The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2002

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A History of

John W. Jones

His escape from slavery in Virginia,
becoming a Stationmaster on the Underground Railroad in Elmira,
his association with area Abolitionists,
and his connection with the First Baptist Church of Elmira

Barbara S. Ramsdell

Second Installment, Conclusion
For photographs of John Jones' last house and an account of the progress
of the John W. Jones Museum in Elmira, click here

First Installment

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 Thomas Stewart and another slave 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 for nearly a week. Mrs. Smith discovered them and cooked food and took it to them morning and night. 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, Col. John Wendy'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 Wm. 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]

2002, Barbara S. Ramsdell
First Installment, Second Installment, Conclusion
For photographs of John Jones' last house and an account of the progress
of the John W. Jones Museum in Elmira, click here
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