William S. Bush, Baptist Preacher

When William S. Bush (c. 1816-1892) decided to become a Baptist clergyman, he did not choose an easy life for himself and his family. He preached in several small towns in a rural, mountainous region of northern New York State, and although the Baptist religion was very popular in America at the time, each congregation was independent, and doctrinal differences could create frictions.

William was born in West Haven, Vermont, the son of farmer William Bush and Polly Bagg Bush (1785-1856). William’s middle initial stood for Stanley, a name that appears frequently in the Bagg family as a nod to Polly’s mother, Pamela Stanley.  

I do not know what influenced him to become a Baptist. Polly’s family worshipped in the Congregational church in Massachusetts, but I doubt the Baggs were very religious. After Polly’s family moved to Canada in the late 1790s, her father and brothers became Anglican and her sister married a Catholic. I know nothing about William’s father.

The Baptists were active in spreading the gospel in Vermont. There were numerous churches in the state, they were well organized and they promoted education. It is quite likely that William studied at the Baptist-run Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution in Hamilton, New York.

Warren County, New York

There were two main branches of Baptists in mid-century New York: Old School Baptists who did not adopt any modern practices that were not found in the Bible, such as such as missions and Sunday schools; and Missionary, or New School Baptists, who did embrace such innovations. In addition, there were numerous independent Baptist churches. I do not know which beliefs William subscribed to.  

In 1844, he was pastor of Johnsburg Baptist Church, Warren County, New York, and in the following years, he moved many times in that region. This kind of turnover appears to have been normal for the area’s Baptist clergymen. The 1850 census found him in Minerva, Essex County, New York. In 1860 he was back in Johnsburg. When the 1865 state census and the 1870 federal census were taken, the family was in Chester, Warren County, and in 1880, William was living in Horicon, Warren County.  

In the 19th century, Johnsburg was a thriving town, and the construction of the railroad beside the nearby Hudson River in 1871 improved transportation. Logging was the most important local industry, especially in the winter. The logs were floated downstream on the Hudson, and local saw mills, driven by water power, kept employees busy. There were four local tanneries in the 1870s, with the tannery in North Creek turning out 30,000 hides a year. There was also some garnet mining in the area. 

Despite the relatively harsh climate, a lot of the land had been cleared. Farmers grew beans, corn, oats and squash, and some grew rye to supply a local distillery. Others supplemented their incomes by selling valuable potash they made from wood ashes.

Slavery was an issue that no doubt concerned William, both as a preacher and as an individual. In the 1840s, this issue caused a rift between Baptists in the northern parts of the United States and those in the south, who defended it. William must have felt strongly because he registered for the Union army in the U.S. Civil War Draft in 1863, though he probably did not serve.

In 1860, William’s Aunt Sophia Bagg, the widow of wealthy landowner Gabriel Roy, died, leaving him and his siblings generous bequests. He and his brother, Phineas Bagg Bush, travelled to Montreal in January 1861 to receive their inheritances. The 500 pounds Sophia left him must have gone a long way to supplement his preacher’s salary, while the trip to Montreal would have provided an opportunity to meet his many Canadian cousins. 

I have been unable to find a record of William’s marriage, so his wife’s maiden name remains a mystery. In census records, she appears as Sarah M. Bush, born in New York. The couple had at least five children, four of whom grew to adulthood.

Their oldest daughter, Sophia, (c 1843 – ) was born in Vermont. She last appeared living with her parents in the 1865 state census. Lydia, born around 1848, appeared in the 1850 census but must have died before 1860. Son George S. Bush (c 1846 – ) seems to have remained single all his life. Charles A. Bush (c 1858 – ) may have married and moved west, first to Arizona, then to Washington State, and Lora Bush (1860-1916) probably married Watson Huntley, remained in northern New York State and had several children.

William’s wife Sarah must have died before 1880 because in that year’s federal census, William, now aged 62, was married to his second wife, Diana, 59. A box in the census was ticked indicating that they had been married that year. Diana must have died soon after because William seems to have remarried again. Next to his grave in North River Cemetery, North River, New York, is the gravestone of his wife Mary A. Bush (1821-1889), who was born in England. William last appeared living in Johnsburg in the 1892 state census, age 75, occupation preacher. The census was carried out in February and William died that September.   

See also:

Janice Hamilton, “Polly Bagg Bush and Her Family,” Writing Up the Ancestors, April 28, 2016 https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2016/04/polly-bagg-bush-and-her-family-part-1.html

Janice Hamilton, “Polly Bagg Bush: A Surprise Sister,” Writing Up the Ancestors, May 23, 2014 https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2014/05/polly-bagg-bush-surprise-sister.html

Photo Credit:

New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer, p. 693

Notes and Sources

It has been difficult to find information on this family, partly because they lived in a rural area where there were few local newspapers and no such thing as a city directory. An obituary for Rev. William S. Bush was probably published somewhere. I have checked the digitized Warren County newspapers on the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society website, but have so far found no references to him.  

Baptists say that only people who are believers should be baptized, so they do not baptize babies and their baptismal records do not indicate of date of birth. That presents a problem in a state that did not keep vital records until the early 1900s. Nor do Baptists believe that marriage is a sacrament, so unless an individual minister kept his own records of the congregation’s activities, there are no church marriage registers. Finally, Baptist congregations are basically independent, so they do not store the records they do have in a centralized location. For this reason, I have relied on censuses to research William S. Bush’s family.   

I used www.ancestry.ca to find the U.S. federal and state census records for this family, and I came across several public member trees on Ancestry that mention his family. There is a photo of William’s grave on Find A Grave (www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=112480768) and this is where I found his date of death.

The website www.reynoldstonnewyork.org features articles and photos about late 19th-century life in the Adirondack region of New York State, including logging, saw mills and potash making. My information about the history of Johnsburg comes from a history of the town,  www.johnsburgny.com/history.html.

William was mentioned as a pastor of Johnsburg Baptist Church in H.P. Smith, History of Warren County (www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nywarren/countyhistory/smith/xxxiii.htm).The sources I used for background on the Baptist Church include the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer, New York: New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 2014; Vermont Baptists, The Baptist Enclyclopedia, 1881 (http://baptisthistoryhomepage.com/Vermont.baptists.the.html); and American Baptists, A Brief History (www.abc-use.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/history.pdf).

This article was edited on June 12, 2016 to add historical background on Johnsburg.