The life and legend of Joseph Johns, escaped slave and Union Township mountain man

10 min read2,680 views and 644 shares Posted August 24, 2020

Few colliers — charcoal producers — are known by name to modern populations over a century after their death, but Joseph Johns, an escaped slave and legendary mountain man of the Union Township area, is undoubtedly one of these few.

Johns, also known by the local nickname “Old Black Joe,” is a figure who occupies both history and legend. Supposedly born in the last decade or so of the 18th century, he was enslaved on a corn and cotton plantation in Fauquier County, Virginia. After managing to escape sometime in the mid-1800s prior to the Civil War, he made his way to Pennsylvania and eventually to Blue Mountain in Union Township, finding work in charcoal production.

Advertisement

It’s a story that has been repeated many times over the last century or so, and it’s well-known among many county residents, especially the Boy Scouts of the Bashore Scout Reservation that now occupies the land where Johns lived and worked. Pinning down every detail of it in historical fact can be difficult, but Johns has nevertheless become one of the county’s best-known historical figures since his death over 100 years ago.

The only known photograph of Johns and his hut on Blue Mountain, taken a month prior to his 1906 death. This photo, currently held by the Lebanon County Historical Society, has accompanied virtually every article on Johns published since the 1950s.

Piecing together the life of Joseph Johns

Advertisement

A short column on Johns appearing in the Daily News on the day of his death, February 7, 1906, contains many of the details that would come to define his story, including a claim that he was 10 years old when George Washington died in 1799. As this would put him at 117 years old, the paper also states that he was the oldest resident of the entire state at the time.

According to the column, Johns stood 5′ 8″ and weighed 185 pounds in his final days. He was known to many local residents while he worked on the slopes of the mountain, and, according to many sources, was a beloved member of the community.

The exact timeline of Johns’ life differs significantly depending on the source, which makes him a difficult but fascinating figure to study. Aside from a 2007 book on Johns authored by the late Francis Ditzler and a scattering of newspaper articles written after his death, there’s not much formal writing to be found on Johns, especially from sources recorded prior to his death.

Advertisement

It was a problem that Lebanon native Stu Hanford found when he chose Johns to research for his anthropology thesis paper at Muhlenberg College (the full paper is available to read here).

Hanford, who graduated in 2019, found that it was difficult to suss out hard facts while researching the local legend over a century after his death. “It could be said that modern tellings have been ‘cleaned’ to de-emphasize things like Johns’ death and emphasize his acceptance in this community or the aspects that made him an appealing figure to Scouts, like how he was a ‘mountain man.’ Even so, his story was always devoid of many details,” Hanford wrote in an email exchange with LebTown.

Johns’ death certificate, which claims his age at “about 110 years.”
Advertisement

Hanford noted that most of the formal and informal information on Johns hasn’t changed significantly from what was first published in the print record, but since that information was written up at the time of his death, there is very little to base the facts of his life on prior to 1906.

Even word-of-mouth stories tended to stick with what was printed back then. “My experience was that the word-of-mouth information I encountered rarely differed significantly from what can be found in print sources,” Hanford said, citing local Pete Silldorff and former Lebanon County Historical Society archivist Dr. Adam Bentz as sources.

Read More: Leading life at 83 full steam ahead – the many outdoors interests of Pete Silldorff

Much attention has been drawn to his escape from slavery, which is generally believed to have happened at least several years prior to the Civil War. Some sources, like the 1906 column, state that he escaped during the War of 1812 with a companion who was caught. In this version of the story, Johns stayed in the Chambersburg area before moving to Lebanon.

Advertisement

Other, later accounts, such as a 1956 article written from the recollections of a local farmer who knew Johns as a child, state that Johns escaped in the 1850s with two other slaves (both eventually caught), making it to and fording the Susquehanna River from Virginia in just three and a half days. Following the river crossing, Johns worked as a woodcutter north of Harrisburg for a time before heading east.

