The John W. Jones story

© 2002 Barbara S. Ramsdell
All rights reserved

John W. Jones was born a slave June 21, 1817, on a plantation south of Leesburg, Virginia. He was owned by the Ellzey family, an influential family who treated their slaves with perhaps more kindness than some plantation owners did. Miss Sarah (Sally) Ellzey was fond of John and was a good friend to him. But she was getting on in years and John was concerned about what would happen to him once she passed away.

On June 3, 1844, at the age of 27, John fled north to the place his mother had told him about "where there is no slavery." It took one month for John, his two half-brothers, George and Charles, and Jefferson Brown and John Smith from an adjoining estate to walk from Virginia to Elmira, New York, a distance of about 300 miles. The route they followed was part of the Underground Railroad coming up through Pennsylvania and into New York by way of Williamsport, Canton, Alba and South Creek. In South Creek they reached the farm of Dr. Nathaniel Smith, where they crawled into the hay mow of his immense barn and went to sleep, more dead than alive. They remained there over night. Mrs. Smith discovered them and cooked food and took it to them. This is the Mrs. Smith whose grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, just beyond the Langdon plot, always had fresh flowers on it and no one knew where they came from. After John Jones died, there were no more mysterious fresh flowers.

John Jones was an ambitious man and never idle. The first thing he did when he arrived in Elmira was to offer to cut wood in exchange for 50¢ for Mrs. John Culp, Colonel John Hendy's daughter. Another early job he took was in a tallow and candle store working for Seth Kelly. John wanted to get an education, but was refused at first because he was black. Judge Arial Standish Thurston befriended him, realized his potential and made it possible for him to receive an education - in fact, at the same school where before he had been turned down. So John went to school in the winter and worked as janitor for Miss Clara Thurston's school for young ladies on Main Street. In October, 1847, he was appointed sexton or caretaker of the first church building of the First Baptist Church that had been constituted in 1829 under the name of the Baptist Church of Southport and Elmira. The first members gathered in homes, but as the membership grew they met in a schoolhouse in Southport. By 1832, the membership had grown to the point where they decided to build their own church building. They were sold the piece of land where the Baptist Church still is today for $1.50 by Jeffrey and Elizabeth Wisner who were in-laws of the first pastor, Rev. Philander Gillett. The first building was a barn-like structure constructed at a cost of $954.

By 1848, 16 years later, the Baptists had outgrown that building and decided to build something larger. The 1863 City Directory says this building was constructed of wood, stuccoed and cost $8000. Mr. Jones was sexton of this second church building for the 42 years that it was in existence.

In 1854 he bought the "yellow house next to the church" from an Ezra Canfield for $500. Two years later, John Jones married Rachel Swails. Rachel's brother was Stephen Swails, a Lieutenant in the 54th Massachusetts regiment, an all black unit. It you have ever seen the movie Glory, you know the story of this famous regiment.

By 1859, Jones was already very active in Underground Railroad work. An article in The Liberator (Boston) signed JWJones, Sec. said: Resolved, That we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, [slave-catchers] prowling through different parts of this and other States since the passing of the diabolical act of Sept. 18th, 1850, which consigns freemen of other States to that awful state of brutality which the fiendish slaveholders of the Southern States think desirable for their colored brethren, but are not willing to try it themselves.

Arch Merrill said in his book on the UGRR, "Jones quietly took command of the Underground in Elmira, a gateway between the South and the North. It became the principal station on the 'railroad' between Philadelphia and the Canadian border. Jones worked closely with William Still, the chief Underground agent in Philadelphia, who forwarded parties of from six to 10 fugitives at a time to Elmira.
"Jones had many allies in Elmira. Mrs. John Culp hid runaways in her home. Other Underground leaders were Jervis Langdon; Simeon Benjamin, the founder of Elmira College; Thomas Stanley Day; S. G. Andrus; John Selover; Riggs Watrous and others. The station master concealed as many as 30 slaves at one time in his home, exactly where, he never told. He carried on his operations so secretly that only the inner circle of abolitionists knew that in a decade he dispatched nearly 800 slaves to Canada.
"John Jones demonstrated his winning ways in encouraging the railroad baggage men to stow away the hundreds of men, women and children who were spirited away to freedom.

"In 1854 the railroad from Williamsport to Elmira was completed and Jones received many more fugitives by train, to ship away in the 4 a.m. 'Freedom Baggage Car,' directly to Niagara Falls via Watkins Glen and Canandaigua, where the car was shifted to the New York Central. Most Jones's 'baggage' eventually landed in St. Catharines."

