The ‘burned over district’ is a nickname used for the area in Upstate, NY where much religious revivalism took place approximately from 1820-1850. However, the woman who is the main topic of this post died in the year 1819, but is often thought of as a pre-cursor and pioneer of the Second Great Awakening, and is actually a pioneer in many other ways as well. The woman I am referring to is named Jemima Wilkinson, but for the majority of her life she went by the name ‘Publick Universal Friend.’
Sometime last summer in the month of June, Chris, myself and my wife went and visited St. Januarius Church in Naples, NY (which you can read about here). On our way home from Naples, I came up with the bright idea to drive home through Penn Yan to see a specific cemetery out there and a house I had read about formally owned by the Society of Universal Friends. We did in fact see these two sites but had really done very little research ahead of time to have a true understanding of what we were looking at. Ever since this time last year, Chris and I have done more and more research about the Publick Universal Friend and her Society of Universal Friends and we even have had several people asking us to write a post about her. Then Chris and I discovered that the historical society of Yates County had put together a self-guided audio driving tour on CD of the Publick Universal Friends historical sites. Chris and I quickly nerded out and bought this CD and corresponding book, and Chris even had to write a check to buy it! (who still writes checks?). We had already planned to take a few days off to visit several sites on our bucket list, so when the driving tour came in the mail we knew it was time to spend a day in Penn Yan.
After we eventually figured out how to operate the CD player in Chris’s car (I mean, does anybody listen to CDs anymore?), we made the decision to start listening to the tour before we even arrived to a designated site in order to give us some background before we arrived. Our first stop on the tour was the Yates County Historical Society, which is housed in the Oliver House Museum. After following the instructions written on a piece of paper stuck to the door, we knocked and knocked and knocked, with no answer. Chris made the decision to go around to the back door and I slowly followed. Thankfully Chris found the curator of the museum who apologized for not hearing us at the front door and also informed us that the tour we were on actually started in the building next door, that the museum also owned. We then walked next door and after introducing ourselves a second time, were led to what we had come for. Chris and I were then taken to what used to be a garage that has been converted into a single room museum that today houses the story and artifacts of Publick Universal Friend, Jemima Wilkinson.
Jemima Wilkinson was born in 1752 to strict Quaker parents in Rhode Island. Jemima was the eighth of twelve children and in 1764, it is reported Jemima’s mother died from being “worn out” by child birth. Jemima spent her upbringing reading through the Bible and many Quaker books and also developed an interest in Christianity beyond Quaker beliefs. In 1776, it is documented that Jemima was actually dismissed from the Quakers for attending a Baptist group. Later that same year, at 24-years-old, Jemima contracted a very severe and near fatal fever. During this illness, Jemima had a vision that convinced her that she died and was sent back to Earth by God to preach to the “lost and dying world.” This propelled Jemima to claim that she was a “holy vessel of Jesus Christ, God and the Holy Spirit.” After recovering from her illness, she then began calling herself the “Publick Universal Friend” and would answer to nothing else.
The Publick Universal Friend then began to travel and preach throughout the Northeastern lands of what would soon become the United States of America. Jemima kept many of her Quaker characteristics, but also preached and practiced faith healing, dream interpretation, celibacy and loving kindness towards Native Americans and African Americans. Because Jemima was a woman preacher, who many considered to actually look like a man and at the very least ambiguous in her appearance, this was cause enough for many to come and look at the spectacle that was the Publick Universal Friend, but many began to listen to what she had to say. In time, the Friend attracted those of both the lower and also higher classes of society, as long as they were willing to accept her authority and it was through some of her more wealthy followers that Jemima was able to fund her travels. Although Jemima never really labeled her philosophy as a new sect of Christianity, many of her followers considered her a messiah, which Jemima herself never declared but she did little to dissuade.
It was in the year 1788 that land was purchased by approximately 25 of the Friend’s followers in the Genesee country of Western New York. There were several legal disputes that ensued as to whether the Friends actually had the rights to these lands, but in time it was decided they did. The Publick Universal Friend and hundreds of her followers then came to their new home in 1790 where they lived for the rest of their lives and named their new township Jerusalem, which it is still known as. The Society of Universal Friends lived in three different communal settlements during the Publick Universal Friend’s lifetime, however in the year 1819, the Publick Universal Friend Jemima Wilkinson passed away and because a new leader was never formally established in her place and also due to many members being celibate, the Society gradually disintegrated and within ten years of their leader’s death, was no longer.
