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Famous People of the Finger Lakes

John W. Jones (1817-1900)


John W. Jones (1817-1900)Born a slave in Leesburg, Virginia, Jones escaped in 1844 and settled in Elmira. He initially took odd jobs, then went to school in the winter while working as a janitor in Miss Clara's school for young ladies on Main St. In 1847, he was appointed sexton (caretaker) of the First Baptist Church and remained so for 42 years. In 1854, Jones purchased the yellow house next to the church (1250 Davis St.) for $500 from Ezra Canfield.


Jones became active in Elmira's Underground Railroad and is said to have helped as many as 860 slaves on their way to Canada. The same year Jones bought his house, the Williamsport (Pennsylvania) to Elmira rail line was completed and slaves began to arrive in Elmira in larger numbers. Jones encouraged the railroad baggage men to allow slaves to stow away in the baggage cars, especially on the 4:00 a.m. "Freedom Baggage Car" to St. Catharines, Ontario via Watkins Glen, Canandaigua, and Niagara Falls.


Besides being sexton of the First Baptist Church, Jones was also caretaker and record keeper of the Baptist Burying Ground (also known as Wisner Burying Grounds or Wisner Park), the Second Street Cemetery, and Woodlawn Cemetery.


During the Civil War, Jones was paid $2.50 each by the Federal government to bury 2,963 Confederate soldiers who died while confined at the Elmira Prison Camp. He is said to have kept meticulous records of each soldier by name, rank, company, regiment, date of death, and grave number and placed a painted wooden marker on each grave. His precise record keeping encouraged the Federal government to declare Woodlawn a national cemetery in 1877.


Jones is buried at Woodlawn. His house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now a museum and is listed on the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.








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