Joseph Johns (1794-1906)

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Joseph Johns is a notable figure in the history of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. There is limited information available about Joseph John's life, however. The information below should not be taken strictly as fact in its entirety, as specific details may have been exaggerated or misreported over time.

Early Life

Joseph Johns was said to have been born in Fauquier County, Virginia in 1794. Before he became a collier, Joseph Johns related that he was a slave on a plantation in Virginia. Reportedly, Joseph Johns and another slave were able to escape their plantation during the war of 1812[1]. After escaping slavery, Joseph Johns resided for several years in the mountains near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania before coming to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania[2] and eventually settling on the Blue Mountain. It was reported that Joseph Johns was believed to have escaped from Virginia with one or two other slaves; however, he was the only one who made it to freedom[3]. Joseph Johns had to cross the Susquehanna River during his escape, and these words have since been attributed to him: "I would rather have drowned in the waters of the river than be captured and returned to the corn and cotton fields of Virginia"[4]. Some newspapers reported that Joseph Johns may have worked for the S. & S. (Schuylkill & Susquhanna) Railroad before settling on the Blue Mountain[5].

Life as a Collier

Blue Mountain

Unlike most colliers, who typically lived in collier huts only during the charcoal production process, Joseph Johns lived year-round in his dwelling on the mountain[6]. Choosing a location near two springs on the Blue Mountain, Joseph Johns constructed his small, round home out of birch and oak logs, using mud and leaves to fill the chinks between the logs[7]. His collier hut was larger than typical huts, being about ten to twelve feet in diameter and twelve feet in height[8]. If the reports were true that Joseph Johns lived in basically the same location since coming to Pennsylvania, it was likely that he produced less charcoal than typical colliers who would move frequently in order to attend to new hearths[9]. Joseph Johns had a woodstove in his hut[10]. The charcoal the Joseph Johns produced was likely for smaller, local iron forges[11]. Joseph Johns also worked partially as a wood chopper and sold his cord wood[12].

Joseph Johns also sold berries, possibly blackberries, raspberries, or huckleberries, he collected on the mountain[13]. The area where Joseph Johns lived may have also provided him with other local sustinance such as mushrooms, wild leeks, wintergreen, and parsnips[14]. In approximately 1881, thieves (possibly the notorious Blue-Eyed Six Bandits[15]) came upon his residence and reportedly stole either fifty[16] or five-hundred dollars from him[17] and then proceeded to burn his collier hut to the ground. Joseph Johns rebuilt his hut following this event[18] on the property of John Fahler, who allowed the hut to remain standing following Joseph Johns' death[19].

Learning the Collier Trade

It is unknown how Joseph Johns learned the collier trade. At the time he would have been living in Fauquier County, VA, there were no furnaces in the area. It was, therefore, unlikely that he knew anything about being a collier until after he arrived in Pennsylvania. He probably was taught by a collier on the mountain or learned the skills in the few years he resided in other areas of Pennsylvania before moving to the Blue Mountain area. Joseph Johns' northern route likely would have taken him past several operational furnaces in Pennsylvania. It would be difficult to discern if Joseph Johns worked at any of these furnaces, as most of them are in ruins with no known records. Two furnaces that have been preserved as historic sites/landmarks lie between Fauquier County, Virginia and Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. These are Hopewell and Cornwall Furnaces. Six Penny Creek Community was nearby and records from Hopewell Furnace list at least 107 Black workers at the furnace during its period of operation[20]. None of these, however, went by the name of Joseph Johns[21]. In 1780, as Pennsylvania began the process of gradually abolishing slavery, Cornwall Furnace had approximately twenty-four slaves in various positions, including house servants, furnace workers, woodcutters, and colliers[22]. Joanna Furnace, which was positioned close to Hopewell Furnace, reportedly provided shelter and work to escaped slaves. Colliers and woodcutters resided away from the general population in hard-to-access, wooded areas, making these positions ideal for escaped slaves wishing to avoid slave catchers. Of the 107 names in the Hopewell Furnace records, several of them were identified as long-term residents of the area; and some were reflective of multiple generations of workers. There were, however, many names that only appear briefly in the records, which may be indicative of escaped or freed slaves moving further north[23]. Two other furnaces, Caledonia in Franklin County, PA and Pine Grove in Cumberland County, PA, may have been on the route Joseph Johns took from Virginia. These furnaces were located within the Appalachian Mountains and relatively close to the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Both furnaces appeared to have employed runaway slaves, and many escaped slaves took advantage of this because working in the mountains provided distance and concealment from those who were searching for them[24].

