According to Everts, L. H. History of Cattaraugus Co., New York. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1879, Sylvester Cowles and Pliny L. Fox, Esq. were the principals in signing and forming the Anti-Slavery Society of Ellicottville, NY in 1836.
Away back in the early history of Cattaraugus County, when to preach the gospel required real and earnest hard work, Dr. Cowles preached at various points. He also organized and helped to sustain various churches, notably those at Randolph, March 26, 1836; at Olean, January 6, 1836; at Portville, June 16, 1847; Allegany, about 1853.
During his early ministry, he found an earnest assistant and zealous coadjutor in his estimable wife, and to her he owes much of the real success that attended his youthful efforts as a minister of the gospel. His first wife was an intelligent lady and a consistent Christian, a fine educator, and possessed many extraordinary intellectual and spiritual fits. Perhaps, we can no better do simple justice to her memory than to quote briefly from a historical sketch of her educational labors, prepared by one who knew her well and loved her sincerely.
“Miss Mary Hayes excelled as a teacher in the higher branches of female education, in the central and eastern parts of New York. Having acquired notoriety as lady principal in one or two academies, when the Brooklyn Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies was incorporated by the Legislature (the first ladies’ college ever organized in this State), she was invited to become the head lady principal or professor in its corps of instructors. She accepted it, and for several years was the guiding spirit in the education of the daughters of lawyers, of judges, and of men of wealth, as well as those of clergymen. The institution became exceedingly popular. Resigning this desirable position in the spring of 1831, the August following she was married to the Rev. Sylvester Cowles, who immediately started for Cattaraugus County, and arrived at Napoli on September, 17. She had her plans of usefulness laid for education in this new part of the State. Being settled in the framed addition of a log house, she immediately developed her plan by proposing to take a class of young lady school teachers, and those who wished to become such, whom she drilled for their duties and employments the next season. In this, she was also very successful. In the fall of 1835, this esteemed lady removed with her reverend husband to Ellicottville, then the county seat, where she secured the services of Miss Mary Lyman, a teacher from the Brooklyn Institute, and opened a school of high order, known for more than ten years as Ellicottville Institute for Young Ladies. There was comparatively little general interest felt in such a school by the community at large. Many there were who encouraged it, and at the close of the first term, when it was seen what remarkable progress the young ladies made in the higher branches, the institute grew in favor, the community being more than pleased. Young ladies from the best families all over the county and from the city of Buffalo afterwards attended, and received a thorough and extensive education, including the sciences and fine arts. It is not saying too much to affirm that Mrs.Cowles’s institution, by furnishing the best of teachers, did more for education than all other causes put together in the county, that it did more for civilization, elevation, and refinement of society in Ellicottville, and that its good effects are still felt in the social, intellectual, and religious state of society in that village and its surroundings.”
Sylvester Cowles was born in Otisco, Onondaga County, N.Y., January 28, 1804. He was the son of Amos and Dolly Cowles. He received his preliminary education at the Homer Academy, and in 1825, entered Hamilton College from which he was graduated with the degree of A.B., in 1828. In September of that year he commenced his theological studies at Auburn Theological Seminary, and September 5, 1831, was regularly ordained by the Onondaga Presbytery. Immediately thereafter, he removed to Napoli, where he preached one-half of the time in the old Congregational church, organized there by the venerable Father SPENCER. In 1835, he removed to Ellicottville, as before stated, and included in his circuit West Otto, East Otto, Ashford, and Great Valley, He married his first wife in Clinton, August 25, 1831. She died, after a life of peculiar usefulness, January 8, 1846. He married for his second wife, Frances W. Wood, of New Haven, Conn., who was a granddaughter of Chief Justice Ellsworth, on the 17th of September, 1846. She died from the effects of a railroad accident received on the Northwestern Railroad, In Illinois, January 8, 1873, dying the 29th of March following. On the 4th of August, 1878, he married Sophia M. Phillips, who was a missionary among the Indians on the Allegany Reservation when he became acquainted with her. Of eight children, only one---Mary V.---survives. She resides at home, and is a lady of intelligence and culture. Dr. has been peculiarly fortunate in the choice of his wives, and, as he reverently says, “they were all gifts from the Lord.”
One of the chief characteristics of Dr. Cowles is his benevolence and desire for the development and progress of education. He was largely instrumental in the founding of the old Olean Academy in 1852. He obtained subscriptions to the enterprise amounting to $2,360.50, all of which he collected, and holds the receipts of John Fobes, then treasurer of the academy, for the same. He spent more than eight years of hard work in the interests of that institution. By practical economy, extending over many years, he accumulated enough to purchase two perpetual scholarships of Hamilton College, which he keeps filled by worthy young men.
He takes a great interest in general scientific research, particularly in geology. He has a well-selected and valuable cabinet of geological specimens.
His alma mater,---old Hamilton College,---recognizing the worth of scholarly attainments of her child, conferred the degree of D.D. upon him in the summer of 1874.
As early as July 4, 1831, Dr. Cowles preached for temperance, and has been an earnest and consistent advocate of the cause ever since. He was also one of the first to espouse the principles of abolition in this county, and fought earnestly and well for the maintenance of the same.