Chemung County NY
John W. Jones Museum
Elmira NY
Article: John W. Jones Museum, Elmira NY
Township: City of Elmira NY
Submitted by Carole Knowlton Trustee of the John W. Jones Museum
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John W. Jones Museum

John W. Jones was a fugitive slave who settled in Elmira, NY in 1844. After arriving in Elmira, he became a "station master" of the Underground Railroad and helped over 800 individuals find their way to freedom from slavery. During the Civil War when Elmira was a prison camp for the Confederate soldiers, he buried nearly 3,000 soldiers who died at the camp. He personally kept track of all the names of the soldiers and where each one was buried. When asked why he did that, he said he would hope that someone would have done the same for him so his family would know what had become of him. He lived his life according to the Golden Rule and always put other people's concerns ahead of his own.

With the exception of a newspaper story about a public housing project named for John W. Jones in 1950, Mr. Jones was pretty much forgotten by the general public until August 26, 1997. On that date, the local newspaper, the Star-Gazette, published a news story titled "Ex-slave who buried Confederates lived in home now condemned." The last home that John W. Jones owned was originally located at 1259 College Avenue in Elmira, NY. He purchased the property in 1869 and it covered eleven acres. It went from College Avenue all the way up to Davis Street. At that time, it was "out in the country" and his house and barn were the only buildings on that block. In the late 1940's or early 1950's, the house was moved around the corner to 311 Woodlawn Avenue. By that time, his eleven acres had been subdivided and well developed with other houses and a low-income housing project, Hathorn Court. The house had become rental property and the landlords lived out of state.

The Star-Gazette retold the story of John W. Jones and his good deeds and this introduced him to new generations that had never heard of him before. I have to admit that I had heard his name but I didn't know much about him. The story went on to say that a group of concerned citizens was being formed to help save this house. As I read about the life of John W. Jones, I realized what a wonderful role model he was and I made a point of joining this group to save his house.

This was a total grassroots effort. We formed a board, became a nonprofit organization, and raised enough money to buy the house. We then moved the house to Davis Street, right across from Woodlawn Cemetery where John W. Jones buried the Confederate soldiers. The house is still on property that John W. Jones once owned. We are currently restoring the house with the help of an historic architect, Elise Johnson-Schmidt. Within the house we have found some evidence that some of the building materials may have come from the buildings of the Elmira Prison Camp.

When the restoration is complete, we will open the house as a museum. Also on this site we will build a learning center for educational purposes. We currently have a "heritage garden" on site and the produce is being given to a local charity for food distribution to those in need. Historical research is ongoing to identify other abolitionists who were not known in the past so they can receive the recognition they deserve.

Donations for our project may be made to John W. Jones Museum, P.O. Box 932, Elmira, NY 14902.

Carole Knowlton

Trustee, John W. Jones Museum


Slave Riot in Elmira, New York

On December 18, 1858, there was a slave riot in Elmira, New York that has long been forgotten. This riot involved Mr. Francis Hall, the President of the Board of Trustees of the Village of Elmira, Sandy Brandt, Jefferson Brown, and John W. Jones. Mr. Hall also was the designer of the Second Street Cemetery. This story is taken from a local Chemung County history book.

Four slaves escaped from John S. Mills of Calvert County, Maryland. One of the slaves was an elderly man who was not in good health. He got as far as Canandaigua, New York, which is about 75 miles north west of Elmira, when he decided he wanted to go back to Maryland. He wrote to his master and asked him to please come get him and take him home. Mr. Mills went to Canandaigua and on his return to Maryland, stopped overnight in Elmira. When the citizens of Elmira saw Mr. Mills and his slave, they assumed the slave had been captured and was being forced to return home. A large angry crowd gathered around the Brainard House Hotel where the men were staying. The local sheriff, William Gregg, tried to keep the crowd under control. With the assistance of Francis Hall and some of the more prominent black men of the community, (Sandy Brandt, John W. Jones, and Jefferson Brown), Sheriff Gregg interviewed the slave and his master. They determined that the slave was telling the truth and that he did want to go home to Maryland. The sheriff reported his finding to the angry crowd but they were not convinced. They wanted to rescue this man whether he wanted to be rescued or not. The crowd then moved on to the train station to make sure the slave owner did not get on the train with his slave.

Unknown to the crowd, Sheriff Gregg helped the men out the back way of the hotel and put them in his carriage. He drove them to the next depot at Southport, New York and had them wait there for the train. When the train stopped in Elmira the crowd waited for Mr. Mills and his slave to board the train. When they didn't show up, the crowd knew they had been outwitted. Some of the crowd tried to follow the train as it headed for the next stop at Southport, but they could not keep up. The train made it to Southport and picked up the passengers and left without any further problem.

Ausburn Towner, Our County and Its People (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1892), page 634

Chemung County NY

Published On Site 4/30/2004
By Joyce M. Tice

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