His house right next to the church was the UGRR station of which Mr. Jones was station master. I often wonder about his wife, Rachel, who never knew how many were coming for dinner. I have also wondered if on those nights when he had 30 or more people to hide, if the church building, which he had access to, gave them shelter. There is no record that tells us this, but still, I wonder.

If you stand at the corner of West Church Street and Railroad Avenue and look north toward the Erie depot, you can envision the journey of the fugitives in the middle of the night as they go from Mr. Jones's home, where the parking lot of First Baptist is now, up Railroad Avenue to the depot.
Wm. Still's book about the UGRR is full of stories by the actual people involved in the work. In October, 1855, a lady wrote to Still asking, "Please give me again the direction of Hiram Wilson and the friend in Elmira, Mr. Jones, I think." [Still, page 40]

Here is a letter written by John W. Jones to William Still.

Elmira, June 6, 1860.
Friend Wm Still:
All six came safe to this place. The two men came last night, about twelve o'clock; the man and woman stopped at the depot, and went east on the next train, about eighteen miles.
O, old master don't cry for me, For I am going to Canada where colored men are free.
P,S. What is the news in the city? Will you tell me how many you have sent over to Canada? I would like to know. They all send their love to you. I have nothing new to tell you. We are all in good health. I see there is a law passed in Maryland not to set any slaves free. They had better get the consent of the Underground Rail Road before they passed such a thing. Good night from your friend,
John W. Jones
[Still, page 530]

Mr. Jones and the others who did the actual work of caring for the fugitives could not have done it without the help of a number of good citizens in the community. In Elmira, even before Mr. Jones arrived there were local people, mainly business men, who were abolitionists. The majority of them were members of the First Presbyterian Church and some were a part of the group of 41 who on January 4, 1846, were dismissed to form an independent Congregational Church.
Prominent among these men were: Sylvester G. Andrus, a local lumber dealer who lived at 27 Main Street. He was at one time a business partner of Jervis Langdon. His name is mentioned frequently in the early history of Park Church and he was part of the committee appointed December 15, 1845, to consult with the pastor and the session of the Presbyterian Church about founding a new church. The history of the First Presbyterian Church says that "secondary accounts call the new church 'an anti-slavery' church, but the official records are less specific." Other members of the committee were Ira Gould, Silas Billings, John Selover and Joshua Cleeves.

Rev. Thomas Kennicut Beecher, pastor of Park Church from 1854 to 1900, was a person who was willing to contribute money whenever he was asked to help the fugitives continue on their way.

Simeon Benjamin was born on Long Island and in 1857 is listed as president of the Bank of Chemung. His home was at the corner of Lake and East Third Streets. He is also one of the founders of Elmira College. A paper on file at the Chemung County Historical Society by Carol L. Veldman Rudie, states: "Mr. Benjamin officially became a member of First Presbyterian Church on September 25, 1836, having his membership transferred from Brooklyn, New York." The paper talks about his duties as a church elder when it became his task to visit some church members who were accused of dancing or drinking. In 1850 one lady who had been seen dancing, was suspended by the Session of the church and her name taken from the church rolls. There are similar records at the First Baptist. One member caught gossiping was removed from the membership rolls.

Ms. Rudie's paper mentions that Mr. Benjamin worked with John Selover on committees. Session minutes report that at the 1838 Methodist Anti-Slavery meeting held on Davis Island a "Memorial" was presented to the group requesting that they desist from holding anti-slavery meetings in the village. The names of Selover, Andrus and Benjamin are mentioned in the discussion. The minutes for Dec. 19, 1845, state that certain brethren appeared before the Session for the purpose of conversing on the subject of organizing a new Church. S. G. Andrus and John Selover both became members of the new church, but Benjamin remained at First Presbyterian.

In her final notes, Carol Rudie makes this comment: "Several of my sources indicated that Benjamin was anti-slavery to such an extent that he supported financially the UGRR station in Elmira. I tried to find out from the UGRR files and books whether or not this was true, but no success. However, what is mystifying is the fact that he does not join the supposed anti-slavery organizations of either Park Church of Lake Street Presbyterian. If in fact, slavery was such a big issue in the formation of both of those churches, why isn't Benjamin in the membership rolls of one or the other?"