Later Life

John Fahler and Joseph Johns had a good relationship. It was told that men from the South who sought out runaway slaves came looking for Joseph Johns, as they had heard there was a runaway slave residing in the mountains. John Fahler told the men that there was no runaway slave living in the mountains, and the men left. They returned later, however; and this time John Fahler allegedly took out his shotgun and told the men to leave his property, protecting his friend's freedom[25].

Joseph Johns appeared to have been well-regarded in the community. Though he had no family there, his friends were supportive. Although reported to still be a good shot, later in his life Joseph Johns received an influx of charitable food donations from local residents and surplus game from other hunters in the area[26]. Over the course of several years, Joseph Johns received outdoor relief from Lebanon County. The money was given to the very poor who were not residents of institutions, such as poorhouses. In 1897 he received $11.50[27]; in 1898, $21.00[28]; in 1899, $24.00[29]; in 1900, $24.00[30]; in 1901, $18.00[31]; in 1902, $24.00; in 1904, $24[32]; and in 1905 $24.00 (or possibly $34.00, as the newspaper print is smudged)[33].

Reportedly, Joseph Johns was in fine health and capable of caring for himself until the week before he died. During his last days, Jacob Howard cared for him, making his meals ensuring he had firewood[34]. Joseph Johns died in Union Township, Lebanon County on February 7, 1906 at approximately 112 years of age. He was buried in Moonshine Church Cemetery[35], which church he had attended for many years, bringing candy with him for the children[36]. Reverend Christian Wengert officiated at the funeral service[37]. A white marble tombstone was placed to mark his grave at the behest of John Fahler[38]. Inscribed on the stone was:
"Joseph Johns
Born in Fauquier County, Va.
Died, Feb. 7, 1906.
Aged 112 years.
He resided near John Fahler,
North side of Mountain, west of
Swatara Gap Union Township, Lebanon Co., PA."[39]

According to his death certificate[40], the undertaker thought Joseph Johns, who reportedly had no physician, died of dropsy (now known as edema) and was about 110 years old. In a local newspaper, it was reported that Joseph Johns said he was 117 and remembered the death of George Washington, who died in 1799[41]. There are no known records of his actual year of birth.

Additional Information

Bashore Scout Reservation

John Bashore bought the Fahler farm in 1946 and donated the land to the Boy Scouts[42]. In 1969 Joseph John's collier hut was reconstructed as an Eagle Scout project by Michael Shay of Lebanon County, PA[43]. Old bottles, nails, a home-made mule shoe, and other items were found in the foundation of the hut during the reconstruction process[44]. Michael Shay's reconstruction collapsed after a few years and was later rebuilt several times by other scouts[45]. A stone marker in the memory of Joseph Johns was erected at Bashore Scout Reservation, Lebanon County, PA in 1994[46]. The Bashore campers take a yearly hike to the site where Joseph Johns' hut was[47].


