Hugh Wallis, Pioneer Pastor in the Genesee Country

The establishment of churches was high on the list of priorities when the Genesee Country opened to settlers in the early 1800s. The Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists all had plans to make sure their denomination was represented in the small villages that sprang up in the years after 1810. Churches were the heart of these communities, where all important life events took place—marriages, baptisms, funerals, religious training, and community celebrations. They provided a moral compass and were a sign of stability as well.

The Presbyterian Church and the Congregationalist Church had already organized their mission societies to plant churches in Central New York at the turn of the 19th century. The two denominations, similar in doctrines but differing in church government, agreed in 1801 to combine efforts, allowing ministers in either denomination to establish Presbyterian or Congregationalist churches. One such Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Hugh Wallis, had succeeded in Central New York, working under the Massachusetts Missionary Society. He left Solon, NY in 1816, and the Rev. Wallis moved his family to the Corfu area.

At that time, most of Western New York was owned by the Holland Land Company, a group of Dutch banks speculating that a quick and lucrative profit could be made from the beautiful lands west of the Genesee River after the Revolutionary War. Land speculation, being a risky business, didn’t pan out the way the Amsterdam bankers hoped, and they spent a great deal of money on surveys and roads to entice potential buyers. Their efforts eventually paid off as a flood of settlers began purchasing land, many coming in 1815-1816.

Hugh Wallis was the fifth of ten children, the middle child of James Wallis II and Mary McClellan Wallis, born June 15, 1767, in Colrain, Massachusetts. In 1777, Hugh watched his older brother, Henry go off to fight in the Revolutionary War several different times before returning to work the family farm. Hugh’s childhood was filled with the turmoil of political unrest and a war that touched every life in the colonies. But from this time of uncertainty, he came to adulthood in a new nation with his family intact and a pastor, Rev. Samuel Taggart, who was mentoring him for the ministry. Although money was surely an issue, Hugh was given the opportunity to attend Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. His pastor was an alumnus of Dartmouth and undoubtedly helped him gain admission. Hugh was confident God had called him to the pastorate to become a Presbyterian minister, and he would follow that calling for the rest of his life.

He was ordained in Bath, Maine in 1795 and became the pastor of the Congregational Calvinistic Church of Christ. He was deemed a failure as a pastor there, not eloquent in the pulpit and not able to connect with his congregation or the community. In 1800, he resigned and joined the missionary movement to the west in Central New York where several Wallis siblings had already made their homes.

Hugh rode horseback through the wild country, following rudely made roads that were really wagon tracks, old Indian trails while depending on the kindness of strangers along the way. The dangers were real—wolves, mountain lions, bears, robbers, and hazardous waterways. He began his journal in 1800 with the following entry:

On Tuesday, September 23rd 1800 — I set out on my journey into the western part of the State of New York. On Saturday about 12 o’clock arrived at a town north of the Mohawk River called Fairfield (Herkimer Co) — was hospitably entertained by R. Moses Mather. Preached on the Sabbath to a considerable number of people who appeared to pay very good attention to the preaching. After the afternoon preaching baptized a child.

On Monday left Fairfield. I arrived at Utica or Fort Schuyler – Tarried at Bagg’s Tavern. On Tuesday arrived at Rev. Mr. Steels in Paris. Had an agreeable interview with him — On Wednesday called upon Dr. Sampson, formerly of Bath — had conversation with him with respect to his affairs, his views of religion, etc. I tarried with him until Thursday morning. On Thursday, by Rev. R. Steel’s direction, I went to Bridgewater, called upon Col. Coverse –had an agreeable interview with him. He informed me that they expected preaching the next Sabbath; but desired me to preach a lecture on Friday at 2 o’clock which I consented to do.

The fifteen years he was in the Onondaga County area were fruitful as he planted many churches along with fellow missionaries. He and his wife, Polly had a son, Hugh, Jr. in 1803, but the couple suffered personal tragedy when their only daughter, Mary died at birth in 1805. In 1807, Polly died and Hugh remarried Susan Upham the following year.

