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(Essay written by Debra McCauslin — For the Cause Productions, Gettysburg, PA)
William H. Mathews of Adams County was born free in Pennsylvania in 1849.His parents were Edward and Annie (Gant) Mathews and originally from Carroll County, Maryland where they lived near Pipe Creek Friends (Quaker) Meeting until around 1839.
Edward Mathews is on the Adams County 1840 census as head of household with 6 others living with him. Edward purchased 16 acres of property in 1842 for $350 on Pine Hill, about a mile north of Biglerville. Biglerville is just 7 miles from Gettysburg and it is less than 20 miles from the Mason Dixon Line.
Pine Hill is known today as Yellow Hill. It is believed that the name, “Yellow” was given to the hill to reflect the skin tones of this early Negro family who were listed in the census with an “M” for mulatto. Yellow is a derogatory term used to define people of mixed races. The Mathews family lived there for several decades and through the 1890’s.
Edward Mathews was reputed to be involved in the Underground Railroad with nearby Quakers of Menallen Friends Meeting who lived below Pine Hill in the still-pristine Quaker Valley. Both Edward and Annie Mathews and William’s older brother Samuel were all born in Maryland. The other children were born in PA.
William Mathews enrolled in Co I, 127th USCT September 3, 1864. He was 15 when he enlisted. His brother Samuel was drafted. William and brother Nelson enlisted as well. Three Mathews brothers left Yellow Hill to go to Chambersburg where they were mustered in. They trained at Camp William Penn near Philadelphia. The regiment was incorporated into the Army of the James and participated at Deep Bottom. They were also posted on the Mexican frontier and they were mustered out at Bravos Santiago, Texas on September 8, 1865.
William married Mary Jane Walker on March 9, 1869. They had several children together. Mary Jane died in 1890. The Bendersville GAR issued a resolution and printed it in local newspapers “on the death of the wife of Comrad William H. Mathews.” It mentions sending sympathy to William and his family “in their time of sorrow and grief.”
William died September 25, 1891 leaving his children as orphans. He was 42 years old and died of injuries sustained while in USCT service. Pension files stated he was shot in the right leg and had lung problems which prevented him from doing hard labor after thw war. He suffered all the time and had pulmonary disease which was contracted by exposure while in the USCT. He also served as a laborer in the Navy.
The 1891 funeral was held on Yellow Hill on land his father donated to the community for a church lot and burial ground. The Gettysburg Star and Sentinel mentioned “the high esteem in which the deceased was held was proven by the large number of friends and acquaintances who gathered around the bier to pay their last tribute of respect to one who character was unimpeachable and above that of the majority of ordinary men.“
His remains were later removed to Gettysburg’s Lincoln Cemetery though no stone is there to see any longer.
Adams County Orphans Court appointed William Biggs as Guardian to William’s youngest daughter Jessie Ellen who was about five when her father died. She later married Robert Lee Vann in Pittsburgh. He was the editor and publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier which later became the #1 Negro newspaper in American. Vann used the newspaper to convince Negroes to vote Democratic in the 1930’s and is credited with influencing voter to turn the tide of loyalty of the African American voters in the US from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. He later served under Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington DC. He was considered to be the most popular Negro in Pittsburgh in the 1930’s. When Robert died in 1940, Jessie got telegrams and flowers from Joe Louis, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and the Inks Spots.
The USS Robert L. Vann was christened by Jessie in 1943. Jessie Ellen Mathews Vann’s life story was told on Ralph Edwards’ THIS IS YOUR LIFE in 1953. She served on national boards of several non-profit organizations. She is one of Pennsylvania’s Distinguished Daughters and she represented the US at international events, dined with Mamie Eisenhower at the farm in Gettysburg and stayed loyal to the Republican Party.
The first burial place of William Mathews at Yellow Hill Church Lot and Cemetery is listed on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. This site can be visited yet today as it is also a stop on the Underground Railroad Tour of Adams County conducted by Debra McCauslin of Gettysburg.