Thomas Stanley Day was born in Schoharie County in 1805 and came to Elmira in April 1834. He bought property near Oak Street and Washington Avenue. Here with his family Deacon Day lived until 1856 when he moved to a farm in the township of Horseheads. He was always prominent in the Presbyterian Church. When Park Church was formed he was one of the 41 members that severed their connection with the old Presbyterian Church, and he with Jervis Langdon and John M. Robinson were the committee that invited Thomas K. Beecher to become their pastor. For 27 years, Day was an Elder of the Horseheads Presbyterian Church.

In 1837, when the Methodist Conference was held in Elmira, the anti-slavery portion of that body, which comprised pretty much the whole of it, wanted to hold a meeting to express their views. The church and the courthouse were refused them for the purpose and they were driven from Davis Island by "a less respectable and more noisy rabble. Fellows of a baser sort took up the task of dispersing the abolitionists, and with tin horns, and pans, and rattles, and implements of rowdyism and riot, they so deafened the atmosphere that the words of the speakers could not be heard by the audience, and the meeting was broken up and left the island. Application was then made to Mr. T. S. Day for permission to meet on his farm at the foot of what is now Washington Avenue. The meeting assembled, some 200 strong, and the exercises were peaceably conducted. This was the only anti-slavery meeting seriously disturbed by a mob in Elmira." It would have been unhappy for anyone to have attempted any trouble where Deacon Day was master. He and Erastus Day are listed as early apostles of abolition.

Ira Gould and Grandison A. Gridley were among the 41 to leave First Presbyterian Church. Mr. Gridley was born in 1819 in Madison County and was in the plumbing and hardware business.

Francis Hall is listed as a bookseller and lived at Haight's Hotel, 30 Water Street, and later at the National Hotel, corner of Baldwin and Cross St. (now Market Street). In August 1902, the Weekly Gazette and Free Press ran a story called "How Francis Hall Prevented A Riot."
It can be imagined what feelings were aroused when it was noised about one summer day in 1858 that there was a southern slave driver at the Brainard House, and with him a slave whom he had captured in the northern part of the state and was dragging back to bondage. It was not long before the corner of Baldwin and Water streets was the scene of great excitement as a crowd of people, both black and white were massed there with clubs, sticks, stones, and some were armed with guns. The lobbies of the hotel were full.
Upon Mr. Hall and the then Sheriff, Gen. Wm. Gregg, devolved the duty of preserving the peace of the village. Mr. Hall was able to get to the balcony on the south side of the building where he talked to the crowd telling them that the law must be observed and peace preserved. Mr. Hall invited two or three of their number to come up into the hotel to talk with the fugitive themselves. Sandy Brant, Jefferson Brown and another went to talk with the fugitive. They found out he had run away from his master, but he was an aged man and had grown homesick and mistrusted his new freedom. He had written to his master to come take him home. At first the crowd seemed determined to rescue the man whether he wanted to be rescued or not, but they finally disbursed.

But it was not over yet. As the hour approached for the departure of the train, the crowd began to collect around the depot. Mr. Hall and Sheriff Gregg went to the southerner and explained the situation. Sheriff Gregg, therefore, a few minutes before the train was due took the man and the "fugitive" in his carriage across the river into Southport two or three miles to await the coming of the train. The conductor had been informed as to this matter and pulled his train out a minute or two ahead of time. An excited crowd swarmed down Railroad Avenue, but finally realized they had been outwitted. The trouble that at one time seemed imminent and threatening was ended.

John M. Robinson was born in Greene County, New York, in 1814. He was a descendant of John Robinson, one of the passengers on the Mayflower.

Mr. Robinson attended school more or less until he was 13 years of age, at which time he was apprenticed to Mr. Humphrey Potter to learn the cabinet business, and during these years he received one more year's schooling.

At the close of his apprenticeship, in 1835, he came to Horseheads and took charge of a cabinet-manufacturing business where he remained for one year, and in 1836 settled in the then village of Elmira and established a chair manufactory on a small scale. Mr. Robinson has gradually extended his business from sales, only reaching a few hundred dollars annually, to those now amounting to 75 thousand, and passed through the days when each manufacturer cut his own timber in the woods, and by long and tedious process prepared it for the various departments of work.

In 1857 he is listed as in the furniture business and undertaker at 41 Lake, corner of Cross Street, and his home was at 6 William. By 1863-64 he is called a furniture manufacturer. His memory will be linked with Park Church as long as that church stands. He was one of the original organizers of the society and active in building the church edifice.

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© 2002, Barbara S. Ramsdell


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