A certain amount of mystery surrounds the life of Joseph Johns. His inclusion in the 1850 and 1870 United States Federal Censuses seem to provide more questions than answers. In the 1850 census records of Union Township, Lebanon County, PA, Joseph Johns was listed as being a twenty-seven-years old living in the house of Isaac Bender. It was not unusual for families to rent out rooms in their homes during this time period. In the next two houses enumerated after the Bender family lived the Fehler families, including the father of Joseph Johns' friend John Fahler*. That particular census identified people as "White," "Black," or "Mulatto" only. Joseph Johns was listed as being Black and the final tabulation stated that there were "9 Total Coloreds" in Union Township, which had a population of 2,184[48]. Assuming this is Joseph Johns the collier, per this census, he would have been some thirty-five years younger than his later alleged age. Even given Joseph Johns' understandable lack of knowledge of his birth year, this is a large difference. In the 1870 census, a fifty-three year old laborer named Joseph Jones (quite possibly a misspelling), listed as being "Black" and unable to read or write, was residing in East Hanover, Lebanon County, PA[49]. His birthplace was reported as being Pennsylvania; even though the slaves had been freed, Joseph Johns might not have wanted to advertise the fact he had been born in Virginia, though it was apparently known to others in the community, at least at a later date. In the following census of 1880, John Fahler is in Union Township, indicating that his farm is also there, perhaps being the property on which the Fehlers and Joseph Johns were living in 1870[50]. There is no entry for Joseph Johns - or a similar name - in the 1880 Federal Census for Union Township. The majority of the 1890 census was destroyed[51], including that covering Lebanon County. There is no listing for Joseph Johns in the 1900 Union Township census, either. This does not mean he was not living there, only that he was not counted in the census.

*Johan Henrich Fehler, the son of Johannes and Catherina Fehler, was christened 6/8/1828 at Sattazahns Evangelical Lutheran Church, Union Township, Lebanon County, PA[52]. Per his gravestone at Sattazahns Lutheran Cemetery, John Henry Fahler was born 1/28/1828[53], given the christening date and the similarity in name, it is likely that Johan Fehler anglicized his name to John Fahler. In addition, according to Sattazahns Evangelical Lutheran Church's baptismal records of Vallentien Fehler, he was also the son of Johannes and Catharina Fehler[54]. In a note following the article about the death of Valentine Fahler, John Fahler is said to have been his brother[55].


He was reported to have been "a splendid shot"[56], which served him well as he hunted game on the mountain. He owned at least three guns, including a shotgun, a pistol, and a Kentucky rifle. A man named Francis Ditzler mounted the shotgun and donated it to the Lebanon County Historical Society[57]. It is the Kentucky rifle that Joseph Johns is shown holding in front of his colliers hut in the only known photograph of him[58].

Social Aspects

Joseph Johns was allegedly known among the residents in the area as a "healer" and mothers were said to have brought their children to him[59]. It was said that Joseph Johns would sometimes have guests in his hut or be a guest himself of friends in town[60]. This goes against the idea that Joseph Johns was a "hermit" or a recluse"[61].


