Mary Cecelia Willis Webster
Mary Willis was born at her father’s home in Town Line in 1838, the fourteenth of eighteen children. Willis family tradition has her traveling the 80 miles or so to attend Alfred University sometime in the late 1850s. Alfred was only the second college in the country to accept women (Oberlin College being the first), and it must certainly have been a radical choice for the daughter of Nathan Willis, a county commissioner and a significant landowner.
Western New York was a center of American radicalism during the era, with Frederick Douglass publishing The North Star in Rochester, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton laying the foundations of feminism in Seneca Falls and Rochester. The area was known as “The Burned-Over District” based on its penchant for religious revivalism. Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, and even Spiritualism are all rooted in Western New York during that era.
Of necessity, almost no records of Underground Railroad activity were kept, but family oral histories from the years following the Civil War describe Mary Willis as an active participant, and both popular histories (Arch Merrill’s The Underground (1961) and Down the Lore Lanes (1963)) and more scholarly works (Helen Phalen’s And Why Not Everyman (1987)) make mention of her being part of the network.
In 1862, Mary married twice-widowed John Webster, 28-years her senior. She was pregnant with their seventh child when he died at the age of 70 in 1880. She died in the house where she was born on August 11, 1913.