heaven wafted them to this part where under Victoria's flag they found that protection which the Stars and Stripes could not then afford."
(Judith Wellman in Oswego read this letter and wrote, "The harbor facilities that Gerrit Smith owned in Oswego were on the east side of the river and were called 'the cove'").
Here is a letter written by Mr. Langdon's daughter, Susan Crane in 1896 to Professor Siebert of Ohio State University who was doing research on the UGRR.
In the summer of 1845 there were seventeen runaway slaves in and about the small village of Elmira. Five were at work in the town and twelve were scattered on farms over the hills or 'up the river road.'
One hot day the twelve were known to be cutting hay on two adjoining farms. These men were the latest comers and were closely watched by their friends and kept out of sight as far as possible. However, they were known to be here by pro-slavery men, they could not be hidden.
On this July morning, Jervis Langdon, one of the earliest and most earnest anti-slavery men in this region, was called into the office of a judge, known to be in sympathy with the South. The judge told Mr. Langdon in great haste and with excitement that there were two slaveholders and an officer from the South with warrants for those twelve men.
The judge said the men must be warned, but extorted a promise that he should not be known as the informant, a promise faithfully kept until after the judge died.
My father's partner, S. G. Andrus, who was familiar with the shortest road over the hill, started with the fastest horse in the town, to the farms where the colored men were at work. He arrived but fifteen minutes before the masters and officers-but it was early enough to give the men time to fly to the woods and hide until under the cover of night they pushed on to Canada and were all saved. Later several of them returned and settled here.
When I asked Mr. Jones what was my father's connection with the underground railroad, he said, with much feeling, 'He was all of it, giving me at one [time] his last dollar, when he did not know where another would come from.' This I well remember as it was during the [financial] panic of 1857 when my father was on the verge of failure, which was afterward averted.
As you read the history books, they calmly talk about the business and families of the abolitionists, but it is these letters that tell you so much more about the real people and what was really going on in their lives.
There was one open manifestation of Mr. Langdon's religious sentiments. In both Enfield and Millport, there was a new meeting-house left when he moved. The Park Church building would hardly have been possible without the well-directed generosity of Jervis Langdon.
Towner's history has this to say about Mr. Langdon: "If any man in these latter days ever 'went about doing good' it was Jervis Langdon. No one with even the slightest or most indistinct claim on his attention or generosity ever went to him for assistance and was denied the help he asked for, and the cry of distress, necessity, or want fell painfully upon his ear with immediate effect, meeting an instant response without thought of other inquiry. And this was as much a characteristic of his nature when his means were limited and a gift meant some deprivation for himself as it was when a liberal donation was only a gratification of his generous impulses.
"For publicity in any political sense he had no taste, …yet he had deep-seated convictions relating to certain political principles which he never hesitated to express or to act upon, and act upon with his whole heart.…Mr. Langdon's life had three paramount elements in it that were always perceptible. They had to do with his business, his home, and his religion: if you touched one you were very apt to touch them all."
Another part of John W. Jones's life for which he is very well known both in the North and in the South is his burial of the many Confederate prisoners that died in the Elmira Prison Camp. The prison camp was opened on July 6, 1864, in buildings used earlier when the area was a training ground for Union troops. Conditions in the prison camp were terrible. There was over crowding, it was way too cold for those southern boys, they were still living in tents in December. In the spring there was flooding, and Foster Pond, the source of their drinking water, was contaminated. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
When the camp was closed, one year later, on July 10, 1865, almost 3,000 Confederate soldiers had died. With compassion John W. Jones supervised their burial in an area back of his farm. He kept accurate records of each soldier, by name, rank, company and regiment, grave number and date of death. He placed a nicely painted wooden marker on each grave. Washington accepted his records and he was paid $2.50 for each burial.
There is in Clay Holmes' book The Elmira Prison Camp a story that Sexton Jones saw the name John R. Rollins on one of the coffins to be buried and wondered if this could be the John R. Rollins he had known as a little boy, the son of the overseer, and whose mother had always been kind to John Jones. He contacted the family in Virginia, found that their son had enlisted in the army and was listed as missing. He sent word back to them that their son's body had been found. The name John R. Rollins does not appear on the list of those buried. His remains may be one of the three removed soon after the war.
