Possibly an agent of the Underground Railroad and a refugee of slavery herself, Nancy Carter Jones survived harrowing and disastrous events in her long life.
By Sean E. Andres
Born around 1820 in Kentucky to enslaved parents and herself enslaved, the woman who would become known as Lawrenceburg’s “Aunt Nancy” Jones was shuffled around slave owners in that state. She had been known as Nancy Carter at his time and had given birth to a total of eight children.*
Steamers on the Ohio River, as in the Great Lakes, likely served as a means for Black people to escape chattel slavery to freedom. Whether this was the case for Nancy, she had been on the Redstone steamer as a “cabin maid”—as boat staff, possibly as a free woman working as a servant or as an enslaved person to a white person on board. Whatever her situation was for being on the Redstone, it was the day that changed her life.
On its new line from Madison, IN, to Cincinnati, the Redstone departed Madison at noon on 3 April with 40-50 people on board. Around 2 pm, it docked at Carrollton, KY, and picked up about eight more people. Just three miles up the river, the ship was flagged down to stop at Scott’s Landing on the Kentucky side at the foot of the dangerous Craig’s Bar, which is located at the mouth of 4-Mile Creek. Here, the Redstone picked up some more passengers, including Reverend Perry A. Scott.
Around 2:30, while Rev. Scott stood on the deck and waved goodbye to his family on the shore at Scott’s Landing and Nancy was in the ladies’ cabin with two ladies, the steamer began to back out, and the boilers exploded, immediately killing most of the people. Scott’s family watched in horror as he disappeared in the fiery blossom. The steamer sunk in twenty feet of water within three minutes. A Mr. Smith was tossed aside and took a raft at the landing and returned to the ship to three times, retrieving survivors from the wreckage, one of the trips including Nancy. The fourth trip found no survivors. In total, there were eight survivors, three being from the ladies’ cabin. Upwards of a half mile away from the explosion, clothes littered the trees and the river, charred bodies and body parts were scattered across the river and into nearby cornfields, and a boiler lodged in a tree. The injured, as many as 20, were taken to a farmstead on the hill, which the family gave up to transform it into a makeshift hospital for the injured and dying. For months, residents were still finding bodies, body parts, and wreckage. And fortunately, Nancy was never one of them. If she continued to be a cabin lady for steamers, she certainly was brave in doing so.
After this, Nancy was living in Jeffersonville, IN, as a freed woman, working as a washerwoman. In 1860, she had three of her children living with her: Mary, fifteen; Samuel, five; and William, five.
When the Civil War loomed heavy, Nancy took to serving the Federal troops as a nurse and cook. It’s possible that by this time, she’d lost her five-year-old boys. After the war, Nancy worked as a housekeeper in Lawrenceburg, IN, living in a tenement with Maria Anderson and James Anderson, both Black as well, and Catherine Garnett and Fred Knorr, white. Because there was one Catholic Church, St. Lawrence, she attended the same church as white Catholics.
In April 1872, she wed Jacob Jones in Lawrenceburg, witnessed by William Carol. The couple opened their home to their extended family. In the 1880 Census, Jacob, a laborer, and Nancy, a housekeeper over twenty years his elder, have under their roof: Cyrus Coleman, grandson, three; Charley Baker, nephew, thirteen; Mary Morgan, cousin, 26; and James Anderson, 27, stepson. Next to them on the census were Morris Carter’s family, white. Whether they are family of Nancy is unclear, but it’s entirely possible, given she’s recorded as being “mulatto” in Census records.
The Ohio River flooded Lawrenceburg in 1882, 1883, and 1884, with 1884’s being twice as terrible as the year before. Janet Dale wrote in the Chicago Tribune about the flood’s arrival on 5 February: “The winds blew fiercely, lashing the waters into a sea of billows that surged against the opposite buildings with such destructive force as to threaten the annihilation of the entire city. Those persons who had the hardihood to remain in their surrounded homes passed a most fearful night, with sleep departed, and in its stead the most agonizing fears. Confined in the most limited apartment, and compelled to feel their utter helplessness as they listened to the howling rage of ruin without, and realize that each roar of the angry forces was full of dangerous menace to them, the miniseries of the long night may be faintly imagined.” The flood destroyed or swept away around 300 homes. In response, the Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, Mary and Abraham’s oldest son, had extended financial aid from the federal government to the residents of Lawrenceburg. Around 2,600-3,500 people applied to the commissary department for relief in the city of 6,000.
