Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
[A biographical sketch of John W. Jones was written in 1946 by Abner C. Wright, then Chemung County Historian. It was an answer to an inquiry oncerning Underground Railroa activities in Elmira.]
BY ABNER C. WRIGHT
John W. Jones was born the slave of the Elzy family of Leesburg County, Va. June 22, 1817. The Elzy family was very wealthy, owning a large estate and many slaves. His mother was born in slavery, and his father was sold away before his birth, and John W. Jones never saw his father. Miss Sally Elzy, the mistress and owner of the estate, was a kind old spinster who never allowed her slaves to be abused. John was the pet of this mistress during his boyhood and remembered with pleasure that she never gave him a cross word. He was employed about the house and garden until twelve years of age whe he was sent into the field to work with the men. Nothing was ever done for him however in the way of education. One day a flock of geese flying northward drew his attention and his grandmother told him that far beyond the fields over which the geese were flying lay a Northern country where all were free. This gave him his first thought of freedom.
As time went on the boy often dreamed of the North. Circumstances came to his aid and assisted him in forming his resolve to escape. Miss Elzy gave up on the personal management of the estate and it became evident to John his mistress would fall into the hands of the heirs whom he disliked. This impelled him to plan an early escape.
Confiding his plans to his mother she consented, and one Saturday night in June 1844 he told his mother he was going to a party and asked her to get his best clothes ready. Thereupon he bade her good-by and saw her for the last time.
There is not space here to recount the toils, suffering and marrow escapes encountered on the way North by John Jones and his fellow fugitives, five in number. The party reached South Creek in Bradford County, Pa., several miles south of Elmira and made their way to the farm of Nathaniel Smith, where they crawled into the haymow of his immense barn and went to sleep more dead than alive, where they remained nearly a week. In the meantime, Mrs. Smith discovered them, took food to them morning and night, this they were brought back to health and vigor.
The fugitives started out very early one day and reached Elmira the morning of July 5, 1844. John had $1.46 in his pocket and earned fifty cents that day splitting wood for Mrs. Culp the daughter of Col. John Handy, the pioneer of the city of Elmira. None of this party was ever molested after reaching Elmira.
John was without the slightest education and although there were two schools in Elmira neither would admit John W. Jones.
Not long after he met the late judge, Ariel S. Thurston and the judge perceiving the young man's latent ability asked him why he did not learn to read and write. John replied that nobody would teach him. The judge finally proposed to John that he should come into his family and by this means John finally was received into one of the schools and seated neat to a boy aged 14, named Loop. This lad took kindly to John and gave him every assistance in his power, and indeed, said Jones later in talking about it: this lad was the real teacher who took pains and taught me to read and write.
In 1847 ones was appointed sexton of the First Baptist Church and also made assistant sexton of the Baptist Church cemetery, also the Second Street cemetery, the only ones in operation at that time, and shortly after Mr. Jones became sexton of both these cemeteries.
Jones now purchased the yellow house which stood on the present lot just east of the new Baptist church. When the Underground Railroad was organized John W. Jones at once became an active agent. Elmira was the only regular agency between Philadelphia and St. Catherine's, Canada. The yellow house next to the church played an important part in this society between 1850 and the breaking out of the Civil War.
The society had its headquarters in Phildelphia with William Still in charge. Many wealthy men were associated together and supplied the money which Mr. Still distributed judiciously to the refugees to help them on their way. He started them with funds sufficient to reach Elmira where they sought out John James.
They came, usually, in parties of six or seven but so rapidly that at one time the old yellow house sheltered and concealed thirty men, women and children on the same night. The work was done so quietly that no one ever knew positively what was going on. Many citizens suspected it but none molested it or interfered with him in his efforts to help the refugees. Often they were entirely penniless when they arrived and money had to be obtained to send them on their way.
A few loyal men, chief among them being Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, Jervis Lagdon, James M. Robinson, William Yates and Riggs Watrous were ever ready to respond to frequent calls for contributions to replenish their empty purses.
During the nine years of his active operations in this line there were 800 fugitive slaves cared for, not one of whom was ever captured -- so far as he knew.
While Elmira was the only published station between the two objective points every small town on the line had a shelter which was known to various agents, and refugees were furnished with route maps and names. The last stopping place south of Elmira was Alba, Pa. where the home of Charles G. Manley was always open to them.
The above comment is not meant to convey the idea that John W. Jones was the only person then living in Elmira that assisted the refugees of the Underground Railroad.
The patriotic services of John W. Jones were not confined to the relief of refugees. When the prison camp was established July 6, 1864 on the site of barracks No. 3 in the city of Elmira, as soon as the prisoners began to arrive, deaths began to occur among the prisoners and a beautiful piece of ground at the edge of Woodlawn cemetery was set apart for burial of these dead.
John W. Jones was the sexton of Woodlawn cemetery at this time and had charge of the burial of every Confederate prisoner during the existence of the prison. The name, rank, company and regiment, grave number and date of death were carefully attached to the lid of the coffin, and evidence was found that the above date was written on a piece of paper, inserted in a tight bottle and deposited with the remains. Sexton Jones was a very busy man, especially between September and May during which time the least number of burials a month was 203, and the greatest was 495.
Jones employed as high as twelve men in digging the trenches which contained the graves of the dead, but Jones was always on hand to see that the burial of the dead was properly and reverently conducted.
The entire number of Confederate prisoners buried here during the life of the prison camp was 2,973. Soon after the war, three bodies were removed by friends and taken South for burial. There seems to be no record of the names removed. The entire record as kept by Jones was perfect with the exception of seven listed as unknown.
Mankind should never forget the services of John W. Jones, who had the ability and courage to liberate himself from slavery, of obtaining an education and devoting himself during his entire life to the service of the community and his country.