From Slavery to History

With Museum, Group Hopes to Highlight John W. Jones' Contribution to Civil War Records

Sometime in the dark of night on June 3, 1844, plantation worker John W. Jones slipped into the woods outside Leesburg, Va., and began a month-long journey to freedom.

Twenty-seven years old at the time, Jones and three other enslaved African Americans made their way to Elmira, N.Y., a key stop on the Underground Railroad.

For Jones, Elmira meant freedom, and the chance at a new life.

He quickly secured a job as a church sexton, and began helping other enslaved blacks move north to Canada. But Jones' work on the Underground Railroad gives only a glimpse into his character. 

During the American Civil War, the city of Elmira (just north of the Pennsylvania state line) was the site of a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. Nearly 3,000 soldiers died there from disease, malnutrition, and exposure. Jones buried each one, digging their graves by hand, and kept detailed records of the interments.

His extensive records dating to 1864-65 allowed the federal government to place accurate headstones on all but seven of the 2,973 Confederate graves in 1907.

"He did it while still treating them like people," says Rachel Dworkin, archivist at the Chemung Valley History Museum in Elmira. "He did not treat them like the enemy. Throughout his time here, he constantly did things that were upstanding."

Jones became beloved in Elmira. But outside the small town, his story is not well known.

So, for the past 13 years, a group of volunteers has been working to dedicate a museum to Jones' life and role in the Underground Railroad and Civil War.

This year, members of the John W. Jones Museum are renovating the interior of the c. 1870 Jones home. They plan to open the structure to the public next year. His house has been relocated across the street from the cemetery that Jones once tended.

When the house opens, museum volunteers expect to attract genealogical researchers who often come to the nearby Woodlawn National Cemetery, according to Barbara Ramsdell, treasurer of the John W. Jones Museum.

The museum will serve as a repository for the burial records Jones compiled, and will also tell the story of freedom seekers, she says.

"Southerners came here after the war to take their sons home, but decided not to disturb them because the cemetery was so well kept," Ramsdell says.

Jones was born in 1817 on a plantation near Leesburg owned by the Ellzey family. While Jones would later speak well of the family, terror at being resold drove his decision to escape. He came to Elmira by way of Philadelphia and Williamsport, Pa., along the Susquehanna River.  

Jones arrived in Elmira on July 5, 1844, "more dead than alive," having traveled more than 300 miles in a month, Ramsdell said.

After recovering his strength, Jones began earning money by chopping wood. He quickly became part of the community and a key player in the Underground Railroad. As sexton of the First Baptist Church, he bought a house next door and used both buildings as safe havens for escaped African Americans, Ramsdell says: "He had as many as 30 to 40 people in the house at one time."  

At night, Jones would walk freedom seekers to the station in the heart of Elmira, where they would board trains to Canada. About 800 former slaves passed through Elmira while the Underground Railroad was active.

Jones was also in charge of burials for the church cemetery, which led to his job as gravedigger for the Woodlawn Cemetery.

In 1864, the U.S. Army opened a prisoner-of-war camp along lowlands near the flood-prone Chemung River. Conditions were terrible, and many prisoners lacked basic shelter throughout the winter months.

City officials decided to set aside a portion of the Woodlawn Cemetery to deal with the increasing problem of Confederate dead. At times, Jones was burying as many as 30 soldiers a day, Ramsdell says. 

Prisoners at the camp prepared bodies for burial, says Brian McCabe, a caretaker at the Woodlawn National Cemetery. Jones then documented each soldier's rank, name and unit number in a ledger. That information was used decades later to erect headstones, McCabe says.

"[Jones' record keeping] is really kind of remarkable," he says.

Jones was paid $2.50 for each burial, which helped him become one of the wealthiest black men in Upstate New York, Dworkin said.

After the war, Jones tended a garden on his 11-acre farm. He died in 1900 at the age of 83, leaving behind a little-known story of a brave man.  "He came from nothing," Dworkin says. "He got himself a good job. He risked his life to help other slaves escape. He was obviously a very courageous individual."

Read more about African American Heritage in Preservation

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed