Excerpt from Survey of Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Niagara Falls and Surrounding Area, 1820-1880

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Excerpt from Survey of Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Niagara Falls and Surrounding Area, 1820-1880.art


Pages 192-196. See the original PDF here.


Hannah and John Johnson Home 

North of Sweeney Street and State Ditch 

Lot 10 

North Tonawanda, New York 

Significance: John Johnson, born in Washington, D.C., and Hannah Johnson, born in Albany, lived in North Tonawanda from about 1825 until John’s death sometime before 1870 and Hannah’s death in 1883. They owned about twelve acres of land near the home of John Chadwick. John Johnson may have escaped from slavery on the Underground Railroad and both John and Hannah may have used their home as a safe house for others. After Hannah Johnson’s death, her story lived on—and continues to live on—in local oral traditions as the tale of “Black Hannah.” 

Description: When she died in 1883, Hannah Johnson, “Black Hannah” lived on the farm of John Chadwick, later known as the Basenberg farm and still later as “Bush’s Woods.” In 1961, a woman who was a young child when Hannah Johnson was alive described this location at the end of a lane leading from Mile Line Road (later Division Street) and the New Road (later Goundry Street). Walking past the built-up areas beyond Division Street in 1961, reported this unnamed informant, “you will go through the ‘rooms that are left, formed by the old tree and brush field boundaries, with breaks as ‘doors’ between each one. Along the southern boudary of the final ‘room’ there will be the magnificent line of elms. You will stand under the elms to hear their unfailing southing ‘Hush, hush, hush’--aand then go on to Black Hannah’s Woods.” (333)

In 1965, Alice Hiestand described the location of “Black Hannah’s Woods” as “east of Elmwood Ave., north of Sweeney St., and part of the former Basenberg farm,” “between the woods and the State Ditch in the northeastern corner of the farm (Basenberg) later owned by Ralph Kirsch who cut it into lots and sold them.” E.A. Getman in 1975 described Black Hannah’s Woods as “on Sweeney Street, in the vicinity of Melody Drive South,” “covered with homes now.” (334)

Going back to nineteenth sources brings us closer to a definite location for Hannah Johnson’s home. The 1875 Atlas of Niagara and Orleans Counties, New York clearly showed “J. Johnson,” most likely Hannah Johnson’s husband John Johnson, living in a house at the north end of Lot 10. The Johnsons probably purchased this land before 1850, since the 1850 census listed John Johnson as an owner of land. Dan Bille has described this area as “Lot 10, Town 12, Range 8,” with 12.5 acres. (335)

We have no images of Hannah Johnson’s house, but an unnamed source, who as a young girl visited Black Hannah, remembered a log bench leaning against the outside wall, an inside cupboard, and three steps leading to a dugout storage cellar. Nearby, a sulphur well attracted visitors in search of a medicinal drink. (336)

The home of John Chadwick, whose farm was near the Johnson home, may still stand at 338 Sweeney Street, according to an article from the North Tonawanda History Museum. (337)

Discussion: Oral traditions about “Black Hannah” circulated through North Tonawanda from the late nineteenth century into the twenty-first century. In 1965, Alice R. Hiestand wrote, “As a small child between 1900 and 1910 we roamed the mysterious woods. . . . Always we went there with a tiny bit of trepidation, if not fear. Something different, almost haunting, pervaded the vicinity. Was it the ghost of Black Hannah?” “Mystery or not, we loved to make an excursion to Black Hannah. The woods were darker, more lush, the flowers were different. There we found the red trilliums not found in other woods near us in North Tonawanda.” (338)

Alice Hiestand’s essay drew heavily on a human interest story published by Elizabeth Wherry in the Tonawanda News on April 1, 1961. Wherry received her information, noted Hiestand, “from an aged cousin of hers (now about 90 plus) who knew Black Hannah.” This cousin, noted Hiestand, “tells that Black Hannah came from the South, and as a slave was helped here by the Underground Railway, somewhere about the Civil War time. Who brought her to N. Tonawanda, who gave her the little cabin at the woods edge, what her other name was, is lost apparently.” (339)

Like most oral traditions, this one does not tell the whole story, but it does contain important clues about the reality of Black Hannah’s life. In the last few years, several people (including Daniel Bille, Jr., Donna Zellner Neale, and Peter Trinkwalder) have begun to document Hannah Johnson’s story through primary sources. This essay builds on their research. 

Census records from 1840 to 1880, both federal and state, suggest that Hannah Johnson was born in slavery in Albany County, New York, about 1803. She may have lived in the household of Joseph Yates, governor of New York State from 1823-24. If so, the house she may have lived in still stands at 17 Front Street in Schenectady. 

Hannah’s husband John Johnson was born in Washington, D.C., about 1797. The Johnsons moved to North Tonawanda in the Town of Wheatfield about 1824 or 1825, when the Erie Canal was completed. 

