The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2003

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A History of

John W. Jones

His association with area abolitionists
and his connection with the
First Baptist Church of Elmira


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

Second Installment

Much of the story of the UGRR has never been told because it was done secretly.
We are still finding old letters, and information that was not known before.

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.

John Selover owned a planing mill and was a lumber dealer at the corner of Fifth and Canal. His home was on Mill Street opposite Washington Avenue. Today we know Mill Street as College Avenue.

In the History of Tioga, Chemung Tompkins & Schuyler Counties, there is an article about the anti-slavery movement in Chemung County. It says:

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."

© 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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