William Henry Jones, Jefferson, Ashtabula County, Ohio, Freedom Walker

by Kathy Warnes


Joshua Reed Giddings Law Office, Jefferson, Ohio. The Giddings Post of the G.A.R. conducted Henry’s funeral.
‘Tis coming! Truth’s triumphal car,
With lamps of boundless lustre bright –
And Liberty’s translucent star
Burns lovely in their holy light;
We see, we own! a Pow’r Devine
Speaks Freedom to the immortal mind;
And – spurning from the world the chain
Bids millions walk erect again.  Platt L. Spencer[1]

William Henry Jones, a mulatto man from Jefferson, Ohio, walked many miles in his 73 years, some of them working as a janitor in Jefferson, some of them through the southern states to claim his freedom in the north, and others while he served with the Union Army. Some of the most significant miles he walked involved the legislative steps he took to participate in work of Reconstruction in the South.

His obituary in the Jefferson Gazette dated January 1, 1920, provides fascinating glimpses of the contributions William Henry Jones made to win racial equality a century ahead of the Civil Rights Movement and although the jackbooted efforts of white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan left deep muddying imprints on these early efforts, they didn’t and couldn’t erase them. Using records to put Henry’s life in the larger historical picture reveals the important part that Jefferson played in it as well.

An article by Jerry Hanks in the Jefferson Gazette dated May 4, 1943, includes some of his reminisces about his boyhood adventures in Jefferson. He remembered Henry Jones as a black man, part Choctaw Indian and probably part white.  He said that the Ku Klux Klan and driven Henry out when he had the courage to serve as a member of the legislature in one of the Southern states.[2]

Depending on the document of record, Henry Jones is listed as Henry Jones, William Henry Jones, or Henry William Jones. He was the son of Jordan Jones, who according to a Jefferson Gazette article, was part Choctaw Indian and part Mulatto and according to the 1860 census record was born in 1820 in Germany. He married Louisa Sweitz who the census of 1860 also says was born in Germany, but she and Jordan were married in Bibb, Georgia.[3]

Henry’s obituary states that he was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1846. The 1860 Federal Census records that Henry was born in 1848 in Germany. The rest of the information in this census states that Henry, age 12, was a mulatto and lived in Jefferson. It identifies his mother as Louisa and his father as Jordan Jones, and describes them both as mulattos.

At first glance, it seems that the census taker might have made a mistake in listing the birthplace of Henry and his parents as Germany. The census taker might be in error, but there is a strong possibility that Germany might be the correct location of their births. Although Germany did not become a unified country until 1871, independent German states and regions and municipalities established slave forts and brought slaves from the west coast of Africa in the 17th century to sell to the Dutch East India Company.  In 1717, King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia sold his estates in Africa that had been the home of the approximately 30,000 slaves that he sold to the Dutch East India Company. German slave cartels and individual traders in the 18th and 19th centuries enabled the German states to become important contributors to the Atlantic Slave Trade.[4]

Henry and his family may have crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a trans-Atlantic slave ship and been sold to slave buyers in Georgia which could account for his birthplace being listed as Germany in some census records and Georgia in others. Events in Henry’s adult life took place against a backdrop of Jefferson, Ashtabula  County, Ohio, history, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the 1840s when Henry was born, Jefferson, the county seat of Ashtabula County Ohio, had already been growing for at least forty years. Gideon Granger, U.S. Postmaster General during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, officially founded Jefferson in 1803, basing his plans for the village on the layout of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He also dreamed that Jefferson would grow like Philadelphia, and in 1804 he had his agent build a cabin as a start toward making his dream a reality.

Another of Gideon Granger’s land agents convinced the Samuel Wilson family to move to Jefferson in 1805, and when they arrived on Granger’s land, they searched for their new home in a bustling settlement. They found a wilderness with scattered trees bearing Philadelphia street names that implied future growth, but no present houses or goods.  Samuel Wilson died after two weeks of strenuous labor preparing for winter, but his wife and children remained in their new home and were the first citizens of Jefferson.