In 1840, the Johnsons were free people of color living in the Town of Wheatfield. One older African American (between the ages of 55 and 100) lived with them. By 1850, John Johonson [sic], age 53, listed himself as a farmer, an owner of land, illiterate, living with Hannah, age 47, and Henry Hall, age 20, born in Virginia. Living in their household was a second family, including Joseph Pally, age 38, African American, who listed his birthplace as Canada; Ann Pally, age 30, born in Ireland, who listed her color as either white or mulatto; and Stephen Smith, age 35, black, who listed no birthplace and no occupation. Were Henry Hall and Stephen Smith people who had escaped from slavery? 

In 1855, the New York State census listed Hannah and John Johnson (ages 47 and 52), born in Albany County, New York, and Washington, D.C., both living in Wheatfield for 25 years. John Johnson was a farmer. Although illiterate, he owned land. Henry Hall, widowed, age 65, a farmer born Maryland (?), lived with John and Hannah Johnson. Had this Henry Hall escaped from slavery in Maryland? 

According to research by Daniel Bille, the 1860 census listed John Johnson [Jonson] as 52 years old, living with Hanna Johnson, age 46. Their household also included Isaac Davis, age 61, Clarissa Davis, age 42, and Denis Colens, age 1, all listed as born in New York State. 

In 1865, Hannah Johnson was listed as 57 years old, born in Albany, while John Johnson was a farmer, age 58, born in Washington, D.C., who owned real estate worth $100. 

John Johnson died sometime between 1865 and 1870. His land, still occupied by his widow Hannah, became the subject of a lawsuit in the mid-1870s, as Daniel Bille’s research has revealed: 

the famous Johnson-Fonner litigation, involving the title to twelve acres of land occupied by John Johnson (colored) in the rear of Mr. Finner’s farm in the town of Wheatfield, and which has engaged the attention of the courts for two or three years, has been sent back from the Court of Appeals for a new trial. A bill of costs has been accrued largely in excess of the value of the entire property, and the only question now is, who will be the greater loser eventually? The case has been placed upon the calendar at Lockport.

By 1870, Hanna [Hannah] Johnson, age 65, was widowed. She listed her birthplace as Prussia. Most of the 1875 census for the Town of Wheatfield was illegible, so we did not find Hannah Johnson in that year, but in 1880, the census listed her as Hanna [?] Johnson, age fifty-nine, widowed, born in New York to Prussian-born parents. Frederick Bohling [or Behring], a Prussian-born laborer, age 66, divorced, lived with her. 

Elizabeth Wherry’s ninety-year-old cousin (whose name we do not know) provided rich details about Black Hannah’s life, as viewed by a young girl about nine or ten years old. Known as the local babysitter, Hannah Johnson welcomed children. “You went back through the lane at will to visit her,” noted one young visitor. “A bench made of logs leaned against the cabin, and her horse was tied to a log rail. Black Hannah would see you coming and wave from the door, calling, ‘Are you hungry?’ You always were, and when you were inside, Black Hannah went to her black cupboard and gave you cupcakes loaded with maple sugar. Or she might take three steps down to her dug-out cellar, and then you would have cottage cheese she had made piled thickly on old-fasioned brittle crackers, tooped off with salt or sugar. In season, berries were on the fare.” Nearby, a sulphur spring yielded water that visitors prized for its medicinal properties. (341)

In 1961, at least two people were still alive who had known Hannah Johnson. They remembered her in quite different ways. One recalled that she was a small woman with “a dear little face.” The other remembered her as large, with impressive white teeth, and “a rather alarming habit of shaking one’s arm.” Everyone, however, noted her abilities as a fortune teller: 

Tea cup reading was one of her methods. There’s the story of the Young Blade, bent on delving into his future, over whose cup Black Hannah remained silent. When pressed, she finally said only, ‘I have nothing to say to you!’ Could she possibly have foreseen that shortly after this he would ask a friend to accompany him to Buffalo? That the friend would be unable to, and that he would go alone, disappearing wouthout trace? (342)

Hannah Johnson’s home was on or near a farm owned by John Chadwick, who seems to have taken an interest in Hannah’s welfare. In the 1870 census, John Chadwick was listed as a 44-year-old farmer with real estate worth $8000, born in Canada. His mother Hannah Chadwick, age 77, born in England, lived with him, as did his wife or sister, also called Hannah Chadwick, age 34, born in Canada. 

