The Woman Who Started it All:                                        The Untold Story of Adelia Field Johnston


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Early Life

Adelia Antoinette Field Johnston (1837-1910), educator and advocate, was born to Leonard Field (1809-1849) and Margaret Gridley (1813-1887) in Lafayette, Ohio on February 5, 1837. Her parents had moved west to Lafayette from Rodman, Jefferson County, New York because her father was eager to “take up” land, and her mother was ready to develop a teaching career. Although they had never met in New York, they shared mutual interests in moving to the new colony, and eventually developed a life-long companionship. Upon her father's death in Rochester, Ohio on September 12, 1849, Adelia moved to Oberlin with her mother and younger sister at the age of thirteen. At fifteen, she entered the Ladies' Course at Oberlin College, graduating in 1856.

Young Widow

Adelia Antoinette Field married James M. Johnston (OC '58) when she returned to Rochester, Ohio in August 1859. She pursued advanced studies with James at the Orwell School, where he served as the Principal until his enlistment in the Civil War in 1861. She volunteered as a nurse in a hospital not far from where James was stationed at Harper's Ferry. After developing a sudden cold for two weeks, James developed severe health complications from which he died on January 3, 1862.

Wellington Rescue

Shortly after graduating from Oberlin the young Adelia left to pursue a teaching position at Mossy Creek, Tennessee. Throughout her negotiations for that position she was careful to conceal her Oberlin connections; freelance writer Nat Brandt has labeled Oberlin, "the town that started the civil war." During a return visit to see her mother in Oberlin (September 1858), Adelia drove a buggy with her mother to purchase some books at James M. Fitch's (Sunday school superintendent) bookstore. There, she overheard Simeon Bushnell (clerk and printer) and Henry E. Peck (lawyer) discussing with Fitch the rescue of fugitive slave John Price. Adelia and her mother, Margaret, quickly drove to Wellington, and were the first women on the scene of the Oberlin-Wellington rescue. Upon returning to Tennessee that year, she felt compelled to conceal the fact that she had been a witness of the rescue freeing John Price.


The Woman Who Started It All

Early Life

The Struggle for a College Education

A Brilliant Speaker and a Passion for Art

Her Friends Became the Friends of Oberlin

Later Life and Legacy



Last updated:
May 15, 2013