God in Catt County
A short, religious history
by Jimmy Reynolds
Starting with the Native Americans who first inhabited Western New York and Cattaraugus County, religion has played an
important role in shaping the communities that exist in this region.
When humans first migrated to this area about 5,000 years ago, the Great Falls of Niagara became the grandest holy mecca
for the Paleo-Indians. Similar to the Greeks, who created gods for every earthly part of nature, these native Americans
practiced what is called 'Animism', and worshipped animals, trees, and other elements of the natural world as being divine.
Later tribes, like the Iroquois, began to acknowledge a Supreme Being over all of nature, developing a more sophisticated
worldview to fit their advancing, democratic culture.
French missionaries were the first Europeans to bring the radical message of Jesus Christ to the Native Americans.
In 1640, Roman Catholic Jesuits Brebouf and Beaumont journeyed to the Niagara Frontier and lived among the Neutral Nation,
who guarded the Falls until the Iroquois moved them out.
The famous French explorer LaSalle came to the area in 1678. A Jesuit skilled in many fields, he and his partner,
Father Henning, built a stronghold at the Old Fort Niagara site and traveled through Chautauqua County to the Allegheny River
In 1749, Father Joseph Pierre de Bonnecamps adventured down the Allegheny and wrote the first account of white men on
the beautiful river.
When Euro-Americans initially came trouncing through the Native American lands, most of the earliest pioneers and settlers
were wild and rugged males of war, with few exceptions. After the American Revolution, lands were given to soldiers
for their work in the war, and several of them headed "West" toward the gateway of the Allegheny.
In 1797, the Iroquois were relegated to a number of reservations in New York, so lands were opened up for purchase and
exploitation. The Holland Land Company paved the way.
Religious groups also saw the opportunity to spread their lifestyle, and the Pennsylvania Quakers were the first to arrive
in the region. In 1797, Quaker Francis King settled in Ceres to work the land and spread the peaceful philosophy that
William Penn popularized from Philadelphia.
The first white settlement in Cattaraugus County was made by three Quaker missionaries named Joel Swayne, Halliday Jackson,
and Henry Simmons from Chester Co., Pa. Sent by The Philadelphia Friends Society, they lived with and ministered to
the Senecas at Tunesassa, near Old Town in South Valley.
During the decade that followed Olean's founding (1803), the tough pioneers had little time for religion, and a common
saying arose...that "the Sabbath day did not extend westward beyond the Genesee River".
Lumber was king in these early days, and the wilderness attracted only the most free-spirited adventurers who sought
new opportunities, any way they could. But the land was also ripe for men and women of the cloth who "aimed
to civilize and tame the savage atmosphere created by the hard-drinkin' and hard-livin' lumbermen".
One of the first preachers to pass through Catt County was the Presbyterian Robert Hubbard, who traveled from Angelica
to Lyndon in 1810. In 1813, Congregationalist John Spencer came to the county with the Word. This was the time
of the Second Great Awakening, when Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian circuit riders on horseback, engulged the edges of
the expanding nation with a Bible and a gun at their side.
Fiery tent meetings and revivals exploded everywhere, developing into an era of dynamic religious reformation that lasted
for several more decades. In the North, the huge revival helped fuel the anti-slavery movement, and many locals offered
their homes as havens along the Underground Railroad.
The county's first regular church building was a log cabin erected in Napoli in 1823. Christians also built the
first framed building there in 1831. Methodists constituted the majority of Christians in the very early days, before
the Erie Canal opened in 1825.
Baptist Christians migrated to the area in 1817, while folks of the Episcopalian denomination arrived in Ellicottville
in 1827. Members of the Universalist Church came to the county in 1835, the same year that Dutch Reformed believers
Regional Roman Catholicism was initiated by Bishop Timon from Buffalo around 1845. Nicholas Devereaux (from Utica)
was also instrumental in bringing the Catholic faith to the county.
Devereaux purchased 40,000 acres of land along the Allegheny River from the Holland Land Company. His vision was
to develop a Catholic city with the help of the Franciscans. He accompanied Bishop Timon on a trip to Rome, where they
persuaded Vatican officials to send help. In 1855, Father Pamphilus da Magliano and two other priests arrived in Ellicottville.
In 1856, their new group laid the cornerstone for a monastery that would become the St. Bonaventure College and Seminary.
The school opened in 1859 with 15 students.
Houghton College became the vision of William J. Houghton, who started a Sunday school class in the town. After
witnessing many conversions to his Christian convictions, he started the Wesleyan Methodist Seminary in 1883.
Many of the small towns in Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties were largely built by devout religious people who translated
their faith and morality into civic, business, educational, and family-oriented endeavors.
A great majority of Portville's founding fathers and mothers were dedicated Christians who were deeply involved in the
Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Adventist, and Presbyterian Churches. Famous names like Rice, Parish, Percival, Wheeler,
Mersereau, Dusenbury, Anderson, Peterson, and others can be found on plaques throughout all of Portville's oldest church facilities.
Similar religious heritage can be found in all of the area's towns, even though some of them experienced extraordinary
challenges...challenges that Portville escaped.
For example, in 1880, Richburg was a tiny, peaceful community inhabited by a decent, God-fearing, family-loving folk.
On April 27, 1881, the first oil gusher blasted from the ground one mile west of the little village. Within one
week, the population soared from 200 to 8,000, and the town was infested with a frenzied multitude of entrepeneurs, crazy
cowboys, wicked oilmen, prostitutes, criminals, rich Easterners, railroad rowdies, and etc.
For one year, Richburg became the biggest boom town in the United States, and the money flowed...as did the whiskey,
gunfire, stabbings, murders, gonorrhea, and everything else imaginable.
Local towns that experienced similar "blessings" in some fashion or another saw their churches react differently
to the shock. A few churches thrived in the adversity, some just survived, some died, and others moved out.
In the past few decades, towns like Portville have greatly diversified in the realm of church options. In addition
to the old-line denominations, Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches have set up centers of worship.