John W Jones blog cover
Artwork,  Local History,  Painting Series

Portrait Series: John W. Jones

Recently I started to research different time periods throughout history that had ties to important movements in Black history and the role of Elmira (my current town) in each of them.  

One of the first time periods I decided to dig into was the Abolition Movement of the 1830’s to 1860’s. Growing up in this area, I had always heard stories about Elmira’s big role in the Underground Railroad.  I heard mentions of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass having come through this part of New York.  As a little kid I didn’t really grasp the full scope of the information that was being shared.  As a young kid, I often pictured the Underground Railroad as a literal railroad under the ground – similar to a subway (which I had only seen on tv at that point).  It’s interesting how children fill in the gaps from the very limited information that they have access to (people of all ages do this also, though generally they have more information and life experience to draw from).  Of course my knowledge and understanding of this topic have evolved since then, and continue to do so.

I went into the research with some skepticism.  Seeing some of the current opposition and resistance to the Black Lives Matter movement, it seemed like there was more to the story than was being told on the surface.  I suspect this is still the case, but I did find that there were many key community figures in Elmira who were active in the Abolitionist Movement in a variety of roles – from impacting community views and legislation to providing funding and participating in the Underground Railroad.  

Some of the names that kept popping up included Judge Ariel Thurston, a local Elmira judge; John Arnot Sr., prominent local businessman whose family has impacted many aspects of local industry including Chemung Canal Bank, Elmira Gas Light Co, Arnot Ogden Memorial Hospital, Arnot Art Museum, Chemung Railroad Company (and the list goes on); Simeon Benjamin, founder of Elmira College; Jervis Langdon, perhaps nationally known as Samuel Clemen’s (Mark Twain) father-in-law, but who as also a well-known railroad executive in the region. (Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery of Elmira has a webpage that shares information about even more locals who played key roles in the Abolitionist Movement; link to their webpage at the end of this post.)

A couple local sites that came up in my research included Quarry Farm and the Park Church.  Quarry Farm was owned by Susan Crane, Samuel Clemen’s sister in law (Jervis Langon’s daughter).  On the porch of the home, Mark Twain listened to the story of Mary Ann Cord, a formerly enslaved woman who worked as a cook at the home.  He later wrote “A True Story Told Word by Word as I Heard it.”  

In 1846 the First Independent Congressional Church of Elmira (later renamed the Park Church) was formed in direct opposition to slavery.  41 members formally of the First Presbyterian Church of Elmira left to form a new church in which slavery was forbidden under the by-laws.  The church is located beside Wisner Park in downtown Elmira.  Reverend Thomas K. Beecher was the pastor the church for 46 years.  Several members of his family were active in the Abolitionist Movement, including his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe who was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Many of the above-mentioned people were members of the church congregation.  George Jones, the brother of the man featured in the painting above, worked for the Park Church as the sexton.  


Photo looking across Route 86 and Chemung River into Elmira NY by Laura Jaen Smith
Chemung River looking into Elmira, photograph, 2017

John W. Jones was a prominent person in the Underground Railroad for this region of New York.  He was born into slavery on a plantation in Leesburg, Virginia on June 21, 1817.  In 1844 at the age of 26 he escaped from slavery with four other men – his brothers George and Charles, as well as Jefferson Brown and John Smith from a neighboring estate.  They made the long, dangerous journey walking 300 miles up north to Elmira.  John Jones ended up staying in Elmira and became a station master for the Underground Railroad. 

Below are some key terms for the Underground Railroad that were used.  The terminology mirrors the words that were used for an actual railroad operation.

Abolitionist – those who were against slavery
Pilots – people who went south to find enslaved people
Conductors – those who guided enslaved people to freedom
Passengers – enslaved people seeking freedom
Stations – homes/businesses where the enslaved people were safe and could hide
Station master – someone who maintained the station

The stations were placed approximately 10-15 miles apart so that enslaved people and conductors could safely travel from station to station without being discovered or captured.  Station masters were sent about six to ten people to shelter at a time.   John W. Jones was a station master for Elmira.  He coordinated closely with William Still, the chief station master in Philadelphia.  During his time as station master he helped approximately 800 formally enslaved people escape to freedom over the Canadian border.  

John W. Jones was also a sexton for Elmira Baptist Church beginning in 1847.  As his role of caretaker of the church, he kept records of deceased people in the Second Street Cemetery.  He had that position for over 40 years. 

During the Civil War, John W. Jones was employed to bury Confederate Soldiers who died at the Elmira Prison Camp.  The prison camp ran from July 6, 1864 until July 11, 1865 holding Confederate prisoners of war from the Civil War.  2,970 of the 12,100 prisoners died while at the camp due to various reasons, including malnutrition, exposure to the elements, disease and inadequate medical care.  Each soldier was buried in what is now Woodlawn National Cemetery.  John W. Jones kept very precise records of each soldier, marking their name, rank, regiment, and company on both their graves and a bottle included in their coffin.  He was paid $2.50 for each Confederate Soldier buried.  Due to his hard work, he was able to earn enough money to buy a farm, which is the house currently across from the cemetery on Davis Street which is now the John W. Jones Museum.  John W. Jones became one of the wealthiest Black men in this region of New York.  

Photo of Woodlawn Cemetery National Cemetery in Elmira, NY at sunset with pink and blue sky by Laura Jaen Smith
Woodlawn National Cemetery, photograph, 2017

During my 50 New York Waterfalls series, I mentioned the last port on the Underground Railroad in Rochester before reaching Canada.  You can see present day pictures and read more about Genesee River Middle Falls here.

The Painting

Below is a glimpse into the process of creating the painting of John W. Jones. 

The painting was completed with gouache paint applied in a concentrated manner on 8″x 10″ stretched canvas.  

My favorite part of the piece was painting the suit.  It had a lot of texture and variation of color that I had missed at first glance of the reference photo.  It’s not very often that I work with yellow, so it offered a fun challenge.  I feel that using gouache really worked well for this feature as the thick matteness of the medium seems to grab the texture of the suit (I’m guessing it may have been wool?  I’m not well-versed in late 1800’s textiles).  

Another part of the painting that I found challenging but interesting, was painting the facial hair.  I’ve sketched males before, but this was the first time I’ve painted one.  As you can see from the timelapse, for the facial hair (as well as the regular hair) I started with a darker color and then worked up to the white to give the painting depth and a more realistic look. 

A small note on the reference photo.  The original photo I was working from was fully in sepia tone, so I had to use some educated guesses while bringing the painting into full color.  I’ve been unable to find an image of the reference photo that credits the original photographer, if you happen to know this information please let me know so that I can give appropriate credit for the reference. 

Resources & Further Learning

Leave a Reply