What's in a Name #3: Penn Yan

I've always felt that the village of Penn Yan had a somewhat strange name, but did not discover its origin until I stumbled upon it while doing other research. Some weeks ago, I was glancing through a map of intentional communities in Antebellum Upstate. I knew something about the Shaker communities in Groveland and New Lebanon and was certainly acquainted with the Onedia Community but there was a great mystery right in the heart of the Finger Lakes called "Universal Friend."

Having a few spare minutes, I began to search for the story behind the "Universal Friends" and found an incredible tale that deserves describing here. It all begins in 1776, a year of revolution, that sparked waves of social upheaval beyond those simply tied to the war. One of those waves began with a funeral.

Jemima Wilkinson, a daughter of Quakers and New Light Baptist convert was 25 years old and living in Ledyard, Connecticut the year of the Declaration of Independence. She was known throughout the area for her fascination with religion and tendency to obsessively quote Scripture. Her death by fever, however, was not completely out of the ordinary for the time, though many mourners arrived at the funeral from the community probably because of her youth. During the funeral service, the coffin was opened for a final viewing of the corpse; to everyone's surprise and horror, the body was not cold and lifeless. Jemima's face had color and her chest moved with breath. The young woman suddenly leapt up in the casket and announced that she had died and returned to life; "If she was going to be buried today, Jemima vowed, she alone would preach the interment sermon. But, she intoned, she wasn't about to be buried, this day or any other day soon."[1] She had seen the Light and was brought back to heal the world. Proclaiming to be Christ reborn, she changed her name to the "Publick (sic) Universal Friend" and stated that she would found a new religion, the "Universal Friends."

The speech was so moving and "few who heard her resurrection speech were unimpressed with its sincerity and persuasiveness." [2] Word spread like wildfire of Jemima's return and she quickly became the hottest attraction in southeast Connecticut. Jemima was a "tall and graceful woman with dark hair and dark eyes, she had a magnetic personality and a powerful preaching style that created fervent disciples."[2] She took to preaching in men's clothing and gathered a following. Of course, soon a whispering campaign was instigated against her that forced her, and a small group of her followers, into exile. The "Jemimamites" began a wandering life, first to New Milford (CT) and then to Tioga County (PA). Everywhere they were reviled, but at the same time, her following constantly grew. Jemima's preaching followed Quaker ideals, though she adopted Shaker concepts of communalism and sexual abstinence and Calvinist ideas of a lost and dying world. She fiercely promoted Abolitionism, Pacifism and "Plain" living (including dress) [2].

In Tioga she declared that the Jemimakin (their new name in PA) would leave their tormentors and travel to the frontier where they would construct a community based on love, a new Jerusalem. They travelled close to 100 miles, deep in the wilderness to Keuka Lake. "In order to show their respect for their leader and also to reduce the wear and tear on her person from what promised to be a difficult journey -- the Jemimakins constructed for her traveling comfort a magnificent sedan chair complete with well-padded seats, a garish paint job and the initials 'P.U.F.' emblazoned on each side." [1]

In 1787, the Universal Friends founded the settlement of Jerusalem, NY. Today this name lives on in the Town of Jerusalem, located on the same spot, in Yates County. The settlement they founded on the northern shores of Keuka Lake grew and prospered with Jemima at its head. In 1790, it reportedly had 260 inhabitants; however it did not grow in numbers beyond this and life soon settled into a routine at Jerusalem, slowly losing its early fervour.

Jemima died in 1819 and her faith began to quietly break up afterwards. Reportedly, Jemima's followers so deeply believed in her first resurrection that her body remained unburied in a public spot for decades after her death to await her return. Finally, she was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on her property where she rests today.

The town of Jerusalem did not disappear though and continued to prosper. "In later years, long after Jemima's passing, when the first post office was pending for the City of Jerusalem, the federal government asked the residents if they would be willing to rename their settlement: something shorter, perhaps, with a less biblical ring to it, but appropriate, of course. Since everyone in town had originally followed Jemima Wilkinson from Pennsylvania or Yankee Connecticut, they agreed to call their town 'Penn Yan.' Thus Penn Yan, New York, was born and officially registered in Washington, D.C." [1]

Joe and I visited Penn Yan and the Town of Jerusalem today and took a pilgrimmage to Jemima's/The Friend's house, which is still standing. The tall, white farmhouse is private property and only a tiny plaque bearing this bland inscription: "Built around 1790. Friend's Home. Here lived Jemimah Wilkinson known as the Universal Friend." The Village also seems to have a bit of amnesia about The Friend, at least in their tourist-oriented publications. In discussions with Penn Yan natives, I do know that she has not been completely forgotten, but it seems strange that an area so teeming with tourism that the Village, or any organization that I can see, have done nothing to promote her story. Overall, this seems to me to be a deep shame as Jemima and the Universal Friends are not only engaging but important history. Jemima was a striking person, especially when you understand that she was the first woman to found a religious movement in what is today the United States. The Friend was an anomaly, but was also a product of her time. Her message was radical, but still resonanated enough to bring hundreds of people away from their homes and settled lives to the frontier in order to pursue a dream of a utopian Jerusalem. She was one of the first to do this in America, but certainly not the last; the flight to Jerusalem would be repeated over and over in American history by new religious movements, but most notably by the Mormons. The influence of Wilkinson's faith on a young Joseph Smith, only a county away to the north is little understood or studied.

