Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tales from our Crypt #1 - Introduction

All right - the results of the poll indicate that you're interested in our "houseguests" so here we go.

First, some historical background. Western/Central NY is not only a beautiful place, it is actually overflowing with early American history. The area where we live is close to the Finger Lakes, as well as to the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers, which were busy waterways and feeders to the Erie Canal. Major Revolutionary War battles took place within a few miles of our house, led by General Sullivan. [Quick novel and movie recommendation: Drums Along the Mowhawk...Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert...that loosely follows General Herkimer's campaign, which was to the northeast of here.] Large guns and munitions were buried and hidden along the river that is across the street from my back yard (great doggie walking...and dunking).

Religious freaks of all sorts sprang up from this region...Mormons, Oneidas, Shakers, Seventh Day Adventists. (It must be something in the water. You should see some of the people around here.) The women's rights movement, headed by Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Cady Stanton, came to life at Seneca Falls, just about an hour's drive from here. Passionate abolitionists lived and preached in our town. (The Beechers...and Ms. Beecher-Stowe) This area, with its frontier trading post past, established waterways and railways, was also chock-full of Underground Railroad stations. Mark Twain met and married his wife here, wrote his major novels here, and is buried a mile from my house.

But I digress.

Then there was the Civil War. No, there were no Civil War battles up here...however, there was a short-lived and rather lethal POW camp. I didn't know it when we moved here. Nor did I know that my house sits squarely on the site of the prison camp. In one winter, nearly 3,000 men - mostly from a unit of captured coastal Virgina oystermen - died in or near our back yard, between my house and the river.

Therein lies my first story...which I will post shortly.

Stay tuned...


Packrat said...

Ah, I'm beginning to understand...

My late step-father was born and raised in Wyoming Co, PA literally a stone's throw from the Susquehanna River. Beautiful country. (I was there only once in the early 1970's. I have not been to your part of New York.)

gemoftheocean said...

Good Lord. Don't keep us hanging. [Perhaps a bad choice of words?!]

Oh, no, you couldn't have gotten the ghosts of Coooperstown...I'm assuming this is the place?

gemoftheocean said...

What would happen if you had oysters in the summer... or perhaps you don't want to "go there."

gemoftheocean said...

THen there was this on the same site:

"Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
Personal Information - John W. Jones's Obituary

Death of a Prominent Colored Citizen -- Born a Slave -- Died Rich -- Originator of Underground Railroad
Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, December 17, 1900

The death of John W. Jones, one of the best known colored citizens of this city, occurred last evening at 7:30 o'-clock. Mr. Jones has been subject to attacks of heart disease for the past five years. A few weeks ago he was stricken with pneumonia. From that time on he was confined to his bed.

Mr. Jones came to this country in 1844. Some years ago he purchased a farm of sixteen acres located on upper College Avenue. To-day the land is a valuable piece of property. He was sexton of the First Baptist Church for many years.

From 1861 till 1863 Mr. Jones acted as one of the promoters of the underground railroad. He was active in the cause of the slave and it is said that he was the originator of the underground railroad. He was a great success as an originator and be the adoption of some of his ideas the societies of the First Baptist Church congregation are said to have made many dollars for Christian use.

Mr. Jones is survived hy his wife, two sons, John of Colorado and James of this city; and one daughter, Mrs. E. R. Spalding of Qwego. Arrangements for the funeral have not been completed.

Ausburn Taylor's history of Chemung County has the following concerning the part Mr. Jones play in the burying of the dead Confederate prisoners who died at the prison in this city during the civil war:

"A portion of Woodlawn's cemetery was set apart for the purpose. Here were laid 2,988 of the prisoners all of whom were buried by the sexton of the grounds, John W. Jones. There is something rather suggestive in the fact that the last rites of so many of those who had been enlisted in an effort to preserve slavery as an institution of their country should have been performed by one who had escaped from that slavery and was a representative example of what freedom could do for the colored man. John W. Jones with his brothers, Charles and George, came to Elmira from the neighborhood of Leesburg, Va., in 1843, waling the whole distance of 300 miles, excepting eight miles when they hired a ride from a farmer, in fourteen days.

"He was the sexton of the Baptist Church in Elmira for nearly half a century, giving up that position in 1890, and accumulated a property to a very respectable amount."

Mr. Towner tells of that dreadful spring of 1865 when smallpox broke out in the prison camp.

One day there were forty deaths from the scourge. The history relates: "There was no attempt at any ceremonial at the burial of the dead from the camp, no service of any kind or character at the grave. Each body was put into a pine box and nine were taken to the cemetery at a time, just a good load for an ambulance. In a trench large enough to contain a number of those boxes, they were laid side by side or foot to foot. On the top of the box was written the name of the person occupying it, his company, regiment and state where from; this information if it can be obtained, for not in every instance did the prisoner give his right name, although if he got into the hospital he was pretty sure to announce it.

"These names written on the tops of the boxes were copied by Sexton John W. Jones and the location of each was recorded. Wooden headboards were erected on which was painted the information written on the boxes, but these soon rotted away and the grounds in a few years presented a very dilapidated and forlorn appearance, not at all in harmony with the other portions of the well kept and beautiful cemetery."

Kit said...

Karen - you got it. And John Jones is a hero - what an amazing story. Of all the Confederate dead, only a few families reclaimed the remains. This was one of the few places where the dead were treated with such respect and an escaped slave, no less.

Packrat said...

Wow, how terribly sad but extremely interesting.

LarryD said...

This sounds eerily like Poltergeist . Don't go hiring diminutive psychics!

The Digital Hairshirt said...

Ooh, Kit, being a New Yorker I am aware of the richness of history in that area and how easily the "ghosts" of the past can surface - I look forward to your next installment!

Who here thinks Kit should publish her Helo-Mom dispatches and now this serial in book form? Raise your hand!

Kasia said...

Methinks Mr. Jones was a better Christian than most. God bless him.

LarryD said...

*Hand raised*

Anonymous said...

Enough history there for all sorts of stuff to be happening!