Hannah Johnson died June 22, 1883. Her obituary, printed in the Tonawanda Enterprise on June 23, 1883, noted: 

Hannah Johnson, the old colored lady known as “Black Hannah” the fortune teller, who has occupied a house on J. Chadwick’s farm for many years—probably forty—after a few weeks illness, died yesterday morning. Her age was not positively known but she is believed to have approached ninety years. Mr. Chadwick provided medical attendance for her [W.L. Allen, according to her death certificate], and also burial. For years there was scarcely a man, woman, or child in all this section of country, that had not known or heard of “Black Hannah,” who is now to be known no more forever. (343)

The Tonawanda Herald printed a detailed obituary for Hannah Johnson on June 28, 1883:

BLACK HANNAH GONE. Early last Friday morning, at a few minutes past one o’clock, Hannah Johnson, familiarly known as “Black Hannah,” and “Aunt Hannah,” departed this life, aged about 82 years. She was born in bondage in this State, lived at one time in the family of Governor Yates, we are informed, and came to this county many years ago. She has lived on the farm now owned by John Chadwick for the past 49 years. Her hut or home was located on the edge of the woods in which the well known sulphur spring is, and was visited almost every week by dozens of women and young people who had great faith in her powers as a fortune teller. She and her former husband, John Johnson, lived on the farm a number of years with Dr. Locke and family. Subsequent owners attempted to eject black Hannah, but in John Chadwick the old womn found afriend who protected her interests even at high cost before the courts. He gave her life-lease of the property, and on Saturday afternoon last provided for the ancient dame very respectful burial. The services were conducted by Rev. W.W. Browne, pastor of the Free Methodist Church, who delivered an interesting discourse at the house in the presence of a number of acquintances of the deceased. At the Sweeney Cemetery a large gathering assembled to take a last look at the aged soothsayer, and much regret was manifested at her departure. No more will the winsome maidens repair to the old shanty near the woods to learn their fates on future Fridays, for Hannah’s work is done. She is represented as having been a very exemplary old woman, ontinually reading her well-worn Bible, and always giving good advice to those who consulted her. In her younger days she was noted as a most excellent cook, and many an old time festivity will be remembered for the part she took in making it a success. In the death of unt Hnnah the town of Wheatfield has lost an ancient landmark and one of its most widely- known characters. May her spirit rest in peace.(344)

Alice Hiestand noted in 1965, “Black Hannah was also supposed to have a yen for flowers and cultivted some around her cabin. Long after the cabin had disappeared, garden flowers grew wild around the cabin site and were found even as late as 30 or 40 years ago [1925-35].” (345) 

Will Hannah Johnson’s flowers bloom once more, in remembrance of her remarkable life? 

  • 333 Elizabeth Wherry, “Spring Sends Memory Back to Black Hannah and Old Days of NT,” Tonawanda Evening News, April 1, 1961.
  • 334 Alice R. Hiestand, “Black Hannah of Black Hannah’s Woods,” 1965, published in “The Lumber Shover,” Newsletter of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, February 1982; Tonawanda News, December 27, 1975.
  • 335 Atlas of Niagara & Orleans Co. New York (Philadelphia: Beers, Upton & Co., 1875); Dan Bille, notes given to Christopher Densmore, 2000.
  • 336 Elizabeth Wherry, “Spring Sends Memory Back to Black Hannah and Old Days of NT,” Tonawanda Evening News, April 1, 1961.
  • 337 “Exploring a Legend,” Tonawanda News, 2006, http://www.nthistorymuseum.org/Public%20Relations/remyes080706.html
  • 338 Alice R. Hiestand, “Black Hannah of Black Hannah’s Woods,” 1965, published in “The Lumber Shover,” Newsletter of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, February 1982.
  • 339 Alice R. Hiestand, “Black Hannah of Black Hannah’s Woods,” 1965, published in “The Lumber Shover,” Newsletter of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, February 1982. See also “The Legend of Black Hannha,” Gray Literature, http://reeddj.wordpress.com/2007/08/03/the-legend-of-black-hannah-of-north-tonawanda/.
  • 340 The Herald, April 18, 1878. Courtesy of Daniel Bille.
  • 341 Elizabeth Wherry, “Spring Sends Memory Back to Black Hannah and Old Days of NT,” Tonawanda Evening News, April 1, 1961.
  • 342 Elizabeth Wherry, “Spring Sends Memory Back to Black Hannah and Old Days of NT,” Tonawanda Evening News, April 1, 1961.
  • 343 Tonawanda Enterprise,, June 23, 1883, reprinted in “The Lumber Shover,” Newsletter of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, February 1982; “Verified Transcript from the Registry of Death” reported that Hannah Johnson was eighty years old when she died of old age, after living in the Town of Wheatfield for fifty years. Her illness lasted only two weeks, and she had been attended by W.L. Allen. Thanks to Dan Bille for finding this source.
  • 344 Herald, June 28, 1883. A search of Ancestry.com did not reveal a “Dr. Locke” in the Town of Wheatfield in the late nineteenth century.
  • 345 Alice R. Hiestand, “Black Hannah of Black Hannah’s Woods,” 1965, published in “The Lumber Shover,” Newsletter of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, February 1982.






Prepared by:
Judith Wellman, Ph.D.
Historical New York Research Associates, Inc.
2 Harris Hill Road
Fulton, New York 13069

Collection: Hannah Johnson