Isaac Johnson: Stone Mason & Freedom Seeker
By Nolan Cool.
February is Black History Month. Even though Black History is well-entrenched enough in American history beyond the scope of a single month, February is a time to contemplate, reflect on, and celebrate the accomplishments and crucial role African Americans played in building the United States. As we work to finalize our summer tour schedule for 2019, an emerging theme we’re embracing is the role of underrepresented peoples, places, and experiences in our architectural and cultural fabric. One of the lives we’re excited to explore and highlight is that of Isaac Johnson, an entrepreneurial stone mason and formerly-enslaved man who made the North Country his home.
Isaac Johnson was born in Elizabethtown, Nelson County, Kentucky around 1844 to Richard Yeager and an enslaved African partner named Jane Johnson. Isaac lived alongside three brothers on a Kentucky farm, presumably belonging to farmer George Peak, Richard Yeager’s stepfather. In his 1901 memoir Slavery Days in Old Kentucky, Isaac explained that his childhood house was “divided into two rooms, a kitchen and bed room” with a fireplace at one end, and a “foundation being large flat stones on which the cooking was done.” According to Johnson, ridicule from his neighbors forced Yeager to sell his wife Jane, and their four children to neighboring enslavers in 1851. Jane was auctioned off and sold for $1,100, and seven-year-old Isaac was purchased for $700. Altogether, $3,300 was exchanged for his family in Johnson’s telling.
Forced into enslavement, Isaac Johnson’s labor and personhood was purchased by William Mattingly, and later, Mattingly’s brother John, a white Kentucky tobacco farmer. Mattingly forced Johnson to work 16 hour days alongside numerous other enslaved black persons. In his memoir, Johnson poignantly remarked that slavery “not only degraded the slave, but it degraded the master even more.” During the Civil War, Union Army troops swept through Kentucky and Isaac Johnson successfully escaped to Union Army lines after two prior attempts. He travelled to Detroit and joined the First Michigan Colored Infantry of the 102nd United States Colored Regiment, and later battled Confederate forces at Honey Hill, South Carolina, where he sustained three gunshot wounds and lost a finger.
After the war, Johnson made his way to Ontario, Canada, where he took up work as a “lime mason” sometime during the early 1870s. Living along the New York-Ontario border, he met and married Theodocia Allen, a maid from Franklin County. For years, Johnson worked as a stonecutter across a number of limestone quarries between New York and Ontario. Later, he began work as a builder of stone structures, using a skillset that he may have obtained from his time enslaved in Kentucky. Between 1884 and 1889 Johnson completed four major projects in the North Country, mostly notably the Waddington Town Hall in 1884 (shown below). As lead mason on the project for “one of the best town halls in the country,” newspapers conveyed that “Mr. Isaac Johnson, a colored man from West Winchester, Ont. is the contractor and one of the best architects in the country.” Johnson completed many projects in and around St. Lawrence County, as well as the 1889 Churubusco Stone Church (Clinton County).
In 1890, Johnson and his family moved to Ogdensburg, where he lived out the remainder of his life. Johnson passed away on December 4, 1905 at age 61 as a result of a heart attack. The Daily Journal in Ogdensburg wrote that “Mr. Johnson was a respectable citisen [sic] and was well liked by those who knew him. He leaves a wife and seven children.” The mason’s funeral occurred on December 6th at St. Mary’s Cathedral in the city of Ogdensburg.
Johnson represents a powerful example of black entrepreneurship and resiliency in Northern New York, as he faced the brutal conditions of slavery and escaped to freedom toward a better life as a quarryman, stone mason, builder, and architect.
Virtual Talk: Isaac Johnson: Stone Mason and Freedom Seeker
Utica College Center for Historical Research
November 11, 2021
Fascinating story of how a humble human rose to become famous and leave a footprint on history.
Thank you for your comment, Rhonda. And thank you for reading our blog.
Please let me know when you schedule the tour.
Ogdensburg City Historian
Thank you for sharing this story of the North Country and Mr. Johnson’s contribution. Truly one of many stories untold …..until now.
Appreciation to AARCH, as always!
