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Chemung County NY
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Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice
Underground Railroad Series:
Abolitionists in Elmira
Article: Friends and Neighbors: Abolitionists in Elmira
Township: City of Elmira NY
Submitted by Carole Knowlton Trustee of the John W. Jones Museum
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Portrait of John W. Jones photographed in John W. Jones Museum by Gwen Clark
Chemung County Historical Society Presentation

"Friends and Neighbors: Abolitionists in Elmira"

The area I have researched for tonight's presentation is Lake Street, from East Third Street to Church Street, and East Union as it was called in the 1850's. When I was in school, I had walked in this area of Lake Street hundreds of times, on my way to the library or to go downtown. I did not know the history of the area at that time, and I remember the 400 block of Lake Street in particular. As soon as I reached this area, I began to feel uneasy. I looked at the old houses and I thought they were spooky, especially the Eagles Club. I never walked on that side of the street. I was sure these houses were haunted and I hurried to get to the next block.
 


As I researched this area, I discovered that some of the wealthiest, most influential, charitable, and Christian citizens of Chemung County lived in this block. Why should this be scary? Maybe it was the activities they were involved in. They were abolitionists and had strong anti-slavery sentiments. Maybe the fear I felt came from the past. Perhaps the feelings of the frightened fugitive slaves who found shelter in this area and the memory of the slave catchers coming to town still exist in this block.

Photo at Left -Simeon Benjamin House - Photo from Elmira College Library. Credit to Mark Woodhouse

One of the first and most prominent men who came to this area was Simeon Benjamin, founder of Elmira College. Mr. Benjamin was born in 1792 on Long Island. He made his fortune as a merchant during the War of 1812 and he came to Elmira around 1833. According to his obituary in the Elmira Daily Advertiser, "soon after coming here, built the house on Lake Street, wherein he always lived. It was then well out in the country."(1) The address became 500 Lake Street, the corner of Lake and East Third streets. He added to his wealth by ventures in real estate. Ausburn Towner wrote in his book, "For many years after his settling in the village he enjoyed the distinction of being the wealthiest man in the county." (2)

Of his character, in his obituary it is said, "Mr. Benjamin was always prominent in every moral, benevolent, and religious enterprises. He was liberal and generous in his contributions to every good work." (3) He was a financial backer to the anti-slavery movement.

Portrait scanned from the 1879 Four County History

In 1845, Sylvester G. Andrus purchased five lots on the west side of Lake Street. According to the deed, he actually started building his house before he purchased this land. He was a lumberman and an active anti-slavery man. He was a mentor to Jervis Langdon. Mr. Andrus married Clarissa Bundy and he was greatly influenced by his father-in-law, Elisha Bundy. He named his first born son Elisha Bundy Andrus, and he named his daughter Sarah, after Elisha's wife, Sarah Whipple. 
Photo Left: Caption: Clarissa BUNDY Andrus 1805-1869
Photo Right:Caption: Sylvester Gardiner Andrus 1798-1882

In an 1825 census from the Town of Catherine, Elisha Bundy's household is shown as being composed of three males and six females. Of the six females, one was his wife, and the other five were his daughters. Of the males, one was qualified to vote, (Elisha), one might have been Sylvester, and one was a "person of colour, not taxed". (4) Apparently at that time, slaves were taxed. When Mr. Bundy came to Elmira, he operated a tavern called Mansion House. In 1831, he became a newsagent and sold and distributed a newspaper called the Fort Henderson Meddlar. According to Ausburn Towner, "the Fort Henderson Meddler stirred up the communityas no other newspaper has since been able to stir it up. The proprietors of this sheet were Alexander S. Diven and Benedict Satterlee." (5) I wish I could find a copy of this paper today.

Mr. Andrus was in favor emancipation of the slaves while fellow church member John Selover wanted colonization for them. Later on, Mr. Selover decided that emancipation was the best idea.

One story in particular shows the direct involvement of Mr. Andrus in protecting the fugitive slaves.

In July of 1845 there were seventeen fugitives in and about the small village of Elmira. Five were at farms over the hills or "up the river road." One hot day twelve were known to be cutting hay on two adjoining farms. These men were the latest comers and were closely watched by their friends and kept out of sight as much as possible. But pro-slavery men knew of their presence.

On this July morning Mr. Langdon was called into the office of a judge who was known to be in sympathy with the South. The judge told Mr. Langdon that two slaveholders and an officer from the South were at hand with warrants for these twelve fugitive slaves. The judge said the fugitives must be warned, but he extracted a promise from Mr. Langdon that he should not be known as the informant.