Although Not Philadelphia, Jefferson Grows

The Wilsons witnessed the establishing of Ashtabula County in 1807 and Jefferson’s slow growth over the next fifty years. By the time Henry Jones appeared on the scene, Jefferson had expanded to four churches and 73 homes and provided a place for farmers to buy seed and other provisions from the three stores in town.

Advertisements in the Ashtabula Sentinel of March 5, 1857, reflected the growing commerce in  Jefferson.

Jefferson Cabinet. John Ducro’s Headquarters. The subscriber would respectfully remind his old friends and the public generally that he is still in hand at the southeast corner opposite the courthouse, Jefferson, where they will find him with every variety of cabinet, furniture, finished in best style and in the process of making. March 5, 1857, Ashtabula Sentinel. The same issue also contains advertisements for Barbers Water Elevator, and for J.A. Hervey and Company’s harnesses, trimmings, trunks, hardware, and carriage and race trimmings.

A Hotbed of Abolitionism

The pioneer Wilson family also welcomed new citizens of Jefferson. Benjamin Wade and Joshua Giddings were both lawyers and Republican Abolitionists. In 1831, the two lawyers established a law practiced which lasted until Benjamin Wade won a seat in the Ohio State Senate in 1837 and Joshua Giddings was elected to Congress in 1838. State senator Wade became Congressional Senator Wade in 1851. Both senators helped create the Republican Party and were solid Abolitionists, sheltering and aiding fugitive slaves in their law office and homes.

Abolitionists were as plentiful as oak trees in Jefferson and several houses served as stations on the Underground Railroad John Brown frequently visited the village and made speeches to its citizens. many of them active participants in the Underground Railroad. Wilbur Henry Siebert wrote in the Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom that Underground Railroad operations in Ohio featured defined routes from the border of Kentucky throughout the state, with most of them ending at Cleveland, Sandusky and Detroit. [5]

When William Henry Jones was about two years old, or four years old, depending on which date of birth from the documents is correct, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850, making the Federal government responsible to find, return, and try escaped slaves. It mandated that slaves be returned to their owners even in free states and required ordinary citizens to assist in their capture as well as making it illegal to harbor fugitive slaves. Abolitionists called the law the “Bloodhound law” because slave catchers used bloodhounds to recapture the fugitives.

By 1860, the year that William Henry Jones and his family were enumerated on the United States Census and listed as living in Jefferson, Underground Railroad operations in Ohio followed broad and defined patterns. Wilbur Siebert described Ohio’s Underground Railroad operations as “ culminating chiefly at Cleveland, Sandusky, and Detroit, led by broad and defined routes through Ohio to the border of Kentucky. Through that State, into the heart of the Cumberland Mountains, northern Georgia, east Tennessee, and northern Alabama, the limestone caves of the region served a useful purpose.”[6]

According to Wilbur Siebert, not everyone in Ohio admired the Underground Railroad or welcomed fugitive slaves. Ohio law prohibited slavery, but some people opposed ending it. They worried that former slaves would move to Ohio, take jobs away from white people, and demand equal rights with white people. These people despised the Underground Railroad. Some of them attacked conductors while others worked to return fugitive slaves to their owners to collect rewards.[7]

The obituary of Henry Jones in the Jefferson Gazette stated that he was a runaway slave, but because of his young age in 1860 when he lived in Jefferson, it is likely that if he ran away from slavery, he escaped from the South with his entire family.[8]

Jordan Jones and William Henry Jones Fight for the Union

At the beginning of the Civil War, black people numbered 36,700 people or two percent of the Ohio population. After the Federal Conscription Act passed in 1863, the state of Ohio began to enroll blacks in volunteer units, where they served under white officers and were paid half of the pay that the white volunteers received.

During the Civil Warrecruits for the Union Army received their training at Fort Giddings, which stood in Jefferson Village at the site of the future Ashtabula County fairgroundsSenator Benjamin Wade stood one vote away from acting as president because President Andrew Johnson had been impeached. By the end of the Civil War, 5,000 black soldiers served in state or federal units during the conflict.