Suffering floods each year had a devastating effect on individuals’ economic well-being. Typically, one needed a window of economic recovery and rebuilding to bounce back from a flood. With a flood three years in a row, each more devastating, the recovery couldn’t happen, and the 1884 flood impoverished many in the city. Indeed, Nancy felt the economic loss. Reading of Dale’s coverage of the flood, Dr. W. W. and Mary E. Gould of Rochelle, IL, accessed the Lawrenceburg directory and chose Nancy as the recipient of a chest filled with “comfortables,” clothes, and other living essentials, for their part in the relief effort. On 27 February, Nancy wrote to them through the Chicago area papers.
“Lawrenceburgh, Ind., Feb. 27.–Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Gould: Kind Friends: I received your kind and timely present last night, and was greatly surprised and puzzled to know who it was from, and still I can’t tell who you are, unless it is Miss Rhoda Mason or Miss Fannie Canby. I am as proud of my box as a hen with one chicken, and ten thousand times obliged to you. If I just knew who you are I could write more. I will be very glad to have you write to me when you receive this, and I will write you a long letter about the flood. Very respectfully, Nancy Jones.” ** Nancy continued to rely heavily on charity to support her the rest of her life.
By 1900, only two of Nancy’s eight children had been living. She and Jacob lived on George Street, which stretched north-south between the slaughterhouse and the old canal basin. Today, none of the structures on the street that existed then exist today. Here on George Street, they lived with their grandson Cyrus, now a porter at the hotel, and Sebastian Green, a 68-year-old white boarder. John P. Carter’s family also lived on George Street. Again, a potential relation to Nancy.
When she died on 11 January 1904 from grippe-caused senility, Nancy was taken to S. Kohlerman for undertaking and buried in Greendale Cemetery two days later. Many papers in Indiana reported that she was rumored to be a hundred years old, but Lawrenceburgh Press reported her to be over 80, aligning with the Census records: “Aunt Nancy Jones, the oldest colored woman in Dearborn county, died last week at her house in the New Addition, aged past 80. She leaves a husband, Jacob Jones, and several children living in various parts of this country.”
Jacob, rumored to be 105, despite all records indicating he was younger than Nancy, fell asleep in J. C. Wiles’ tailoring shop, knocking over a stove and burned. It’s likely he died from it.
Nancy gained significant statewide reputation during her tumultuous life, almost to the point that she became a living legend.
* It’s hard telling if Nancy had been married to a man with the last name of Carter before Jacob Jones, because a man with the last name of Carter could have enslaved, raped, and fathered children with her. These possibilities can’t be ruled out, and these possibilities make for tracks to follow, usually fruitlessly. Any leads can help reveal more about Nancy’s story.
** Nancy may have dictated this letter. In the 1900 census, she was recorded as being unable to read or write. Though those columns were in the previous census records of 1870 and 1880, they seem to not have been filled out by the census taker for the city. It’s also entirely possible that they were a highly literate city and Nancy lost her vision with age.
I refer to parts of the story as being possible, likely, or maybe, there’s a reason; despite all the helpful resources that have come out in recent years for researching Black genealogy in the US, it’s still difficult, especially when a formerly enslaved person did not know anything about their parents. The dearth of knowledge also comes at the expense of Black women’s erasure in documentation and in history.
- 1875 Atlas of Dearborn County
- Brown, Maxine. “Earl Black Settlements by County: Dearborn.” Indiana Historical Society, 20 Oct. 2014, https://indianahistory.org/research/research-materials/early-black-settlements/early-black-settlements-by-county/
- FindAGrave: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/189137781/nancy-jones
- Google Maps
- Historic Mapworks
- Lawrenceburg Public Library District Genealogy / Local History Department
- Library of Congress
- Map Geeks
- Newspaper Archive
- St. Lawrence Catholic Church website: https://stlawrencechurch.us/