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From Slavery to Citizenship: The Story of John W. Jones

Between the summers of 1864 and 1865, nearly 3,000 Confederate prisoners died at the Civil War prison camp in Elmira, New York. The monumental task of burying the dead fell upon a former runaway slave named John W. Jones. Today, an exhibit at the Chemung County Historical Society commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the camp and helps tell a small part of Jones’ incredible journey from slave to prominent citizen.


John W. Jones was born into slavery on June 21, 1817 in Leesburg, Virginia. Twenty-seven years later, Jones and a small group of other runaway slaves made a perilous 300-mile journey to Elmira, New York, evading a group of slave catchers along the way. Once in Elmira, Jones found employment at Miss Clarissa Thurston's Female Seminary where he worked in exchange for reading and writing lessons. 

“A lot of African Americans who escaped from slavery, and a lot of African-Americans immediately post slavery, were very interested in education,” states Rachel Dworkin, the Chemung County Historical Society archivist.  “That was one of the things that stuck me about Jones, his drive to get an education and his willingness to work for basically peanuts in order to finance his education.”Through his hard work Jones quickly became an important member of the local community. In 1847, he became the sexton of the First Baptist Church in Elmira, a position he held for forty-two years, and the caretaker of the church’s cemetery. Throughout the 1850s, Jones would also become one of the area’s most important conductors on the Underground Railroad.“[Jones] was sort of the arranger,” states Dworkin. “He would house [runaway slaves] and provide them with food, and if there was a time lag he would arrange jobs for some people.”Jones also arranged transportation for fugitive slaves on the baggage car of the Williamsport & Elmira Railroad. Through his “Freedom Baggage Car” Jones helped hundreds of fugitive slaves escape to freedom across the border in Canada.


One of the most dramatic turns in Jones’ story came during the Civil War. In 1864, the Federal Government opened the Elmira Prison Camp and contracted Jones to bury the dead Confederate soldiers from the camp. Conditions in the camp were horrific and it wasn’t long until Jones was overwhelmed with his work.“He was originally supposed to be paid forty dollars a month, but because there was so much work and because he had to take on extra help burying the dead, [Jones] renegotiated that he would be paid $2.50 per body,” explains Dworkin.

Ultimately, Jones buried nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers in Woodlawn Cemetery and received over $7,000 dollars for his work.“That made him one of the top ten richest African-Americans in Western New York,” states Dworkin.Unlike many other prison camps in the North and South where little care was usually taken with prisoner burials, Jones took extremely detailed records of where each soldier was buried.“He put their name, rank, and regiment on a slip of paper in a little jar that he would tie around their neck, kind of like dog tags, and then he would write it on the actual coffin,” states Dworkin.Jones also provided each grave with a small wooden headstone. Due to Jones’ meticulous work officials were able to replace the wooden headstones with stone markers in 1907. The site is now part of Woodlawn National Cemetery.


Listen to Rachel Dworkin's favorite John W. Jones story. Dworkin is the archivist at the Chemung County Historical Society.



In a stroke of coincidence, Jones’ former life as a slave and his new life as a freeman collided at Woodlawn Cemetery. John R. Rollins was the son of Jones’ former overseer. As a young boy, Rollins had been well liked by many of the slaves on the plantation. During the war, Rollins was imprisoned at Elmira and died there.

“In a newspaper interview he gave years after the fact, [Jones] talked about John Rollins and said that he was genuinely upset that John was dead and that someone that he knew and liked had died among strangers,” says Dworkin.Jones wrote a letter to Rollins’ parents explaining what had happened to their son, and after the war Jones returned to the place where he had been a slave for 27 years and visited with the Rollins Family.The war had made Jones a wealthy man, and he bought a farmhouse and a piece of land outside Elmira with the money he had earned burying Confederate dead. This made Jones a member of an elite group of African-Americans in New York who were allowed to vote.“In New York State you had to have at least $250 of property in order to be an African-American voter prior to 1873,” explains Dworkin. “He was already a pillar of the community but that certainly pushed him over the top.”John W. Jones died on December 26, 1900 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. He is still fondly remembered in the area to this day. An exhibit at the Chemung Historical Society Museum in Elmira commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the prison camp, including a section on John W. Jones, will be on display through August 2015. Resources Ramsdell, Barbara. “The History of John W. Jones.” The Chemung Historical Journal 49, no. 2 (2003): 5408-5424. Photographs Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society



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