At the time of these horrific tragedies, John Jones suffered a personal tragedy when his three-year-old son, George Henry Jones, died on October 20, 1864.
Between 1847 and 1877, Mr. Jones was not only sexton but usher and general helper, as the church body was small. In 1877 Dr. William T. Henry came to First Baptist to serve his one and only pastorate. He was at the church for 50 years. Dr. Henry's leadership caused the church membership to soar. John Jones and his daughter, Ida, were baptized and became church members in 1878. A larger building was needed. The New England-style building was torn down about 1890 and a new brick building was dedicated in 1892. The church wanted more space and bought the neighboring property of John Jones and tore down his house. Mr. Jones then retired to his farm on College Avenue. He gave up the job as sexton because the new church building was larger and because he was 73 years old. He did continue as head usher and always sat in the back pew. A seating chart of 1895 shows his pew along with those of all the other members.
Mr. Jones also had some other jobs along with being church sexton. He was caretaker of three different cemeteries; the Baptist Burying Ground or Wisner Burial Grounds, which we now know as Wisner Park. The Wisner Burial Ground opened in 1802 and closed in 1876 when all the bodies were moved to either Second Street or Woodlawn cemeteries. Mr. Jones was also sexton for both of those cemeteries.
My husband and I visited Leesburg, Virginia, to look up the plantation from which 27-year-old John Jones had fled slavery. The terrain around Leesburg is much like Chemung County. We even found an old picture of the Ellzey plantation house "Mt. Middleton" that burned down in 1950. At the library in Leesburg, I was given a copy of Sally Ellzey's will and inventory, and a map by which we located the old Ellzey cemetery and the grave of Miss Sally.
Excerpts from Miss Sally Ellzey's will dated April 28th, 1852, reveal her attitude toward her family and servants. Her inventory indicates her economic status:
"I expect that Alfred Lee and John Milton Lee will both wish to be sold or hired near where their wives and children live. If they do I hope my nephews, Burr Wm Harrison and Thomas L. Ellzey will attend to it and try to get them comfortable and permanent homes in the county where I live."
Then comes: "I give to Thomas L. Ellzey the man that his cousin does not chuse, Jenney and the children she has with her and her son Henry. If payments of my debts does not require to have Jenny's eldest daughter Martha and her child, or children, sold, I wish her to be hired out and her wages to be devoted to the education of Frances Ellzey, daughter of Thomas L. Ellzey and Helen E. Ellzey his wife, and in case of her death, to her sisters, Alice and Mary B. Ellzey."
In Sally Ellzey's inventory are listed possessions such as 1 dozen cane seat chairs, $15; 1 passage lamp, $2; preserving kettle, $2.50; cow, $20; hay, $10; and slaves: Alfred aged 39, $750, John Milton age 37, $800; Jenny, 41, and infant Betty, $600; Martha aged 18, $800; Dennis aged 52, [he's old and only worth] $75. After reading this, I wondered just how much I'd be worth if I were one of Miss Sally's servants, especially at my advanced age and with rheumatism to boot.
Chemung County 1890 - 1975, Thomas Byrne.
The will of Sarah Ellzey, made on April 28, 1852.
City Directories of Elmira, New York, for the years 1857, 1860, 1862-62 and 1863-4.
Membership records of First Baptist Church of Elmira, 1832 to present.
History of Tioga, Chemung, Tompkins and Schuyler Counties, New York, 1879.
The Elmira Prison Camp, Clay Holmes, 1912.
The Liberator (Boston), November 15, 1850.
The Underground (Freedom's Road), Arch Merrill.
The Underground Rail Road, William Still.
A History of the Park Church, 1846 -1892, Eva Taylor.
History of Chemung County, 1836 - 1892, Ausburn Towner.
Paper about Simeon Benjamin by Carol L. Veldman Rudie, on file at the Chemung County Historical Society.
Information about Francis Hall, Weekly Gazette and Free Press, (Elmira) August, 1902.
Information about Gerrit Smith. The Encyclopedia Americana, 1975 Edition.
© 2002, Barbara S. Ramsdell