Bringing Lost Souls Home: John Morrison, a hero of Niagara

by Michelle Ann Kratts

There are men who part the wildest waters.  Waters that rush like Niagara.  They are awake when we are asleep.  Rowing modest crafts through the blackest of nights.  Under moon and stars.  Bringing light and life to the hopeless.  Bringing lost souls home.

The Greeks first called them “hērōs.”  We define them as “ones who show great courage.”  We admire them for their achievements and noble qualities.  They usually do their work secretly, quietly, modestly.  They seek nothing in return.  Unfortunately, these are the ones who disappear into the nothingness of time. 

John Morrison-- a man of color, a warrior during the Underground Railroad days in Niagara Falls, a hero in every sense of the word-- had virtually disappeared.   Little bits and pieces left behind have resurfaced through the years like sparkling shards of sea glass.  Stories of courageous death-defying acts.  Brief mentions in books and newspapers. 

We have collected what we have found.  Stored them and labeled them in folders.  We have waited for the day the story would become more complete.  Hoping it would come.  And it did come.  It broke with spring.  It was a gray and miserable day in Niagara Falls.  Snow fell from unrelenting skies.  I opened an email and there it was…

I may have found John W. Morrison. I will let you know once I get the details.

It was hard to focus on other things when I realized that I would soon know the fate of someone who had been lost for over 150 years.  I waited and in a few days Peter Ames, historian for Oakwood Cemetery and inveterate researcher, was sitting at my desk with a pile of papers.  In a few moments time he laid out his discoveries.  Unfolding before my eyes was a veritable treasure map of the story of one man’s life.

Of course, Peter had things well organized.    My mind filled the empty spaces with these new puzzle pieces.  In the end a more substantial picture emerged of the man, himself.  The research is far from complete, but John Morrison is more real than he ever was thanks to Peter’s relentless research.

So who was this new-found man…this John Morrison?  Why is he so important? 

As historians are finding that the true heroes of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls were more than likely not benevolent white individuals but the black and mulatto cooks and waiters at the local hotels (especially the beautiful Cataract House that stood perilously close to the river’s edge and the brink of the falls)—John Morrison is being revealed as the possible leader of the movement.

The southerners who visited Niagara Falls in large numbers often brought along their servants/slaves.  Inevitably, this led to various situations.  Some stories mention that the hotel employees regularly enticed these slaves to run to Canada and to freedom.  Other stories claim that the hotel employees “abducted” and “forcibly” removed the “southerner’s rightful property” to Canada.  Regardless, the stories implicate the workers—specifically at the Cataract House—and their part in releasing slaves from bondage.  Of course, the southern slave owners were not too fond of this practice and on one occasion one gentleman wrote about it in New Orleans’ Picayune.

John Morrison was head waiter at the Cataract House in Niagara Falls during the most turbulent years of the Underground Railroad.  Stories abound of his selfless acts of heroism.  One exciting account of his escapades was written in a History of the Underground railroad in Chester and the neighboring counties of Pennsylvania," by Robert Clemens Smedley, in 1883.  John Morrison’s activities were immortalized in a few lines concerning a trip the daughter of a well-known abolitionist made to the Cataract House back in October of 1859.  The following is taken directly from the book:

We found the actual reference to this encounter in the Cataract Register.  Rachael Smith was indeed a guest at the Cataract House in October of 1859.  This is the where Rachel signed her name and where Morrison noted that she may be connected to the Underground Railroad.

Courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library

This is below the American Falls where John Morrison may have kept his boat docked.   John Bornet.  "Niagara Falls, American Side."     New York: Goupil & Co., 1855.

This is below the American Falls where John Morrison may have kept his boat docked.   John Bornet. "Niagara Falls, American Side."New York: Goupil & Co., 1855.

His works did not go unnoticed.  On August 5, 1856 he was presented with a gold headed cane upon the anniversary of the emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies, denoting a “mark of respect from his associates.” This Emancipation day was very meaningful to the former slaves in our area.  It is still celebrated in Canada. 

Niagara Falls Gazette

So our question has been--whatever became of this mythical man?  Still so many mysteries remain.   However, we are closer to the truth now that Peter has finally tracked the final years of his life.  Although he shows up intermittently between the Niagara Falls and Rochester, New York, censuses, he has finally been located and some interesting facts added to his story.  The 1850 Federal Census of Niagara Falls is quite meager—but it was all we had for the longest time.  There he was a 40 year old black waiter at the Cataract House. According to Peter, John Morrison shows up in both Rochester and Niagara Falls sporadically.  The African-American Head of Household census reveals that from 1851-1852 our Mr. Morrison was a table waiter who lived at 32 Vine in Rochester.  The 1865 census of Rochester, New York, (recently uncovered by Peter) reveals that, though living in Rochester, Morrison was a waiter at the Cataract House in Niagara Falls. So through the first half of the 1860’s, he was still at the Cataract House. The railroad made it quite easy for swift travel even during these times.    The 1865 census also says he was born around 1819 in Illinois and that he was half-Cherokee.  This is most interesting as a drawing of the head waiter of the Cataract House from 1853 was recently discovered by the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Commission and was described as being “full blood Indian.” Perhaps if a photograph ever surfaces we will be able to ascertain if this pencil drawing is actually John Morrison.  It does make more sense now that Peter found him listed as “1/2 Cherokee” on the census record. 

Could this be an impression of John Morrison?


From the censuses, Peter ventured into Rochester’s old directories and found John W. Morrison during the 1850’s as a waiter, a butler and a barber at 32 Vine Street.  During the 1860’s--1864, 1865 1866, 1868 and 1869, he is living at 8 Vine Street in the city of Rochester. In 1863, John Morrison had registered for the draft out of Monroe County, New York.  There is no further evidence that he fought during the war, but he did register. 

There were more intriguing pieces of information that Peter dug up during his search to find John Morrison.   According to the Rochester directories (by 1863) he is employed as a “nurse” and that is his occupation for the rest of his short life.  How John Morrison came to work as a nurse may be a story in itself (that is yet to be discovered).  Peter also found that he was married to Flora A. Morrison, who was also a nurse, and a feisty one at that!  In 1897, she happened to notice that the adults who lived in the rear of her home on Vine Street were abusive to their children.  She reported their crimes to the authorities and explained that these people “were not proper guardians for their children” and the “little ones were committed to the care of the Children’s Aid Society.” Apparently she looked out for the helpless, as did her husband. 

Unfortunately the trail ends quite suddenly with John Morrison’s death, from paralysis, on November 21, 1869, in Rochester, New York.  He was only in his fifties.  He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.  Although we had hoped he had been in Oakwood Cemetery (in Niagara Falls), as so much of his work was accomplished here, we were happy to learn of the location of his final resting place.  Incidentally, it is the burial ground for some of our greatest American heroes as this cemetery also contains the remains of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. We are planning on taking a trip there, soon.   

Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester   Courtesy:   Anne Supsic’s Blog

Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester  Courtesy:  Anne Supsic’s Blog

Although Peter has found from John Morrison’s will that there were no children that survived him, some family members were listed as survivors in his wife, Flora’s, will.  That research is ongoing and hopefully he can find some living family members.  How exciting it will be to tell them of their family and what went on in Niagara Falls—if they don’t know!  And how exciting--if it is possible--that more of the story of John Morrison will unfold for all of us through family members (and through further research)!  What about his earliest years?  What brought him to Rochester?  Did he ever work alongside Frederick Douglass? Still so many questions.  Always questions, but thanks to Peter Ames we finally have some answers.  And thanks to Peter another lost soul is home. 

John Morrison’s obituary

Niagara Falls Gazette

November 24, 1869