Jordan Jones and his son William Henry Jones, both served in the Civil War. Jordan Jones enlisted in Company K of the 103rd U.S. Colored Infantry. The 103rd was organized at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on March 10, 1865, and became attached to the District of Savannah, Georgia, Department of the South from June 1865 to April 1866. The 103rd performed garrison and guard duty at Savannah Georgia and at various points in George and South Carolina. It mustered out on April 15, through 20th, 1866.[9]

William Henry Jones joined the 11th Regiment of the United States Colored Heavy Artillery. Organized from the 14th Rhode Island 11th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery, the regiment was renamed the 8th Colored Heavy Artillery on April 4, 1864, and finally the 11th Colored Heavy Artillery on May 21, 1864. The 11th Colored Heavy Artillery participated in the Defenses of New Orleans, Louisiana, Department of the Gulf, until October 1865 and it was mustered out on October 2 1865.[10]

Henry Jones Helps Legislate Black Rights

At the end of the Civil War, Northern and Southern leaders confronted the question of how to reunite and reconstruct the country, with the right to vote a central issue. In the last half of the 1860s, the United States Congress passed a series of acts called the Reconstruction Acts created to address the questions of voting and other civil rights and how the Southern states should be governed. The Reconstruction Acts created the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and imposed military rule over Southern states until they could establish new governments. The Constitutional Amendments and Reconstruction Acts gave former male slaves the right to vote and hold public office.

Each former Confederate state was required to forge and adopt a Constitution including voting and civil rights for all of its citizens. Henry’s obituary in the Jefferson Gazette noted that he had been a member of the legislature in one of the Southern states. Henry walked the twisted legislative paths to democratic government and wrestled with its white backlash. In South Carolina with its black majority, the backlash against a democratic government was especially toxic. The website Political Graveyard records a Henry Jordan of Horry County, South Carolina as being a delegate to the South Carolina State Constitutional Convention in 1868 and it specifically states that he was of African ancestry. [11]

Perhaps the Henry Jordan who participated in the Constitutional Convention mandated to write a new state constitution is Jefferson’s Henry Jordan. His obituary said that he was “a man of good intelligence and kept well informed upon public affairs.” Jerry Hanks in his reminiscence in the Jefferson Gazette stated that  the Ku Klux Klan drove Henry out of the state capital as a reconstruction senator in the carpetbagger days. Ashtabula County Abolitionist and writer Albion Tourgee of Williamsfield, described conditions in the Reconstruction South  in his book Fool’s Errand by One of the Fools. Although a novel with a love story, Tourgee based the themes and settings of his story on his actual experiences in Greensboro, North Carolina, during Reconstruction and graphically illustrates the impact of the Klan, and the efforts to rebuild a shattered South.[12]

Judging by the way he had conducted his life, Henry walked slowly and purposefully away,  instead of being driven.

Henry Jones Comes Home to Jefferson, Ohio

After he had fought in the Civil War and contributed to creating  a democratic South, Henry Jones married Rebecca Lewis of Toronto, Canada in 1877. They raised a son, Joseph P. Jones, and a daughter, Henrietta Jones Leek.

By 1880,  the  year that Henry became a school janitor in Jefferson, approximately one thousand people resided in Jefferson. In 1886, the town had two newspapers, five churches, and two banks. Henry began his janitorial duties in 1880 and continued them until 1910. The 1910 census lists him as a school janitor. In his newspaper recollections of Henry Jones, Jerry Hanks in the Jefferson Gazette noted that one day “I nearly missed getting to school before the last toll of the morning bell, rung by janitor Henry Jones, who was one of the many famous actors about the village.”[13]

Jerry also mentioned that in those days a number of former slaves lived in the vicinity of Jefferson. He that a man named Crooms had a large family and Cassius, one of the sons, a musician, traveled with a black orchestra. Another former slave, Ned Sikes, lighted the street lamps.

After thirty years of serving as janitor of the public school building in Jefferson Henry resigned because of his age and his worsening diabetes. He died at his home on West Ashtabula Street on Monday evening, December 29, 1919, from his diabetes.

Henry’s funeral took place at his home on Wednesday, December 31, at 1:30 p.m. The Giddings Post of the G.A.R. conducted the funeral. with Reverend H.W. Buckles, pastor, presiding. John M. Miller was the funeral director.