Despite the hardships and primitive living Hugh had found his niche. As more churches sprang up, he became the settled pastor at two churches, one in Pompey and other in Litchfield. However, when the opportunity came to go farther west in 1815, Hugh was ready to move and begin a new missionary work. He made the move in 1816 and wasted no time purchasing land in the Corfu. He was the founding pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Pembroke in 1817, which still exists today but is now called the First United Presbyterian Church. Church records aren’t sure of the length of his pastorate. The Wallis homestead of 200 acres was purchased from John Long of Pembroke, and the acreage stayed in the family until the death of his son, Hugh, Jr., in 1881.

Presbyterian Church records show that Hugh was appointed a missionary in 1818 and 1819 for three months a year. The appointment allowed him to continue to visit communities around the area to establish more churches, which he was now exceedingly experienced in. He was stated supply in Sheldon and Alden. He organized and preached at the Congregational Church in Darien in May 1823. He was active in all the work of the Presbytery of the Genesee Valley, even venturing into the Southern Tier of New York to assist in organizing Presbyterian and Congregational churches there. Hugh was the stated supply in Stockton, New York located in Chautauqua County in the 1820s.  He was described as a “sound and acceptable preacher,” according to Beer’s Gazetteer and Biographical Record of Genesee County (1890). His missionary journeys continued throughout his years in Corfu while his son managed the farm.

We know he kept in touch with his brother, Henry, whose lands were just outside the Village of Perry and in the Town of Castile. Hugh once owned a snippet of land within the Village of Perry and attested to Henry’s Revolutionary War service in October 1832. He met Henry in Batavia to make the attestation before the Court so Henry could collect a government pension for his service. The Congressional bill for pensions had been passed in June 1832. Discussions on religious matters may have been lively between Hugh and Henry. Henry was a Methodist and, in fact, had established the first church in Perry at his home the same year of their arrival. He’d walked to Batavia to find a Methodist minister, which he did, and brought him back to the Perry community.

Hugh’s second wife, Susan, died on February 4, 1838, at age 64. Her obituary told of her exemplary Christian life exhibited in her commitment and piety to serving Christ. It said her last hours were “distinguished by calm resignation and confidence in God. She died as she lived, a firm believer in the doctrines of the Bible.”

Although the date is uncertain, Hugh married a widow, Abigail “Nabby” Butterfield, soon after Susan’s death. They continued to live on the farm in Corfu, and Hugh decided in about 1842 to retire from the pastorate and mission work. He left the farm in his son’s hands, and Hugh Jr. married in the early 1840s. He and his wife, Susan, had a daughter, Amelia, in 1847. She was the only child of the marriage. Hugh and Nabby moved to Gates, New York, after his retirement, and Hugh lived out his days there, passing away September 14, 1848, at age 81. He was buried in the Gates Presbyterian Cemetery. Nabby didn’t remarry, remaining in Gates after Hugh’s death. She died in 1860 at age 79 and was buried alongside Hugh.

Hugh Wallis was a true pioneer of the post-Revolutionary War era, showing courage in the face of great unknowns, befriending strangers, and always ready to preach on any occasion to share the Gospel message. He built homes and supplemented his meager pastor’s wages tilling the soil. He pushed through the wilderness, enduring severe personal hardships, always ready to shepherd a new flock for 47 years. His life was an amazing journey of hard work, perseverance, and service for the Kingdom. Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:23 seem appropriate for this faithful pioneer pastor: “‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”


Journal of Rev. Hugh Wallis, 1800-1838

History of Churches and Ministers, and of Franklin Assoc.

Beer’s Gazetteer and Biographical Record of Genesee County, 1890

Beer’s Wyoming County History, 1880

Corfu Presbyterian Church Records

Dartmouth Alumni Biographies

Records of the Middle Association of Congregational Churches 1806-1810

Massachusetts Missionary Magazine 1806-1807

Sermon Preached at the Ordination of Hugh Wallis, Bath, Maine, 1795, Yale Library

Presbyterian Church Records 1815-1819

Sermon Preached December, 1809 at the Installation of Rev. Hugh Wallis, Pastor of the Church in Norwich Society, Litchfield, NY

Henry Wallis Revolutionary War Service Affidavit, National Archives, 1832

Genesee County Clerk’s Office, Various Deeds

Federal Census Records, 1810, 1820, 1830

NYS Census Records

History of Bath and environs, Parker McCobb Reed

The Early Settlers of Colrain, Mass, Charles McClellan

Vital Records of Colrain Mass

The History Hancock, New Hampshire, 1764-1889, William Willis Hayward

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