In the single room, garage converted museum Chris and I found ourselves standing in are several signs hanging on the walls which tell the story of the Publick Universal Friend, while interspersed throughout the room are several of the Society’s original artifacts. Plus, right in the middle of the room is the Publick Universal Friend’s personal buggy. On the back of this buggy are the initials U F with a cross in-between them. Chris and I thought this was pretty cool because there really are no signs or symbols for the Society of Universal Friends and this may be the closest it comes to having one. There was also an original Bible owned by the Friends, as well as a hat, a pair of shoes and a saddle all used by the Publick Universal Friend. I really enjoyed this museum, even though it was a bit small, mainly because many of these artifacts are as old, if not older than the United States of America itself…how many museums in our area can say that!?!
From the Yates Historical Society Museum, Chris and I then continued on our audio tour and drove several miles outside of Penn Yan to the Western side of Seneca Lake. Here we were told was the “Landing Site” (now known as Perry Point) where the Publick Universal Friend and her followers originally entered the Genesee country of Western, NY. These first settlers actually traveled from the New England area, up the Hudson River, over land in several different areas, to the Oneida Lake, on the Onondaga River and eventually the Seneca River which brought them to Seneca Lake. It is a little hard to picture Upstate, NY being covered in woods, but this is exactly what it was like. Not to mention that the lands they were entering were already inhabited by Native Americans, plus while the Revolutionary War was officially over, the British actually inhabited certain areas of Upstate, NY for many years after the fact. Today there is actually a boat club at the Friend’s original port of entry and there was a sign saying it was private property. I can neither confirm nor deny that we entered this private property, but i can confirm that at least from the road there is a very pretty view of Seneca Lake from this location.
Next on the tour was the site of the Friend’s First House. Even before the Publick Universal Friend even came to the new township of Jerusalem, twenty-five of her followers established themselves at this first location. This first house is considered to be one of the first frame houses built west of Seneca Lake, plus it was two stories tall, it had a gambrel roof and nine fireplaces. While the Publick Universal Friend did live at this location for a few years, she eventually decided to move the community to a new second location in order to have more space and privacy. Unfortunately for us, this second house no longer exists but the audio tour does take the individual to the land it once existed on (I have to admit, we skipped this site). However, today at the first house location, there is a New York State historical land marker designating the site as historic and today there appeared to be an active Amish farm on the location. We cannot prove it is an Amish farm, however based on the dress of the women we saw outside, we made an educated guess.
The fourth place we visited was City Hill Cemetery. We discovered that City Hill Cemetery is actually the cemetery we visited a year before after our visit to St. Januarius. Chris actually said he thought they were the same but I did not believe him until we pulled up in front of the place. City Hill Cemetery is definitely the oldest cemetery in Yates County and is debated to be the oldest cemetery in New York State. The first settler was buried there in 1789 and was buried in a hollowed out log since a saw mill had yet to be built to make a proper coffin. There are several members of the Society of Universal Friends buried at City Hill Cemetery and we certainly took time to explore the place.
It’s around this time during our tour that we began to go off the designated route. Let me explain; on our way to the fifth stop on the tour, we heard the narrator say that in Milo Center (where we were going), there were several homes of some of the original Society of Friends members, plus there was also a family cemetery in the area but that this was not accessible to the public. See, when you tell either Chris or I that we cannot go somewhere, we then become much more determined to see it. However, I must admit, Chris was a bit more gung-ho about seeing this cemetery than I was. Chris then took it upon himself to stop at random houses and ask complete strangers if they had heard of such a cemetery and did they think we could go explore it (or what some may call “go trespass on it”). I was a bit more reserved than Chris was about finding this place; however, I will be the first to admit that after asking three separate people, Chris actually got us to the front door of the man who not only knew where the cemetery was, he was the actual owner of the land it was on! This guy then told us that not only could we go explore his land, he would show us exactly where to go! Chris and I were in shock at our dumb luck and before we knew it, we were in the middle of a field being told that the cemetery was between “that walnut tree over there and that apple tree.” Not knowing the first thing about how to identify a walnut tree, Chris and I just went in the direction we were directed to. The brush we had to walk through was definitely thick, not to mention quite thorny, but rather quickly we actually stumbled across several head stones seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Many of these head stones are beyond ever being able to be read again, but one or two out of the dozen or so head stones are almost eligible. Chris and I were ecstatic that we had actually found the abandoned cemetery at all, plus we had found a place that most that will take the audio tour we were taking will never see! I have to say, Chris’ perseverance certainly paid off.
