John W. Jones

1817-1900

John W. Jones made an arrangement with railway workers to hide fugitives in the 4 o’clock “Freedom Baggage Car” to Niagara Falls via Watkins Glen and Canandaigua. Most of Jones’s “baggage” eventually landed in St. Catharines, Ontario.

The John W. Jones Museum, Elmira, NY.

A former slave who walked almost 300 miles to freedom, John W. Jones helped nearly 800 slaves escape as leader of the Elmira Underground Railroad network.

Born into slavery on a plantation in Virginia, Jones worked as the houseboy of the owner’s daughter. In 1844, when his owner became frail, he and his siblings fled north, fearing they would be sold to another plantation. It took them a month to walk through Maryland and Pennsylvania to reach safety in Elmira.

There, Jones worked as a janitor at a school for ladies and pursued an education. Though initially turned away because of his race, a local judge helped him attend school. In 1847, he was appointed caretaker of the local Baptist church, a position he held for 43 years.

The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required federal agents to capture and return fugitive slaves, ended the relative safety of escaped slaves who had reached the north. Jones became active the next year in the Underground Railroad.

Jones hid groups of six to 10 fugitives at a time at his own home or with abolitionists in the area. When the W & E Railroad to Elmira was completed in 1854, Jones convinced railroad workers to hide dozens of fugitives in the baggage car, helping hundreds of people make it to safety in Canada.


John W. Jones worked closely with William Still, the chief agent in Philadelphia, who authored an 1872 book about the workings of the Underground Railroad.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.

“All six came safe to this place. The two men came last night, about twelve o’clock; the man and woman stopped at the depot, and went east on the next train, about eighteen miles.

O, old master don’t cry for me, For I am going to Canada where colored men are free.”

- John Jones in an 1860 letter to William Still, the chief Underground Railroad agent in Philadelphia.

John W. Jones worked closely with William Still, the chief agent in Philadelphia, who authored an 1872 book about the workings of the Underground Railroad.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.
















































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