Mr. Langdon's partner, S. G. Andrus knew the shortest route over the hill. He rode the fastest horse in town to the farms where the colored men were at work. He told them the news and they fled to the woods and hid until night. Then they pushed on to Canada. (6)
 

In 1846 forty members of the First Presbyterian Church of Elmira decided to leave over the issue of slavery and start their own church. Mr. Andrus and his family left the church along with Abby Bundy Covell (Photo at right) and her husband Thomas Covell. Abby was another daughter of Elisha Bundy.

Mr. Andrus's life was not without sorrow and personal tragedy. At that time there was a law in New York State that required all men from the ages of 18 to 45 to be subject to militia duty. This meant meeting at intervals for a general training day. If the man did not show up, he could be taken to court and fined. In 1850, Elisha Bundy Andrus did not show up and he was to appear in court. His younger brother Daniel appeared in court for him with a letter from Dr. E.L. Hart. Dr. Hart wrote a letter to the court explaining that Elisha B. Andrus was not suitable for military duty because Elisha suffered from "fits". His brother Daniel added to the letter to explain that he was bringing the letter in place of Elisha because Elisha had one of these "fits" and he had disappeared. (7) I have not been able to find any trace of Elisha B. Andrus in history since then.

In 1854, Mr. Andrus lost his daughter in a railroad accident. This is the story that appeared in the Elmira Daily Republican on November 24, 1854: "FATAL ACCIDENT - We learn by one of our citizens who witnessed it, the following particulars of an accident yesterday (occurred Thursday, Nov.23, 1854) at Williamsport, by which Mrs. Ransom, only daughter of S. G. Andrus of this village was instantly killed. About noon, Mr. John Ransom, with his wife and child in a buggy, attempted to cross the track of the railroad in that place, a short distance in the rear of a wood train which was slowly backing towards them. When on the track the horse refused to go backward or forward. In the mean time the train struck a loose car standing on the track near them, and drove it upon the buggy which was crushed, killing Mrs. Ransom almost instantly. Mr. Ransom had jumped from the buggy with the child in his arms. (8)

In 1853, Mr. Andrus sold his house at 415 Lake Street to Lydia Reynolds. She sold the house to her sister-in-law Jane Gardiner in 1855. Mrs. Gardiner sold the house to Daniel Pratt in 1855 and the house is still standing.

Our next subject is Nathan Reynolds, brother of Jane Gardiner and brother-in-law to Lydia Reynolds. Nathan Reynolds was born in 1790 and came from a family of twelve children. In 1815 the family moved to Big Flats. He made his fortune in lumbering and farming and became one of the wealthiest men in Big Flats. He also was one of the founders of the Big Flats Presbyterian Church. He and his wife had ten children of their own and he permanently moved to Elmira in 1850. His address was 312 Lake Street but he previously owned the property at 8 East Union where Jervis Langdon lived. The Daily Advertiser had these kind words about Deacon Reynolds: "At Big Flats he who with a few others had formed the first Presbyterian congregation in that village, was widely known for nearly forty years, to all who had a special need of sympathy, by his constant devotion to the higher interests of this life, and to the hopes of the life to come." (9)

Nathan Reynolds and his family members had farms together in Big Flats, and when Sylvester Andrus rode up the "River Road" to warn the slaves about the slave catchers coming, I believe this is where he went. Nathan Reynolds and his family provided employment and shelter to the slaves until they could move on.

Tracey Beadle lived at 400 Lake Street. He was a banker and the first insurance agent in Elmira. He was also a thorn in the side for Reverend David Murdock. From 1851 to 1861 Rev. Murdock was the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elmira. He arrived at a time when there were unresolved issues regarding slavery within the church. Tracey Beadle was against slavery and he felt that Rev. Murdock was prejudiced against them. For nine and half years, Mr. Beadle, Nathan Reynolds, and fifteen other members of the church campaigned to have Rev. Murdock removed from the pulpit. Rev. Murdock wrote a book titled The Dutch Dominie of the Catskills and it was first printed in 1861. It was a fictional account of the Revolutionary War in the Catskill Mountain region of upstate New York. In his book, Rev. Murdock presented the blacks in a very negative way. He describes scenes of slaves holding rituals that appear to be "cult" related. In late 1860, Mr. Beadle and his friends succeeded in having Rev. Murdock removed from the church.

Across the street from Tracey Beadle lived Socrates Ayers. He owned a jewelry store and he was also an insurance agent. According to Mr. Towner, Mr. Ayers was "Originally a Democrat his opposition to slavery and its threatened extension led him away from his affiliations with that party. He was one of the earliest Republicans." (10) The choice of a political party was one way to determine the anti-slavery supporters.
 
