August 1991

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Amid the Finger Lakes


Warren Hunting Smith

Seneca Falls has recently become the official shrine of the Women's Rights movement, but leadership by women has long been traditional in this area, exemplified by the many communities which were controlled by outstanding matriarchs.

The earliest ones were established by the Seneca Indians. A French Canadian woman married an Indian chief and became a noted leader, and an interpreter at treaties. Madame Montour, as she was called, had two granddaughters, generally known as Queen Catharine and Queen Esther, whose villages were under their control. Catharine Montour's community was on the inlet of Seneca Lake, near the present Montour Falls. When the American army under General Sullivan destroyed it in 1779, they noticed that Catharine's gambrel-roofed 'palace' was the chief building in the cluster.

Queen Esther (probably Catharine's sister), lived further south near Tioga Point; she won notoriety by slaughtering several American prisoners whom the Indians had captured at the Wyoming Massacre in Pennsylvania. When the avenging army under General Sullivan came up the Susquehanna they passed the ruins of her village (a local American army had already burned it) and a soldier noted in his diary that Queen Esther had lived there "in retirement and sullen majesty."

Queen Catharine seems to have returned to the area near Watkins Glen, and it was said that Louis-Phillippe, the future king of France, called upon her when he was traveling in exile in western New York in the 1790s. If so, it was probably the only time when European and Indian royalty met.

When the white settlers came to the area, the biggest community was at first the colony led by Jemima Wilkinson who called herself "the Universal Friend—she was a former Quaker who, on recovery from an almost fatal illness, professed to have been reborn as a prophetess. She assembled a colony of believers. She took her group to Connecticut, and then, hearing of fertile lands in the newly-opened lake area of western New York, settled them near what is now Dresden on Seneca Lake. They had the first mill in the area. Their land titles proved to be insecure; some of the group left, and Jemima took her diminished throng to the township of Jerusalem northwest of Penn Yan. She lived in some style; her coach had "U. F." (for Universal Friend") on its door; her portrait was painted. After her death in 1819, her community gradually dwindled away.

She was a celebrity, and visitors came to see her. The Duc de la Rochefoucould, another French refugee, attended one of Jemima's prayer meetings.

In very recent times, another matriarch moved her colony from Rochester to a hilltop above one of the tributaries of Canandaigua Lake. The Rochester Folk Art Guild was founded by Mrs. Louise March, of European background, as an arts-and-crafts community, supporting itself by sales of its pottery, weavings, wood-carvings, metal-work, etc. Some of the processes were of foreign origin. The members share a kitchen, dine together, and grow much of their own food. Some are single, but there are also married couples with children. Mrs. March before her death was able to raise a small endowment to help her community to survive, and so far, it has done so.

The Guild members occasionally exhibit their products at nearby cities, often accompanied by concerts conducted by their musical members who also perform at Sunday services at the Guild. It is a remarkable example of what a talented woman with a European background could accomplish in creating a miniature civilization on a wild hill-top.

If French sympathizers had succeeded in bringing Marie-Antoinette to the refuge which they prepared for her in western Pennsylvania, there might have been a matriarchy of international fame nearby, but their prospects were terminated by the guillotine.

1991, Warren Hunting Smith
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