Hannah Johnson

Dublin Core


Hannah Johnson


(ca. 1800 - 1883) "Black" or "Aunt" Hannah is a reputed fortune-teller (teacup reader) who is visited by ladies of the area to have their future told. She is also said to have sweets and treats at the ready for the local children who visited often.

Her obituary says she was born "in bondage" in Albany around 1800. In 1825 the Erie Canal is completed, and in 1827 slavery is abolished in New York State (after a period of "Gradual Emancipation"). It is believed Hannah came to North Tonawanda about this time. One later writer relays the recollection of an old-timer that Hannah Johnson is part of a "small colony of blacks" that settles along the banks of Tonawanda Creek. According to this account, the blacks' cabins are burned in a raid by locals, and their belongings thrown into the creek. 

Hannah Johnson lives in a cabin near a medicinal sulphur well with her husband, John Johnson, in the vicinity of present-day South Meadow Drive, close to East Goundry (see maps in this set). The cabin is said to be on the property of Dr. Jesse F. Locke (1810-1861), the area's first resident physician (two Lockes are noted in the business directory of this 1860 map). Other blacks, some from the south, appear on census reports. An 1850 census shows (Farmer) John and Hanna Johanson from NY, black, with Henry Hall from Virginia, Joseph (black, Canada b1812)  and Ann Polly (a female "mulatto" from Ireland b1820), and a Stephen Smith (black, Ireland, b1815), all in a frame dwelling. The 1855 census shows Hannah hailing from Albany, John from Washington, and a "Henry Hall" from Maryland. Also says each had been in the city for the last 25 years.

Sometime later John Chadwick takes ownership, and some say he grants the Johnsons a life-long lease. It is also said that John Johnson had already purchased 12 acres from Dr. ocke. After her death in 1883, it is rumored that non-native flowers grow on the site (unusual red trilliums grew during her lifetime). She is buried in Sweeney Cemetery.

Hannah leaves an impression on the imagination of the citizenry, as she figures for decades afterward in its ghost tales, and "Black Hannah's Woods" are whispered to be a haunted realm. Her story is resurrected and recast in a poetic and affecting 1961 News essay by Elizabeth Wherry. The tale is taken up again in a February 1982 edition of the local historical magazine The Lumber Shover.

Although it is not settled, it seems at least possible that Hannah's North Tonawanda cabin may have served as a stop on the Underground Railroad for blacks escaping slavery. A document on the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area website (page 192) offers some measured reflections on the subject.

A "Hannah Haines" is buried near the Zaggel family in Sweeney Cemetery; A person of the same name is found in the 1865 state and the 1870 U.S. Census living in Wheatfield with a "Brown" family (like her, from Maine and New England). However, her grave gives her death as the 1870s (HJ died in 1883), and the census gives her race as white. Obit in Ton Herald 1877-08-28 spelled "Hannah C. Haynes." No census hits for Haynes.


North Tonawanda map (1875, Beers Atlas of Niagara and Orleans, from Underground Railroad Heritage).jpg

North Tonawanda map (1875, Beers Atlas of Niagara and Orleans, from Underground Railroad Heritage).jpg

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