John W. Jones
Caretaker and Sexton of Woodlawn National Cemetery
  Elmira, New York

Photos/text courtesy of Scott Payne, NY
For any use of these photos contact

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Return to Woodlawn National Cemetery

1. John W. Jones Museum, Elmira, New York
2. The John W. Jones Story Part One

3. John W. Jones (ex-slave) - Wikipedia
4. Pages in the History of Elmira | John W. Jones: Woodlawn Sexton

John W. Jones is one of Elmira's most important historical figures because of his critical role in the success of the Underground Railroad, and for his significant contribution to record keeping for Woodlawn Cemetery.
 John W. Jones was born in 1817 on a plantation in  Leesburg, Virginia as a slave to the Elzy family. On June 3, 1844, fearing he would be sold to another plantation as his owner grew old and near death, Jones and four others fled north. They survived a 300-mile trip and  arrived in Elmira, New York in July of 1844


John W. Jones


(2010) Jones' adopted home of Elmira was a major stop for the Underground Railroad


(2010) Most escaped slaves who passed through came via Harrisburg and Williamsport, continuing their route to Rochester or another "station." Elmira's participation in the Underground Railroad was significant because it was the only stop between Philadelphia and St. Catherines, Ontario - the final destination for many runaway slaves. At one point in July of 1845, 17 fugitive slaves were in the Elmira area, hiding on farms and at other places


(2010) Enlarge John Jones was an ambitious man and never idle. The first thing he did when he arrived in Elmira was to offer to cut wood in exchange for $5 for Mrs. John Culp. Another early job he took was in a tallow and candle store working for Seth Kelly. John wanted to get an education, but was refused at first because he was black. Judge Arial Standish Thurston befriended him, realized his potential and made it possible for him to receive an education in fact, at the same school where before he had been turned down. So John went to school in the winter and worked as janitor for Miss Clara Thurston's school for young ladies on Main Street. In October, 1847, he was appointed sexton or caretaker of the first church building of the First Baptist Church that had been constituted in 1829 under the name of the Baptist Church of Southport and Elmira


(2010) Enlarge In 1854 he bought the "yellow house next to the church" from an Ezra Canfield for $500. Two years later, John Jones married Rachel Swails. Rachel's brother was Stephen Swails, a Lieutenant in the 54th Massachusetts regiment, an all black unit. The motion picture "Glory" is about this famous regiment


(2010) Enlarge Another part of John W. Jones's life for which he is very well known both in the North and in the South is his burial of the many Confederate prisoners that died in the Elmira Prison Camp. The prison camp was opened on July 6, 1864, in buildings used earlier when the area was a training ground for Union troops. Conditions in the prison camp were terrible. There was over crowding, it was way too cold for those southern boys, they were still living in tents in December. In the spring there was flooding, and Foster Pond, the source of their drinking water, was contaminated. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong

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