Thanks for your comment, Marti. We look forward to bringing more of Isaac Johnson’s story to the masses this year!
Thanks for telling this remarkable story, Nolan, and for putting together a related tour for the coming summer.
Hi Rich — thanks for being such an active contributor and inspiration. We look forward to shining a spotlight on these important stories more in upcoming seasons.
Interesting article about an interesting man. I would love to know what other buildings Mr. Johnson was responsible for in the North Country, especially which buildings on the grounds of the Ogdensburg psych center were built by him. My grandfather was once the director there (early 1950s) and my parents were married in the chapel on the grounds.
I’d also love to go on the planned outing, but I now live halfway across the world.
Hi Aimee Louise– thank you so much for your interest in Isaac Johnson and our summer tours. I’ve forwarded your comment to our Educational Programs Director, Nolan Cool, who may have additional information for you. All the best, Virginia
There is also “Isaac Johnson -From Slave to Stonecutter” by Hope Irvin Marston. “Based her account of Isaac Johnson on his book, …, on extensive research about his life after slavery ended, and on contact with his descendents.” CCHA has copies of both books in our Research Library. I have a copy of a picture of Isaac and crew outside the church in Churubusco taken in 1890. The note says the picture was in the North Country Catholic paper, July 16, 1967. And the Town of Clinton “Churubusco” book updated and republished in 2010 has a very nice story about the building of the church. Copies available at CCHA. It would be really, really nice if Nolan would include a picture and the information about the church in Busco as part of the tour of Waddington-Ogdensburg area. I would be eternally grateful as a Busco girl! Please put me on the list for the tour.
Hi Geri — we’ve been thinking about you and your Churubusco connection. We hope to be able to make a pit-stop on the way back into town, but that might make for a really long day. Either way, stay tuned!
My husbands great grandfather “John B. Baker” was from Winchester Ontario, Canada. Mr. Baker is said to have been a stone cutter by trade and that he worked in a limestone quarry south of Winchester. He is said to have cut the limestones and worked along side Isaac Johnson in construction of the Winchester United Church. Story has it that Isaac Johnson was a black slave who fled to Canada in search of freedom. The Winchester Press carried a full page story this week on “American history buffs” visiting the Winchester United Church That Isaac Johnson built along side John B Baker. A 95 year old Aunt ( Ruth Fetterly) at the Hartford in Morrisburg still tells this story.
Hi Judy, Thanks for your message! We were the architecture folks that made our way up to Winchester a few weeks back. We also met John Baker’s distant relative at the Baker house who mentioned a similar story of Johnson’s presence at the quarry in Winchester. We found that Johnson was working as a lime mason as early as 1875 in the Winchester area, and prior to that worked as a boatman around the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence. He escaped bondage in 1863, running into Union lines in Kentucky and soon after making his way to Detroit. There, he joined a black Union Army regiment and served until the war’s end.
Ruth’s story also sounds fascinating, would love to hear more. Thanks. -Nolan
Hi! We have recently discovered Isaac is the great great grandfather to my husband! Isaac’s son Daniel died when his son was pretty young so we never really knew the history. Now we just want to know more! I think a exploration into his works would be so fascinating! Please let me know when they are planned! Thanks!
Hi Nolan, I’ve heard Mr. Johnson spoken of by family since I was young. Being from the Massena/Waddington area his works were often pointed out by my father or grandmother. My grandmother was the niece of the Catholic priest who oversaw and participated in the construction of the church in Cherobusco, the Rev. Jeremiah Murphy. Jeremiah’s father, James Murphy(1818-1894), perhaps not coincidentally was a stone cutter who worked with contractors on many
projects including many in Ontario.
Thank you so much for sharing this fascinating bit of personal and regional history about Johnson and his work! We did not know about Murphy’s father being a stonecutter – this is a wonderful detail. In the construction of the church at Churubusco, the Reverend was always the spokesperson, but referenced the construction of the church in some detail, so it makes sense that his father was more intimately tied into the world of stone construction in the region during the 19th century.
Thanks for taking the time to share this with us and read the piece, we always love feedback and learning more about the subjects we explore!