The different versions of the escape reflect another point of contention regarding Johns — his age. Super-centenarians (individuals who reach an age over 110) are believed to be around 1,000 times rarer than centenarians (those who reach 100), and it’s not unusual for researchers to find that birth records are either entirely missing or at odds with the individual’s claimed age.

As a former slave, Johns’ birth and youth are all but impossible to verify. His headstone, set in the cemetery of the Moonshine Church north of Fort Indiantown Gap, sets his age at 112, but Johns’ reported recollection of George Washington’s death in 1799 and the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 would seem to indicate the age of 117 reported in the news at the time of his death. For reference, the oldest verified man on record is Jiroemon Kimura, who lived to be 116.

Advertisement

In any case, it is generally agreed that Johns was in Lebanon County by the start of the Civil War. It’s not known when exactly he took up residence on Blue Mountain on the property of farmer John Fahler, but when he did, he took on the work of a collier, tending woodland charcoal heaps to sell to local furnaces.

Working as a collier

A collier’s life was not for the faint of heart. Their role in the production of charcoal was to manage slow, smoldering burns of wood heaps, turning them into fuel over a period of time (typically several weeks). The nature of the job required the work to be done out in the woods and away from community centers, and the supervision needed to control the burns and take care of the charcoal required a collier to live close to the production sites in self-made huts.

Construction of a typical collier hut, as shown in a 1941 National Park Service study. (Jackson Kemper)

Along with Governor Dick, a black slave who allegedly lived on the slopes of the mountain that bears his name in Mt. Gretna, Johns is one of few well-known historical charcoal workers in the county, though the profession was not limited to just a few workers.

“There is actually pretty good evidence that there were other colliers making charcoal in the same area as Johns, as you can see hundreds of charcoal hearths in aerial scans, and it’s very unlikely that Johns made all of them,” Hanford explained.

A wood hearth constructed by a collier, prior to covering it with dirt and leaves. (Kemper)

Colliers are typically stationed at their posts for most of the year to tend the charcoal fires, but there’s anecdotal stories that suggest Johns was more integrated into community life than one might think. According to information compiled in 2001 by Bashore Reservation Ranger Dave Matterness, Johns was known to leave his post to attend services at Moonshine Church, eat Sunday dinners with local families, kiss the heads of local infants (a practice supposedly meant to prevent whooping cough), and visit local shops to buy candy for children.

Hanford found that these details on Johns’ frequent interactions with the community, if true, depict a more nuanced and complex collier lifestyle than the solitary, hermit-like one often associated with the profession.

Advertisement

He added that Johns’ working life in the woods would distance him from the community at least somewhat. “[T]his was the standard for colliers, but most colliers only did this temporarily while they were working, and the rest of the time they lived in a normal house,” Hanford said. Johns’ hut, detailed below, is frequently mentioned as his only residence.

Advertisement

It’s not known where specifically Johns’ charcoal was sent, though the abundance of furnaces in the area made up a huge market for fuel. In general, small iron forges were more likely to use charcoal than their large coal-burning counterparts.

Living off the land

Advertisement

While he was out on the mountain, Johns was known for his self-sufficiency, a skill that has made him a role model to generations of Boy Scouts at the Bashore Scout Reservation on Moonshine Road. Since the reservation was established in 1947, the mountain man aspect of Johns’ story has become intertwined with the organization.

The reservation, currently closed to the public, keeps a facsimile of Johns’ hut up on the mountainside (visible in a YouTube visit to the site made by The Wandering Woodsman). The reconstruction of Johns’ hut was undertaken by Eagle Scout Michael Shay in 1969. Shay worked for 155 hours to build the shack and clean out the surrounding area, which includes two springs. Of course, the location of Johns’ hut is an approximation, and, according to Hanford, identifying his hut as a singular, long-lasting construction is at odds with historical collier practices.

“That kind of hut is designed to be temporary, and colliers would construct a new one every season,” Hanford explained. “But there isn’t an available source that says anything about this. It’s always told as though Johns’ single hut was where he always lived, which would make his living conditions pretty poor year-round.” It’s said that one of Johns’ huts was burned down by robbers before he rebuilt it (the robbers made off with around $50).

