The Underground Railroad in the Southern Tier

Wells Plaque
The Woodlawn National Cemetery is the final resting place for many Confederate POWs. The prison camp at Elmira was nearby. John W. Jones, an important conductor on the Underground Railroad, worked as a caretaker here during the Civil War. He is responsible for carefully documenting the burial sites, a great service to the men in gray.

Eber M. Pettit had moved from Cordova to Versailles in 1837. There he ran a station on the Underground Railroad. Fugitive slaves came to Versailles from his father's [Dr. James] house near Fredonia, and then journeyed to Black Rock and to Canada. He was to later record his experiences in a book called "Underground Railroad Sketches", published in 1879. He helped establish the Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus Reservation and was their superintendent for many years, never taking any money for his services. He also owned the Versailles Botanic Mills with a man named Star, then with Dr. Barker. Barker settled in Versailles in 1840 and ran his father's tannery and store before joining up with Pettit. Later, Eber's son, James M., would be a supplier of botanic drugs (also a merchant and lawyer) situated in Perrysburg and then Fredonia (by 1868), where he occupied his grandfather's house in Cordova. As a botanic drug supplier, Eber, and later James M., would provide a handy and inexpensive source of raw materials for the Pettit's products.


    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.
    While fleeing, Jones and his companions fought off slave hunters in Maryland and made their way into the free state of Pennsylvania. They continued heading north and took refuge in New York State in a barn on South Creek Farm owned by Nathaniel Smith. Mrs. Smith found the exhausted and hungry fugitives and cared for them until they could continue their journey. The five men reached Elmira on July 5, 1844.
    Jones became an active agent in the Underground Railroad in 1851. By 1860, Jones aided in the escape of 860 runaways. He usually received the fugitives in parties of six to ten, but there were times he found shelter for up to 30 men, women, and children a night. It is believed Jones sheltered many in his own home behind First Baptist Church. Of those 860, none were captured or returned to the South.
    Geography and transportation routes added to Elmira's appeal for the Underground Railroad. Elmira is at the center of several river valleys, which have always been the basis for transportation routes. With the construction of the Chemung Canal between the Chemung River and Seneca Lake in 1833 and the completion of railroad lines in 1850, Elmira had major connections with much of New York and Pennsylvania. The same valleys that attracted railroad and canal construction also attracted slaves running towards freedom because they were the easiest and fastest route to travel.


This furniture center in Southwestern New York received fugitives from Pennsylvania (through Busti) and from Ohio, along  Lake Erie. There was a black community off of Washington Street called Africa. They were definitely involved in the Underground Railroad. One of the quiet leaders was Mrs. Catherine Harris, the "Mother of the UGRR." They usually passed their "packages" on to stations in Fredonia and Versailles. Then the fugitives were sent on to Buffalo.