It seems that once again, unfortunately, history has been conveniently forgotten when it involves the events of females. The erasing of the events of women is endemic to the United States and gives a sense that everywhere men where first, that everything that deserves doing was done by men and validates the idea that, if it was good enough for our Founders, it should be good enough today. Jemima gives one sterling example of history that should be understood and discussed, not simply because "we need to hear more about women," but because it is important and interesting in its own right and that to ignore it is a crime against history and the future. However, I am glad to have visited the Friend and learn the fascinating story of "what's in a name."

-Posted by Jesse

[1] "Jemima Wilkinson," by the Curbstone Press. It also has interesting information on the legends that grew up in the wake of Jemima's passage.
[2] "Unruly Women: Jemima Wilkinson and Deborah Sampson Gannett" from Biographies from Early America by James Henretta. This essay also talks about Mrs. Gannett, a courageous woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War.


Joe said...

Hey if anyone's reading this they may be from around penn yan, and there's a bunch of amish there. I want to know how the amish practice or use medicine, do they go to an 'english' doctor or is someone from the community trained outside then returns to be the groups medic?

Historical Pessimist said...

Actually, "Mother" Ann Lee had a similar endeavor going at roughly the same time in the eastern part of upstate (the Albany area, esp. Watervliet and New Lebanon). Sidney Ahlstrom's _A Religious History of the American People_ puts the start of Ann Lee's relaunching of the Shakers (after an earlier start in England) in the year 1776 in Watervliet.

I think Jemima Wilkerson may get overlooked because the Shakers had a more marked impact (people now at least know who they were for their furniture). But the Shakers were definitely a religious movement inspired and led by a woman.

Jesse said...

It's true that Mother Ann was preaching before The Friend, had many more converts and a much greater cultural affect over a longer period of time. I certainly don't think that The Universal Friends should get the attention that the Shakers do.

However, I'm going to stick by my statement that The Friend was the first woman to found a religion in the USA, because Mother Ann founded her faith in England years before coming to the United States. It, perhaps, sounds like a technicality, but I think it's important that Jemima Wilkinson was an American, born out of the foment of Revolution and Yankee culture. This was a time when America was defining itself and Jemima deserves a part in that story.

I believe that the wild success of the Shakers in comparison to the Friends comes from 1) the fact that they stuck around in populated areas while the Friends virtually dropped off the face of the Earth by going to Keuka Lake and 2) that their unique handicrafts created a name for themselves... marketing.

While I don't put The Friends in the league with the Shakers, I do believe that the Jemimakin deserve similar treatment to the Oneidas, a comparable movement which they certainly don't.

Rev Diane S Holt said...

Did you know that the home on Friendship Hill is for sale?

Rich said...

The Oliver House Museum on Main Street in Penn Yan has a two-room display/exhibit dedicated to Jemima Wilkinson along with a wealth of information. It is maintained by the Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Brooke said...

I enjoyed your post a lot! I am 23 years old and have lived in penn yan my entire life and only knew a little bit of that information. Now i can say i know the history of my little town. Thanks for sharing :-)

Mitch Horowitz said...

I just returned from a visit to Penn Yan -- a wonderful town with terrific people, but, yes, you are correct that the village reveals woefully little about its most fascinating and significant citizen, and indeed an important figure in American religious history. Jemima is noted in no tourist maps or pamphlets. And -- worst of the all for one unlucky traveler (namely me) -- the Oliver House historical museum was marked as being open at 9 a.m. on Saturday, but never opened. Or at least not by 10 a.m. when I had to make my long drive back to New York.
-- Mitch Horowitz www.mitchhorowitz.com

josh said...

if you want to learn more about the universal friend read the book called jerusalem the golden by robert st. john it tells all about her trip from fort tioga to the settlement of jerusalem

Anonymous said...

It was the falling water that he scouts heard and the first mill of the Genesee region - for her was built on the Keuka Outlet at what is known now as Seneca Mills falls. At one time the power of the falling water (From Keuka to Seneca Lake) was the bread basket to New York City. At one time there were 40 mills along the outlet because produce could be transported on the Crooked Lake Canal which ran parallel to the outlet. Later the Fall Brook Railroad was built on the tow path and now it is owned by Friends of the Outlet who maintain an all season, multiple use trail on the railroad bed/tow path to the Penn Yan village limits. It is open from sunrise to sunset, and no motorized vehicles are allowed except for electric wheelchairs and snowmobiles when there is snow. There are many accesses to the 6 + Penn Yan's part of the trail that go from Keuka Lake to almost Seneca Lake. for more information go to keukaoutlettrail on the web

Anonymous said...

My parents used to own land on 1 of the Friend roads. I'm trying to figure out where Gemima's house is--3912 Friend Hill Rd. I'm not able to google it, nor can I even find a zipcode for Jerusalem or Potter NY.

Does anyone know the exact location? I'd like to visit it.


Anonymous said...

Where is Gemima's house--3912 Friend Hill Rd. I cannot mapquest the actual location which I would like to visit.