The remains of a tipi-like structure, rumored in 1956 to be the ruined Johns hut, and a reconstruction in 1990. The hut has since been redone to include walls and some interior objects, such as a woodstove. (The Lebanon Daily News, 3 March 1956 and 5 Feb. 1990)

Johns kept few possessions and lived with his dog. He allegedly had a woodstove in his hut for heat and a Bible from which he read and recited. He owned three firearms, which were sold after his death at a public auction organized by the Fahler family. These included a rifle, a pistol, and a shotgun, the last of which is in the possession of the Lebanon County Historical Society.

He found food in the wilderness through hunting and trapping, and reportedly picked and sold berries from the forest undergrowth. The small springs close to the location of the reconstructed hut are believed to have provided him with water.

Advertisement

The legacy of Joseph Johns

It’s a testament to Joseph Johns that his story has continued to be told over a century after his death. Though its details are contested and unlikely to ever be definitively resolved, the story has become party of Lebanon County’s community history.

Advertisement

“I think that it’s definitely a good thing for his story to be circulated because he is almost the most marginalized kind of person you can even imagine—neither colliers nor African-Americans are represented well historically,” Hanford wrote regarding Johns as a local legend.

“At the same time, one can’t help but get the feeling that the story has been ‘cleaned,’ in a sense. I find it difficult to reconcile the story of an escaped slave who found haven and acceptance in our area with the knowledge that he lived on the periphery, in a hut made of mud and old logs,” Hanford continued, acknowledging that this was the norm for colliers.

Moonshine Church at 701 Moonshine Road, where Johns is said to have attended service. His headstone can be found in the graveyard. (Groh)

Hanford believes Johns’ status as an escaped slave has played a large role in capturing the public’s attention. “[It’s] almost always the first detail provided about him when the story is told, and I think it paints the community in a positive light,” said Hanford. A well-known anecdote relates the story of how John Fahler, owner of the nearby farm, protected Johns from men sent to return Johns to the south by brandishing a shotgun and ordering them to leave the area.

As the decades pass, some aspects of the Johns legend have created minor controversies. In 1994, Francis Ditzler, the author of a book on Johns available at the Lebanon County Historical Society, worked with stonecutter Bill Schaeffer to create a monument to Johns at the entrance of the Bashore reservation.

Advertisement

The creation of the monument prompted a small debate over the acceptability of the nickname “Old Black Joe.” While some sources reported that Johns welcomed the nickname, it was controversial enough to prompt Ditzler to remove a line referring to it as an affectionate name for the man. Ditzler commented at the time that he didn’t believe the name’s context was derogatory.

Johns’ reputation as a community fixture in a nearly all-white community in the 1800s is still being debated today. Pennsylvania was a destination for many escaped slaves, but prejudice was far from nonexistent in the state. Some reports on Johns mention him having a local reputation as a bit of a local boogeyman (a perception common for colliers), although the number of testimonies from residents who claimed to have been friends with Johns in their childhood would seem to indicate a friendly, if somewhat reserved, man who was generally accepted by the surrounding community.

Memories and their contradictions within fact ultimately form a more complete — though never perfect — picture of a local legend, and Joseph Johns is no different. Over a hundred years after his death, it seems safe to say that previously undiscovered information on Johns is all but gone, leaving us with a photograph, a headstone, and a heaping of tales and testimonies. The full story of Joseph Johns, life or legend, now belongs only to the mountains.

Read More: The true crime story that made Lebanon famous around the world: The Blue-Eyed Six, plotters of a murder 140 years ago


Do you know a piece of Lebanon County history we should share? Give us advice on what to feature next!

Give the gift of local journalism.
If you are thankful for what LebTown brings to the community, consider joining our cause as a member. Members get an inside look at our publishing schedule each week, plus invites to our members-only Facebook group and happy hours.

Sign up for an annual membership using the link below, and we’ll give you a free LebTown mug at the next happy hour.

Learn more and join now here.

More Stories