A History of
John W. Jones
His association with area abolitionists
and his connection with the
First Baptist Church of Elmira
For photographs of John Jones' last house and an account of the progress
of the John W. Jones Museum in Elmira, click
Much of the story of the UGRR has never been told because it was done
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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."
For photographs of John Jones' last house and an account of the progress
of the John W. Jones Museum in Elmira, click