Josephs Johns’ early life holds many mysteries. On whose plantation did he spend his years as a slave? Who were his parents and family members? What happened to the children he left behind him? How did he escape to freedom in Pennsylvania? Answers to these questions may never be known now that Joseph Johns and all who knew him are dead. Records of slaves were rarely very full and few still exist that have found their way into the public eye. Based on clues in the available information, some possibilities emerge, though none answer all the questions to a level satisfactory to present as fact. Various sources reported that Joseph Johns was born in Fauquier County, Virginia where he lived on a plantation. Oftentimes freed slaves took the last names of their former owners, but many did not. As an escaped slave, Joseph Johns might have been loath to use the name of his owner, not only due to any personal animosity but also as he probably would not have wanted to use a name that would tie him to his prior life should a slave catcher come looking for him. Checking for slaveowners with the last name of Johns who resided in Fauquier County would, however, be an important first step in attempting to uncover Joseph Johns’ history. Perusal of the census records transcribed by and photocopies of the 1790 and 1799 tax records[62], as the Virginia United States Federal Census records from 1790 and 1800 were destroyed, shows no one with the last name of Johns or John owning more than three slaves and living in Fauquier County from 1790 to 1840. By the time of the 1850 census, Joseph Johns was already in Pennsylvania. Joseph Johns spoke of living on a large plantation, ruling out those listed, though not everyone was counted in every census. It is possible that a Johns with a large population of slaves might have been missed in repeated censuses. Trying to determine the correct plantation from which Joseph Johns originated based on size would be fruitless, however. In 1790 there were more than 5,000 slaves in Fauquier County, a number that grew to over 10,450 by 1860[63]. There were numerous slaveowners who had a large number of slaves. An interesting clue as to Joseph Johns’ origins comes from records of slaves who were freed by their owners’ wills. At least two slaves were freed by the will of a man named Eppa Timberlake. In 1839 a group of citizens in Culpeper County, which is adjacent to Fauquier County, petitioned for permission for Armistead Johns, who had been emancipated by Eppa Timberlake’s will, to remain in Virginia[64]. At the time, Virginia law held that freed individuals had to leave the state. In 1855 Jackson Johns was emancipated in Faquier County by the will of Eppa Timberlake. The discrepancy in dates may be due to there being two Eppa Timberlakes, probably father and son, or time passing between the death of Eppa Timberlake and the freeing of Jackson Johns. It was not uncommon for a slave to be granted freedom through a will after an extended period of service to a relative or other heir of the deceased person. Since the will or wills of Eppa Timeberlake freed two people with the last name of Johns, it is possible that Joseph Johns came from the Timberlake plantation. Eppa Timberlake was listed in the county tax records as having three slaves over the age of twelve in 1790 and three or five (the writing is not completely legible) in 1799. In the first surviving census of Fauquier County, 1810, Eppa Timberlake was reported to have eight slaves. He was forty-five or older, as was a female in his household who was most likely his wife and who might have been the Sarah Timberlake below. Interestingly, there were seven “All Other Free Persons” counted in his household. As his family members would have been listed by age range in an earlier section of his census line, the seven might have been freed slaves. No census records were found for Eppa Timberlake in Fauquier County after 1810, though there was a John Timberlake counted in both 1810 and 1840 and a Sarah Timberlake in 1820. Sarah reported thirteen slaves: seven children under age fourteen, one female fourteen to under twenty-six, a male and female twenty-six to under forty-five, and one man forty-five and upwards. In 1830, Sarah Timberlake had nine slaves and four “Free Colored Persons.” She was said to be fifty to fifty-nine and have a white male aged eighty through eighty-nine in her household[65]. While this would suggest she was older than the woman listed with Eppa Timberlake in the 1810 census, much less attention was paid to birth year and age for the average person back then than now. It is not unusual for ages to vary some on census forms across several decades.

There were several people listed on early 1800s United States Censuses and other records of Fauquier County with the last name of John who may have been freed slaves. In the 1810-1816 Fauquier County Property Tax Lists, including "Free Negroes and Mulattoes subject to pole tax," Jenny (Jane in one section), sometimes together with Moses and Aron/Aaron; Samuel; and Sally John were frequently listed[66]. Janney John ["F. Negroe (sic)"], probably the aforementioned "Jenny," was listed in the 1810 Census as the head of household. Eight other free people were said to live with her; names and ages were not given[67].

Additional people categorized as Black, or Mulatto on a census form with the last name of Johns in Fauquier County who were born during or not too long after the end of slavery included Dolly Johns, born about 1854 in Virginia, who resided in the home of Jonas Cornwell, serving as a "domestic servant"[68] and Lucy Johns, born about 1871, who was the adopted daughter of William and Julia Smith, per the 1880 Census[69].

Following up on Jackson Johns who was freed by Eppa Timberlake's will, a man of the same name was listed in the 1850 census as living in Louisa, Virginia. His race was listed as Mulatto, and he was said to be a thirty-four year old laborer. In his household were Huldah Trainham and five children with her last name who all appear to have been White - a designation that was omitted by this census taker who only seemed to label people who were Black or Mulatto[70]. Jackson Johns was listed in the regular census rather than in the Slave Schedules of the same year. As this date was before Jackson Johns' freeing via will and was in a different county, it is quite possible it is not the same man. Interestingly, paupers living in the local poorhouse included Lucy Trainham (age sixty, assumed White) and Sallie (age twenty-five, listed as Mulatto) and Thomas Johns (age four, listed as Mulatto)[71]. Something that does indicate this Jackson Johns may be the same as the man set free by Eppa Timberlake's will is his proximity to a Jonathan M. Timberlake, who is listed on the same page as Jackson Johns. In the Slave Schedules for that year, Jno. M. Timberlake reports having thirteen slaves ranging in age from four to thirty[72]. In the Southern District of Louisa County in 1860, the estate of "E. Timberlake," which may or may not be Eppa Timberlake, was listed in the Slave Schedules with twenty-two slaves ages one to seventy counted[73]. Jonathan M. Timberlake's relationship to Eppa Timberlake, if any, is unclear.