Being completely pumped over what we felt we had just “discovered,” we proceeded to go to the next site on our tour, which was the original mill site that the Society of Friends built. We were told by the narrator on the tour that we would have to walk up a designated path running along Outlet Creek for a few minutes to actually see the mill site. What we did not expect though is just how awesome this site would be and again, we went off the planned tour path for a while to explore the park that we now found ourselves in. The original Society of Friends mill was the first of dozens of mills that would exist along the creek and today, the remains of the last mill can still be seen along the creek. Plus, because it was a mill, there also exists some falls that are high enough, but yet calm enough to go swimming in! As we walked up, we saw a couple of teenagers already in the water and it definitely seemed like a place that only the locals would know about. The area seems to be a designated park and there is even a bit of a path for bike riders and also a pavilion to have a picnic in. We continued to explore above the falls and there is still machinery intact at the top of what was once the mill that must have been used at some point. Plus, if you go down the creek below the falls, you can see hundreds of bricks from the former brick walls of the mill that still continue to litter the creek. Chris and I agreed that we could have easily have spent hours at this mill site going swimming and exploring and vowed that we would return someday soon in the future.
Upon leaving the Society of Friends original mill site, we headed into town to get something to eat for lunch and to discuss how to proceed going about the rest of our day. See, Chris and I often have more than one place we want to visit when we are in an area and Penn Yan was no different. We decided to go visit this other place (which I assure you will be another post sometime in the future) since it was only open until 4pm. However, this also put us on the wrong side of where to pick up our tour so we made the decision to do the remainder of the audio tour backwards, meaning that where we went next is actually where the tour ends.
Located in the middle of nowhere in the Town of Jerusalem on Friend Hill Road is the Society of Universal Friends Final House. This Final House is the home where the Society lived the longest, typically housing approximately eighteen individuals and it is also the home that the Publick Universal Friend died in. The home took five years to build, it has three floors and 14 bedrooms, with a central staircase connecting all three floors with a large landing on the second floor for the Publick Universal Friend to stand and preach where she could be seen and heard by all three floors. After the Society of Universal Friends disintegrated, the house has remained a private home ever since and is actually for sale right now for $400K!. There is also a mausoleum built in the side yard specifically to house the body of the Publick Universal Friend when she passed, however this never happened. When the Publick Universal Friend died, she was actually kept in the basement of the Final House for a few days and then buried in a secret location. Legend has it that only two of the Friends knew where the Publick Universal Friend was buried and these two individuals have passed down the location of this grave site to two more individuals, and this tradition has continued to the present day. Apparently today there are only two people in the Town of Penn Yan that know where the Publick Universal Friend is buried and they sure are not telling anybody!
Somewhat close to the Friend’s Final House is the next location on the tour and it is another cemetery. However, according to the audio tour, this particular cemetery is THE cemetery of the Society of Universal Friends, but today it is on private property and inaccessible to the public. Plus, it is also the location that stands a very good chance of having the Publick Universal Friend herself buried in it. Well you can guess where I am going with this story. Yes, we got out and began to explore through a heavily wooded area. We probably spent close to an hour studying Google Maps and exploring a few different wooded areas, but eventually after I walked through a corn field and saw numerous signs stating “WARNING: Discharge of Firearms,” we admitted defeat and never found this specific cemetery.
Back in the car we proceeded to drive around and see the remaining locations left on the tour which consisted of the Daniel Brown House and the James Brown, Jr. House; two original homes still standing of members of the Society. It was James Brown, Jr. that eventually became the Publick Universal Friend’s steward and then, his grandson Arnold James Potter eventually inherited all of the Publick Universal Friend’s belongings. When Potter died in 1951, he then willed these belongings to the Village of Penn Yan, where they have been kept in the Oliver House Museum ever since. I also have to admit, we did not make that great of an effort to see another location on the tour and while we thought we were going to drive passed it, we never found it and we did not make an effort to turn around and search for it.
It was not lost upon us as we drove home that we had just spent the whole entire day driving to Penn Yan, driving around the Penn Yan area and then driving home seeing sites that used to be surrounded by dense forests, connected only by the occasional Indian trail. There were no hotels or stores along the way and if you were lucky, you might find an occasional tavern to rest and eat. Plus, there was wild game roaming everywhere and hunting and farming was a way of life for everyone. The Society of Universal Friends arrived only with what they brought with them and had to make do with the resources of the wild, but yet they found a way. It is directly because of the Universal Friends that settlements in Western New York began to happen with more regularity, not to mention that some may argue that the Publick Universal Friend was leading the way for women’s equality as she took the traditional male role of preacher and led the growth of a communal society. It is not hard to see that without the Society of Universal Friends, the Second Great Awakening and the burned over district may never have come to fruition and this blog may not exist…so if you like this blog, make sure you give Jemima Wilkinson her dues.
If you are at all interested in purchasing this audio tour yourself, it can be found at: http://yatesheritagetours.com/projects.html
Also, there is a fantastic PBS documentary about the Society of Universal Friends that can be found here (it’s 20 mins long): http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/investigation/universal-friends/