On the morning of October 7, 1945, after a brief illness, Ellen Jane Jewell of Guelph died at her home on Norfolk Street. According to the obituary of Mercuryshe was in her 75th year, but she might have been around 77.
Jewell was not only a respected member of the community, she was also one of Guelph’s direct links to the fight against slavery in America.
On one side of her family, she was the granddaughter of a man born into slavery. On the other hand, she was the granddaughter of a man who was one of the most important figures in the abolitionist movement – the fight to rid America of slavery.
The Mercury The obituary stated that Ellen Jane Jewell’s maternal grandfather was William Still. He was born free in New Jersey in 1821 to former slaves. His mother had fled a slave owner in Maryland and his father had purchased his own freedom. Still grew up to be a writer, businessman, historian, and civil rights activist. He served as chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Still was also conductor of the Underground Railroad for a route between Philadelphia and Canada.
Even though Pennsylvania was a free state, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, none of the slave-holding states were safe for people who had fled slavery. The law allowed slave owners to pursue escapees in northern states and bring them back to the South. Only those who fled to Canada were safe from their former masters and professional “slave catchers”. Still kept records of everyone he helped reach Canada to help reunite families who had separated.
Still was called “the father of the Underground Railroad.” He sometimes worked with the legendary Harriet Tubman, knew the family of abolitionist Brandon John Brown, and had agents in New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New England, and Canada. Still is believed to have helped up to 800 people fleeing slavery achieve freedom. He was surprised to find people who were his own blood relatives among those he helped.
During the American Civil War, Still ran Camp William Penn, a training camp for African-American men who wanted to fight in the Union Army. After President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment officially ended slavery in the United States, Still fought against segregation. He was a member of the Philadelphia Board of Trade, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, and a founder of the Home for Destitute Colored Children.
At the time of Still’s death in 1902, he had descendants in several states, as well as in Canada. A book he had written about the Underground Railroad, based on his own notes from his years as a bandleader, became an important primary source for this period in history.
There are different accounts of Ellen Jane’s paternal grandfather. Mercury’s obituary lists his name as Henry D. Lawson, who was born a slave in Hagerstown, Maryland. He was made to serve as a coachman for his master. Maryland was one of the slave-holding frontier states that did not secede from the Union to join the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War, even though much of its white slave-owning population had Confederate sympathies.
The federal government did not initially attempt to impose abolition in these states. As the Civil War raged, Henry Lawson impatiently awaited emancipation in Maryland. One day he set out with a team of his master’s horses. He continued until he reached Canada.
However, in his book The Queen’s Bush Colony: Black Pioneers 1839-1865, author Linda Brown-Kubisch says his name was Dangerfield Lawson and he was born in Maryland or Virginia. In 1842, while fleeing servitude, he killed his master and then fled to Canada with the help of abolitionists. He settled first in York County, then in Peel Township.
Dangerfield Lawson’s eldest son, Henry Dangerfield Lawson, and his wife Sophia, were Ellen Jane’s parents. She was born in Peel Township in 1868 and moved to Guelph when she was 20 years old. She worked as a servant and then married an Englishman named William Arthur Jewell. As an interracial family, the Jewells had to endure the lingering bigotry of an unenlightened age. In this regard, they continued the struggles of William Still and Dangerfield Lawson.
William predeceased Ellen Jane by 19 years. She supported her family by managing a boarding house and a canteen. At the time of her death, she was survived by one daughter and three sons, one of whom was serving overseas in the Canadian Armed Forces; and several grandchildren. Ellen Jane Jewell was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.