Sharing a Living Legacy

William Henry and Rebecca Jones, Jordan and Louisa Jones, their son John Paul Jones and their daughter Nettie J. Leek, are all buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Jefferson, Ashtabula County, Ohio.  Two of Jefferson’s famous Abolitionists Joshua Giddings and Benjamin Wade are buried in Oakdale Cemetery as well.

The lives and causes of the Jones family and Joshua Giddings and Benjamin Wade were united in life and they rest near each other in death. Their legacies live on. but there are still many steps to take toward the finish line. They are not yet resting.

The Seesaw Steps Toward Equality

Despite the fact that the 13th and 14th Amendments of the 19th century mandated equal treatment and civil rights under the laws of the reunited United States, African Americans continued to be treated unequally and unfairly. Jim Crow Laws in the South, urban ghettos in the North, unequal schools and economic inequality were persistent 20th Century issues.

The prevalent inequality in the South also existed in the North. Most Northern states have taken seesaw steps in the march toward racial equality. The Ohio Accommodations Law of 1884 banned discrimination based on race, but skating rinks, pools, hotels, and restaurants were still segregated in Ohio through the 1950s. In 1959. the Ohio Civil Rights Commission was created to monitor and enforce laws preventing employment discrimination.

Founded in 1865 in Tennessee to keep newly freed slaves in economic and social bondage, the Ku Klux Klan two years later elected General Nathan Bedford Forest its Grand Wizard.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries the Ku Klux Klan expanded its white supremacist operations from South to North, enjoying a degree of support in 1920s Ohio even in major cities like Columbus, its capital.

In 1912, the first Ohio Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in Cleveland and 100 years later in 2012, chapters of the NAACP exist in countless cities around Ohio. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Civil Rights pioneers walked and ran down the twist path to equal rights, but did not fully arrive at the finish line.

In the 21st century, the goal of racial equality still gleams in the distance, like yellow finish line tape. Steps are slow, faltering, and sometimes stop.  Jefferson and the rest of Ohio have pioneers like William Henry Jones,  hometown walkers and sprinters who had the vision to see rainbows instead of segregated colors and they kept walking.

This February, Black History Month, let’s walk with Jordan and William Henry Jones from Jefferson, Ohio all across America.


‘Tis coming! Truth’s trimphal car,
With lamps of boundless lustre bright –
And Liberty’s translucent star
Burns lovely in their holy light;
We see, we own! a Pow’r Devine
Speaks Freedom to the immortal mind;
And – spurning from the world the chain
Bids millions walk erect again.
THE next meeting of the Ashtabula County Anti-Slavery Society will be held in Rome, on Thursday the 25th of April inst. at 10 o’clock a.m. Several speakers will address the meeting, and a general attendance is requested, as matter of importance will require consideration and action.
By order of the Executive Committee. P. R. SPENCER, Corresponding Secretary
Dated 1st April, 1838.  Conneaut Ohio Gazette, April 1, 1838.

[2] Jerry Hanks, Jefferson Gazette, January 1, 1920.

[3] The 1870 census lists his mother Louisa as a mulatto and that her father was of foreign birth  Maybe that is where the Germany comes in.  Susan Bowdre, age 14 lived with them.

[4] Not So Plain as Black and White: Afro-German Culture and History, 1890–2000, Patricia M. Mazón, Reinhild Steingröver, page 18

German entanglements in transatlantic slavery: An introduction

Heike Raphael-Hernandez &Pia Wiegmink. Pages 419-435 | Published online: 29 Sep 2017

[5] Wilbur Henry Siebert. The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom – Wilbur Henry Siebert

[6] Wilbur Henry Siebert. The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom – Wilbur Henry Siebert   p. 119

[7] Ibid.

[8] The 1860 Federal Census lists 12 year old Henry as living in Jefferson, Ohio.

[9] Jordan’s wife, Louisa, filed for a pension In Georgia, dated November 27, 1900, based on Jordan’s service. Louisa Jones filed for a pension for her husband Jordan Jones.

[10] Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops:  Artillery Organizations. Henry filed for a pension April 2, 1883.

[11]Political Graveyard

[12] A Fool’s Errand by One of the Fools   

[13] Jerry Hanks, Jefferson Gazette, January 1, 1920.