 

On the other side of Lake Street lived John M. Robinson, a furniture dealer and an undertaker. He helped finance the anti-slavery movement. While doing research on Mr. Robinson, I discovered that Lucius Robinson who became a governor of New York State was his brother. Lucius Robinson was very much anti-slavery. To quote Towner, "Soon after his arrival in Elmira the anti-slavery agitation began to assume a serious aspect. Though a vigorous Democrat Mr. Robinson was at the same time a good hater of the institution of slavery, and when the Missouri Compromise was repealed he declared his indignant protest against such action, and his speeches made in that period are remembered as of the most eloquent, impassioned, and convincing character. It was this conviction that finally took him out of the Democratic party for a time and into the ranks of the Republicans; he could not support the former party in its favor toward slavery and its extension." (11)
 

Portrait scanned from the 1879 Four County History

Earlier in his career, Mr. Robinson wrote editorials in New York for the Sun and later for the Evening Post. One of his contemporaries was William Cullen Bryant. My next research project will be to try to find some of these editorials.

Judge Ariel S. Thurston lived at 411 Lake Street, next to Sylvester Andrus. He was a friend to John W. Jones, as he helped him secure his education. Jervis Langdon lived on East Union behind Judge Thurston's house when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850. In spite of this law, Mr. Langdon dared to go to court with a slave to secure her freedom. "A Slave Set At Liberty-The Elmira Gazette says that last Wednesday evening, the 11th inst, Jervis Langdon, by J. L. Woods, his counsel, presented a petition on behalf of Juda Barber, a slave, to his honor, Judge Thurston, for a warrant to inquire into the cause of her detention, which warrant being granted, Juda was next morning brought before the Judge and informed that she was a free woman.

Juda said she belonged to Mr. Barber, of Missouri, and was hired to a Mrs. Warner, who came to visit her relations at Horseheads. That she, Juda, promised to go back, but wanted to be free. She then went away with her new friends." (12)

J. L. Woods was James L. Woods, a law partner of Alexander Diven. Judge Thurston also switched to the Republican Party. He lived to be 85 years old, and he continued to practice law right up to the day that he died. He died in a very tragic accident. He was visiting his granddaughter, Mrs. James Gayley, in Braddock, PA. It was late at night and he couldn't sleep. He was up pacing the hallways and he fell down the stairs, breaking his neck in the fall.

William E. Judson lived right next door to Jervis Langdon on East Union. He also was a business partner in the lumber business, and a very close friend of Mr. Langdon's. Little has been written about him in history and I picked up some information on him from his obituary. Rev. Thomas K. Beecher was the officiating clergyman at his funeral so I assume that Mr. Judson was a member of Park Church. He was a very charitable person but he did not publicize it.

Jervis Langdon was a self-made millionaire and one of the central figures in the Underground Railroad in Chemung County. He not only provided funding, he also provided lodging and was active in anti-slavery activities in the county. From 1847 until 1860, a most crucial time of the Underground Railroad period, Jervis Langdon and his family lived at 8 East Union.

In 1832 he married Olivia Lewis when he was living in Enfield, Tompkins County, New York. "Olivia Lewis Langdon was as opposed to slavery as her husband was. William L. Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and other well-known emancipationists were welcome guests in her house." (13) The house they visited was here on East Union.
 

Jervis Langdon also sheltered John W. Jones. Mr. Jones had escaped from Virginia and came to Elmira in 1844. He became the main stationmaster of the Underground Railroad in Elmira and helped over 800 individuals find their way to freedom. In 1955, the county historian, Mr. Clark Wilcox, received a letter from a Mrs. Jennie Snyder. Mrs. Snyder told Mr. Wilcox that her mother had been a neighbor of the Langdons and her mother had known John W. Jones. She told the story of how John W. Jones was living with the Langdons when some Southerners came to Elmira to find him. Mr. Langdon told John to hide and John went to a place outside of town called Rorick's Glen and hid in the woods. The Langdons brought food to him every day until it was safe for him to return. (14) Mrs. Snyder did not mention any dates for this incident.

This Portrait of the young John W. Jones was photographed at the John W. Jones Museum by Gwen Clark

When Mr. Langdon and his family moved out of this house on East Union to the Ely mansion on Main Street in 1860, he allowed his good friend William E. Judson to live in his former home. On February 8, 1862, Mr. Judson sold his own home to Daniel R. Pratt, a young man with great business potential. On September 23, 1862, Mr. Pratt bought the former home of Jervis Langdon and he lived there until 1872. On March 1, 1872, Mr. Pratt bought the home of Judge Ariel S. Thurston, who was the last holdout in this block.

