Sylvester Dana was born in Ashford, Conn., on October 14, 1769, the seventh child of Anderson and Susanna Huntington Dana. When Dana was still very young, the family moved to the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, where they intended to farm. However, when Anderson Dana was killed in the Wyoming massacre of 1778, the family returned to Connecticut, and Sylvester and his brothers were forced to seek work wherever they could find it to help support the family. In April, 1786, he and his next older brother moved back to their property near Wilkesbarre, which the family had never sold, and made enough of a success at farming that Sylvester was able to return to Connecticut and begin preparations to enter college.
After studying with Rev. Nehemiah Prudden of Enfield, Dana was accepted at Yale into the class of 1797. During his sophomore year, he was moved to become a full member of the Congregational church, and immediately after graduation, he entered into theological studies under Rev. Charles Backus, and was licensed to preach by the Tolland County (Conn.) Ministerial Association in June, 1798.
After preaching in various towns in Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont, Dana was called to settle in Orford, N.H., in 1800. He was installed on May 10, 1801, and was called upon to preach alternately in the town's East and West Congregational meeting houses. His years at Orford saw a great increase in religious observance among the inhabitants, an early manifestation of the Second Great Awakening. During his twenty-one years as minister, 190 people were reported to have joined the church, mainly in the revivals of 1810 and 1819. Dana also played a part in spreading religion more broadly through the region. In 1805, for instance, he and two other ministers organized the Congregational Church at Dartmouth College.
Dana married Hannah Kimball (d. 1846) in 1802, with whom he had nine children, only four of whom survived infancy: Charles Backus (1806-1873), Sylvester (b. 1816), Anne Kimball, and one other daughter. Charles and Sylvester both attended Dartmouth. Charles followed his father into the ministry, though in the Episcopal church, and Sylvester became an attorney and judge.
After Dana's dismissal from the church at Orford in 1822, 28 former members of Dana's congregation separated to form the West Congregational Church, comprised of the west meeting house and some residents of nearby Fairlee, Vt. Dana was unanimously called there in 1823 and remained for ten years, bringing in over one hundred additional members to the new congregation. He resigned in 1833, moving to Thornton, N.H., where he preached for four more years, and then entered into semi-retirement in Concord, N.H., in August, 1837. He died at Concord at the age of 80, on June 9, 1849.