92. Odd Alliance

In our travels back to New York in the 1790s we have not yet looked at two particularly influential people of the period - Jemima Wilkinson and Charles Williamson. Separately and together they had a major influence on the development of the central section of our state.

The tall and graceful Wilkinson, born in Rhode Island in 1752, eighth of twelve children, was raised in her parents's strong Quaker faith. In October of 1776 she became seriously ill, sinking deeply into delirium. Upon recovering, she declared she was no longer Jemima Wilkinson, but instead had been resurrected as the Public Universal Friend. Setting out across New England dressed in a man's clothing, she began preaching a strident, hellfire-flinging religion that advocated abolition, plain dress, celibacy and pacifism. Wherever she traveled and preached she created strong friends and equally strong enemies. Stone-throwing mobs drove her to the edges of the frontier. She became disillusioned and gave up preaching, turning instead to utopianism. Eventually she came to rest in the Finger Lake region, establishing in 1790 the community of New Jerusalem, on the west shore of Seneca Lake. By 1800 she had gathered several hundred like-minded believers around her.

Charles Williamson, Scottish-born land agent for Sir William Pulteney, the wealthiest man in England, had arrived on U. S. shores in 1791. After surveying his new baliwick he had become enchanted with the region east of today's Corning. Choosing a southern approach, he had hacked, sawed and dug a road out of the Pennsylvania wilderness, wide enough for carriages, from the Susquehanna River northward into New York. He had grandiose plans for his own Utopia, to be named Bath. He envisioned a cultured, civilized, European community in the middle of the dense forests, a mecca for the cultivated. The problem was that the human raw materials resisted control even more than the natural ones. Luring a road-building party of German immigrants to northern Pennsylvania, he soon found them breaking into factions, refusing to work without upfront pay and generally spreading lawlessness throughout the new territory.

One of Williamson's closest allies at first was the Universal Friend. Money was scarce in this lake-strewn frontier and the Friend's flock was not afraid of good hard work. They freighted supplies for their neighbors, from Seneca Lake to Keuka Lake and overland to Bath, for what historian Helen Cowan called a "whacking price." They helped the agent create mills, a bakery and even set up a printing press. Eventually however the cultured community became too worldly for the plain-living people of New Jerusalem. In a few years they and other critics would be calling Bath a cesspool of iniquity. But in the mid-1790s, the ties still held.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.


© 1998 David Minor / Eagles Byte