JOHN THOMAS: A Self-Created Man
John Thomas was born a slave about the turn
of the 19th century in Prince George's County in Maryland,
and almost lived to see the turn of the 20th as a free
resident of upstate New York.
His grandmother, whom he remembered well and always called Aunt
Rebecca, was brought across the Atlantic in a slaver's hold. His mother
could speak a language he himself could not understand and called "that
queer African lingo." As a boy on a Maryland plantation owned by a man
named Thomas Hillary, he worked at watching and driving the geese and
turkeys, and at gathering brush. He later remembered the excitement when
the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812, and rejoiced with
the rest over the news of Jackson's victory at New Orleans.
His name as a boy was not the one he later picked for himself. His
parents were called Isaac and Elizabeth Walker, and while still a child
he was sold together with his parents, two brothers and a sister to a
man named Bowie who lived near Ball's Bluff on the Potomac in
Bowie was a friend of President James Monroe, and took John with him
to his house in Washington where he was trained as a house servant. The
boy, now a young man, was sold again about 1835, near the end of
Jackson's second term, to a man named Swan who owned a plantation two
miles south of Leesburg, VA. He remained there two years, but was
regarded as a troublesome slave and was flogged more than once. He
discovered that he was about to be sold again and sent south, so he
determined to run away.
He was mowing in a hayfield one day, together with his brothers Isaac
and Robert Walker and another slave called Bill Irons, when he confided
his plans to them. They decided to go with him, and that night they made
their escape. They were a week on the road, hiding in the daytime and
doing their traveling by night. For at least one three-day period they
had nothing whatever to eat. Every morning John Walker would climb a
tree to get bearings for the party, to make sure they were still heading
in the right direction.
They eventually reached Philadelphia and worked there for some time.
John Walker, however, feared he might be retaken and with his brother
Robert came farther north, into Dutchess County, NY. He never saw his
brother Isaac again. John Walker took a new identity at the same time he
moved to New York, changing his name to John Thomas, which he kept for
the rest of his life.
He stayed five years at Pine Plains in Dutchess County, working for
Asa Thompson, a deacon at the Methodist Episcopal Church there. He
eventually saved about $400. In 1841 one of Thompson's relatives, a man
named William Southerland of Yates County, met John Thomas and induced
him to moved to Penn Yan. They traveled here by way of the Hudson River
and the Erie Canal to Seneca Lake, and then up the Crooked Lake Canal to
the Yates County seat. He purchased a lot in 1842 on Jackson Street and
proceeded in the same year to build a house and marry a local girl, the
18-year-old Catherine Gaton.
They were married in the brand-new Congregational Church, founded
when the village's Presbyterian congregation split over the era's most
contentious moral issue, the abolition of slavery. It wasn't widely
known at the time, but several of the village's homes were stations on
the Underground Railroad, including that of John Thomas, who said later
he sheltered more than 50 fugitive slaves there, and helped them on
their way to Canada.
John and Catherine Gaton Thomas were the parents of 10 children: Mary
Elizabeth, John Miner, Harriet, Isabel, Isaac Edmund, Kate, Silas,
Charles, Oliver and Gideon Roy Thomas. Mary Elizabeth and Harriet
predeceased their father, who died January 12, 1899.
A story about John Thomas appeared in one of the local papers not too
long before his death, and included the picture reproduced here. The old
man with his top hat, cane and old-fashioned clothing, had high
cheekbones, deep-set eyes, a jutting chin and snow-white hair. He must
have had a striking demeanor and bold personality, since of all Penn
Yan's black residents, he was one of the best