Hannah Johnson (ca. 1799 - 1883)

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Hannah Johnson (ca. 1799 - 1883)


The John Johnson frame dwelling, denoted on an 1860 mapThe John Johnson frame dwelling, denoted on an 1860 map.(ca. 1799 - 1883) Hannah Johnson is a Black woman who lived with her husband John, a farmer, in the predominantly white township of Wheatfield, near the village of Tonawanda. Popularly known as "Black" or "Aunt" Hannah, she 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 visiting children. In the decades after her death, she becomes a ghost story in lcoal folklore, allegedly haunting the woods she lived in.

Her obituary says she was born "in bondage" in Albany around 1800, and that she served in the household of New York Governor Joseph C. Yates in Schenectady.

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 comes 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, but Hannah is permitted to stay becaise she "did housework for some of the whites." The account is generally unreliable. 

Another account* from North Tonawana resident Brenda Fire Flateau in 2019 maintains:
My Great Grandfather Zaggel was involved with the Underground Railroad. He took in the slave known as "Black Hannah" until her husband caught up with her. She stayed with him and then in the woods across from his farm, which was his property.
Hannah Johnson lives in a cabin near a medicinal sulphur well in the vicinity of present-day South Meadow Drive, close to East Goundry (see maps in this set). By 1850 the land is owned by John Johnson, as shown in the 1850 Census. John and Hannah are listed as both hailing from New York (although it is believed John Johnson was born in Washington, D. C.). Interestingly, four others appear in the household on the same 1850 census: Henry Hall (20, Black, Virginia), Joseph Polly (38, Black, Canada) Ann Polly (30, "Mulatto," Ireland), and a Stephen Smith (35, Black, Ireland), 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.

John Johnson dies sometime before 1870. From 1872 to 1882, a John Fonner who lives nearby challenges Hannah's ownership claim in court, and John Chadwick assists her.

Hannah dies in 1883 after an illness of two weeks. It is rumored that non-native flowers grow on the site (unusual red trilliums grew during her lifetime). She is buried in Sweeney Cemetery (although the grave site appears to be lost).

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 John and Hannah Johnson may have been contacts in the "Underground Railroad" network 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."


John, Hannah Johnson and others (Unites Stes Census, 1850).jpg

John, Hannah Johnson and others (Unites Stes Census, 1850).jpg

480 "Value of Real Estate owned"; the other tick is for "Persons over 29 years of age who cannot read or write."

"United States Census, 1850,"…

Hannah Johnson cabin location based on 1875 map (NThistory.com).jpg

Hannah Johnson cabin location based on 1875 map (NThistory.com).jpg

Our best approximation based on comparing the location of the Johnson cabin on an 1875 Beers map with a 2021 Google satellite map. An 1852 map appears…

"Hannah and John Johnson Home," transcribed article (Survey of Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad in Niagara region, 1820-1880).pdf

Survey of Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad in Niagara region, 1820-1880.pdf

From page 192: Hannah and John Johnson HomeNorth of Sweeney Street and State DitchLot 10North Tonawanda, New YorkSignificance: John Johnson, born in…

Governor Joseph Christopher Yates home and environs, Schenectady, New York; photo gallery (2021).jpg


The household where Hannah Johnson was born c.1799 still stands at 17 Front Street in the historic Stockade District in Schenectady, New York. The…