The particulars of Joseph Johns' escape have not been discovered. He claimed that he found the opportunity to escape during the War of 1812. At the time, the British had promised freedom to any slaves who joined their side. A number of escaped slaves were trained to fight alongside the British, but the majority were relocated to parts of the British Empire within the Americas. Over 4,000 former slaves found freedom this way[74]. Joseph Johns apparently did not take advantage of this offer; but the exodus of slaves from plantations, the removal of people to the Virginia Militia who might have otherwise have kept a closer eye on him or set out after escaped slaves, the fear of a slave rebellion, and the overall chaos brought by war could have given him ample opportunity to seek his freedom in Pennsylvania.

It must be stressed that the above is reasoned speculation.


  1. Miners' Journal 1906 February 13, 1906, 2
  2. Hower 1992
  3. Lebanon Daily News February 7, 1906
  4. Ditzler 2007, 12
  5. Gilara 1964
  6. Hower 1992
  7. Lebanon Daily News March 31, 1971
  8. Welch 2002, 14
  9. Hanford 2019, 43
  10. Welch 2002, 15
  11. Welch 2002, 18
  12. Ludwig 1980, 9
  13. Hanford 2019, 39
  14. Hanford 2019, 40
  15. Valley Spirit February 14 1906, 3
  16. The Lebanon Daily News February 7, 1906
  17. Miners' Journal February 13, 1906, 2
  18. Lebanon Daily News February 7, 1906
  19. Lebanon Daily News June 28, 1906, 5
  20. Walker 1966, 304
  21. McDermott 2020
  22. Walker 1966, 305
  23. Walker 1966, 307
  24. Harman 2008, 37
  25. Ludwig, 1980, 5
  26. Welch 2002, 13
  27. Lebanon Daily News February 12, 1898
  28. Lebanon Daily News February 6, 1899
  29. Lebanon Daily News March 1, 1900
  30. Lebanon Daily News February 16, 1901
  31. Lebanon Daily News February 6, 1901
  32. Lebanon Daily News February 27, 1905
  33. Lebanon Daily News March 5, 1906
  34. Miners' Journal February 13, 1906, 2
  35. Hower 1992
  36. Welch 2002, 12
  37. Lebanon Daily News February 26, 1906, 3
  38. Lebanon Daily News June 28, 1906
  39. Welch 2002, 19
  40. Find a Grave
  41. The Union Leader February 9, 1906
  42. Forney 1994
  43. Hower 1992
  44. Lebannon Daily News March 31, 1971, 10
  45. Wagner 1980, 2
  46. Ditzler 2007, 33
  47. Forney 1994
  48. United States Census 1850
  49. United States Census 1870
  50. United States Census 1880
  51. Blake 1996
  52. Pennsylvania Births and Christenings 1709-1950
  53. Find a Grave
  54. 2011
  55. The Daily News January 7, 1905
  56. Lebanon Daily News February 7, 1906
  57. Ditzler 2007, 19
  58. Welch 2002, 1
  59. Hower 1992
  60. Hanover 2019, 22
  61. Lebanon Daily News June 28, 1906
  62. 1790 and 1799
  63. Family Search, 2020
  64. Slavery-related Petitions to the Legislature
  65. United States Census 1830
  67. United States Census, 1810
  68. United States Federal Census, 1870
  69. United States Federal Census, 1880
  70. United States Census 1850, p 441b
  71. United States Census 1850, p 394b
  72. United States Federal Census - Slave Schedules 1850, p 117
  73. United States Census - Slave Schedules 1850, p 68
  74. PBS


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