Driving Tour Follows the Footsteps of Religious Pioneer Jemima Wilkinson

In the years immediately following the American Revolution, followers of Jemima Wilkinson came to this area from New England and Pennsylvania to establish the first permanent white settlement in western New York. Their story is told in great detail in a new book written by Yates County Historian Fran Dumas called The Unquiet World: The Public Universal Friend and America’s First Frontier. The book contains wonderful maps of the precise route that Wilkinson and her followers traveled in the 1780s and ’90s. It’s an important addition to the literature on the early pioneer history of the Finger Lakes.

The Society of Universal Friends, as they were called, made their way west from New Milford, Connecticut, through the Mohawk Valley to the western shore of Seneca Lake; and north from Worcester, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, on the Sullivan Trail.

The story is also told by a 50-mile-long driving tour that starts in Penn Yan at the Oliver House Museum and ends at the township of Jerusalem at Potter Mansion and Wilkinson’s home. Stops along the way include Penn Yan’s City Hill Cemetery (the oldest cemetery in Yates County), Milo Center, and old mill sites along the Keuka Lake Outlet. The whole thing takes approximately four hours, and can be done all at once or over several days. Co-sponsored by the Yates History Tours Project and the Finger Lakes Visitors Association, the tour brings the Universal Friends’ story to life.

The driving tour package and book are available this summer at Longs Cards and Books on Main Street in Penn Yan and in other retail outlets. The package includes an audio CD, a tour map indicating the location of each stop with the mileage and GPS coordinates, a booklet organized by tour stop with pictures, and some valuable coupons from area businesses. The tour package and book can be purchased separately or together.

The Oliver House Museum is the main repository for objects and documents belonging to Jemima Wilkinson, called “the Friend” by her followers. Among the items on display are her portrait; the sidesaddle, hat and a glass water flask she used when she traveled; and the “death book” kept by the society to record the deaths of members. The Oliver House Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 pm.

The Yates History Tours Project will be working with Fran Dumas to produce several historical driving and walking tours of historic Penn Yan and Dundee, and the Keuka Outlet Trail. The Finger Lakes Visitors Association was recently established to promote tourism in Yates County, “the heart of the Finger Lakes.”

Why it’s important
Jemima Wilkinson was born to Quaker parents in Cumberland, Rhode Island in 1758, the eighth of 12 children. In 1776, when she was a young woman, she became very ill with a fever and saw visions of angels sent from God. They told her, “The time is at hand, when God will lift up his hand, a second time to recover the remnant of his People, whose day is not yet over.”

When she came out of her comatose state, she told her family that Jemima had died and she was now the spirit to be known as the “Public Universal Friend.” After attending a religious meeting near her home the next day, she gave her first sermon, under a tree. Members of her family were her first converts, but definitely not her last. She was the first American-born woman to start a religion.

The Friend was a charismatic preacher who traveled throughout Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, adding followers as she went. People were so taken with her that they gave up their businesses, jobs and homes to follow her. Judge William Potter and his son Arnold were two of her followers; the hamlet of Potter was named after them.

In 1782 the Friend traveled to Philadelphia where she met David Wagener from Worcester, Pennsylvania, who would become one of the early settlers of Penn Yan. In a meeting in Philadelphia, the members of the society decided they should find a place where their entire community could live together and practice their religion in peace. They began to scout for the perfect place. Men who had been part of General John Sullivan’s 1779 campaign to remove Native Americans from western New York remembered the Finger Lakes. They recalled its beauty, abundance of fresh water, water falls sufficient for mill sites, dense forests filled with game and fertile soils. The society headed north.

The first group of the Society of Universal Friends came from New England via Schenectady in 1788. They landed at what is now Friends Landing near the foot of the Keuka Lake Outlet. They established a settlement and were joined by Wilkinson in April of 1790. There were over 260 friends who built farms and mills in Milo Center, City Hill and the Outlet. Their settlement was larger than both Geneva and Canandaigua.

Unfortunately, ownership of the society’s properties came into question due to issues regarding the Pre-Emption Line and the Lessee Company. Some society members stayed to settle disputes, while others moved west with the Friend to settle Jerusalem, New York, where she had two homes. The tour includes both sites.

While she lived in Jerusalem the Friend continued to preach to her flock, traveling on horseback until she was too old to ride. Her sermons were based on Biblical scripture. She taught nonviolence and was against slavery, encouraged celibacy but was not against marriage. The Friend preached about the dangers of sin, the need for repentance and living a moral life. People did not always agree with her, but those that knew her liked her.

When she died in 1819, the society lacked a doctrine to keep the religion alive without the Friend’s strong presence.

Follow in the footsteps of this amazing woman and the hearty pioneers that followed her to settle in this beautiful area. For more information on the Universal Friend book and driving tour, contact Sue Lange at the Yates History Tours Project, at 315-536-2493.


by Sue Lange