I found this information on the house in a book that was published in 1892. "In 1847 Mr. Langdon bought a house on what is now East Union Street. It became afterward the residence of William E. Judson, also with Mr. Langdon one of the lumber merchants of the lumber days of the village. It was still afterward the residence of Daniel R. Pratt, and was subsequently removed to the west side of Lake Street a little below Clinton, where now very much modernized it stands somewhat of an ornament to the thoroughfare."(15)

Portrait of Daniel Pratt, father of Daniel R. Pratt, scanned from the 1879 Four County History. He purchased the Andrus Home.

I assumed that Daniel R. Pratt continued to live in the house after it was moved. At the Chemung County Historical Society I looked in a city directory from 1878 and discovered that Daniel R. Pratt was now living at 413 Lake Street. The house now became known as the Pratt house and the Langdon ownership had been forgotten. I located this house and discovered that now it is the Eagles Club. Towner's description of "somewhat of an ornament" certainly fit this house.

Jervis Langdon had an adopted daughter, Susan Langdon Crane. Her natural parents were Mary Andrus Dean, and Elijah Dean from Spencer, NY. In 1906, Susan Crane wrote a letter to her brother-in-law Mark Twain that told about a mission visit she had made that day on Third Street in Elmira. As she was leaving, the young lady of the house told her that the house was the old Langdon house. Susan noted "that the house faced another way, was added too, etc." (16) After reading this part of the letter, I felt sure I had found the house she referred to because the Pratt house now faced Lake Street instead of East Union. As the letter continues, Susan mentions that Livy (Mark Twain's wife) was born in this house. Livy was born in 1845 and the Langdon's didn't move to East Union until 1847. The letter continues on, mentioning the winter of 1846. After I read that, I realized the house Susan was talking about had to be the first house they lived in located on the corner of Main and West Second Street. Towner said, "The house was one built by Anson C. Ely. It was subsequently owned by G. M. Nye and on the spot where it was situated now stands the residence and office of Dr. William C. Wey." (17)

Towner did not say that the house had been torn down, so apparently that house had been moved too!

The address listed for Daniel R. Pratt in 1874 through 1876 was 415 Lake Street, the address of his father's home. I thought this was the time period that the house was moved so I started researching the old newspapers of that time period to see if I could find a story about the house being moved. The only thing I found was in the social notes in 1876 in the Southern Tier Leader. It was a brief article telling about a new minister named Rev. Anson G. Chester moving to Elmira and he was staying at the old Thurston residence. I knew that the old Thurston residence was gone so I checked the city directory for 1876. Rev. Anson's address was listed as 800 East Market Street. I wonder if Thurston's house was moved too?

Just recently I found a panoramic map of Elmira in 1873 on the Internet. It shows that the houses are gone. So now I know that the houses were moved sometime between 1872 and 1873. Now I can start doing more research from the newspapers during that time period. Hopefully I will find something. It's hard to believe that moving houses was so common in that time period that no one would bother to write about it.

Prepared by Carole Knowlton for the Chemung County Historical Society, February 4, 2004

Email merlin@infoblvd.net

Footnotes

  1. "Death of Simeon Benjamin", Elmira Daily Advertiser, (newspaper, September 2, 1868)
  2. Towner, Ausburn, Our County and Its People. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1892, page 168
  3. "Death of Simeon Benjamin", ibid
  4. 1825 Census, Town of Catherine, NY Genweb Page, Schuyler (formerly Tioga) County, NY
  5. Towner, Ausburn, ibid, page 183
  6. Gerwig, Priscilla. Letter. Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
  7. Andrus, Daniel. Letter. Chemung County Historical Society
  8. "Fatal Accident", Elmira Daily Republican, (newspaper, November 25, 1854) courtesy of Cornelia Andrus, Brookline, MA
  9. "The Late Nathan Reynolds". Daily Advertiser, (newspaper, November 3, 1869)
  10. Towner, Ausburn, ibid, page 655
  11. ibid, page 578
  12. "A Slave Set At Liberty", Buffalo Daily Courier. August 23, 1853, Buffalo, NY
  13. Langdon, Ida. "Three Generations of the Langdon Family in Elmira." The Chemung County Historical Journal, Elmira, NY Dec. 1955 page 53
  14. Snyder, Mrs. Jennie. Letter. Chemung County Historical Society. Elmira, NY
  15. Towner, Ausburn. Ibid, page 614
  16. Sharlow, Gretchen. Love to All the Jolly Household, an Elmira College Master's Thesis

  17. ibid
     
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