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NSG Visit May 12, 2007

The Friend’s House

North of Branchport, New York


Bill Treichler

On a beautiful Saturday morning, a dozen members of the Society gathered at 3912 Friend’s Hill Road to view and tour the last home of The Publick Universal Friend. It is a well-proportioned, large three-storey structure situated on top of a hill with surrounding fields and beautiful views. The house was completed in 1814.

After years of neglect, this historic final residence of Jemima Wilkinson was purchased in 1949 by Joseph and Rena Florance who completely restored the house. Mrs. Florance continues to live there and she maintains it thoroughly.

Jane Davis, a Society member and former long-time Jerusalem Town Historian, and Ellen Chirico, who resides nearby in the Admiral Schofield House, greeted us and spoke about the life and accomplishments of the Friend and of her homes in New York. Here is Jane’s presentation:

The first-native born woman to found an American religious society and succeed in establishing a colony for her followers in the “New United States,” came here to establish the “New Jerusalem.” She sought peace and distance from the turmoil of the new nation. Jemima Wilkinson was born into the large family of a successful Quaker farmer in Rhode Island in 1752. Her mother died when Jemima was twelve years old.

She appears to have grown up in a resourceful rural community. Her family recalled that she was often found reading her Bible and books about Quaker history.

At twenty-four she became seriously ill and fell for a time into a coma. Reviving, she told her family that she had a powerful vision when she “died” and that she was no longer Jemima Wilkinson, but “The Public Universal Friend” who was to go forth and be a “friend” to all and found a religion to convince followers of the urgency to avoid all sinful ways and follow the words of the Bible. “The Friend” preached no radical changes but elements of Quaker doctrine echoed throughout her sermons. She held meetings in New England and went to Pennsylvania to recruit more followers. Crowds came to hear her speak and see this “Friend” in long robes and in what people at that time called “mannish attire.” She was a handsome young woman, an accomplished horsewoman, and striking in the garb of a prophet.

Many of the curious were enthralled by her and her message, many were not. Members of her own family were disowned by the Quakers in local meetings and chose to follow “The Friend.” Prominent citizens of Rhode Island were supportive of her. Judge William Potter enlarged his house to make room for the “Universal Friend” to carry on her ministry.

She traveled widely in New England, and in 1787 during the tumult of the Revolutionary War she went to Pennsylvania seeking more followers. In 1789, she left New England, never to return, and made plans to look for a new home for her flock in the Genesee Country of New York State. Scouts were sent ahead to investigate the terrain and availability of land in the frontier of the time.

After several forays into the wilderness, a haven was found. The first settlement at City Hill on Seneca Lake near present-day Dresden was a qualified success. Questionable land titles resulting from errors in the first survey of the Pre-emption Line caused an upheaval. None of the land title trouble was the fault of the “Universal Friend,” but she decided to withdraw further into the wilderness to avoid any contention. She and her followers relocated twelve miles west above the west branch of the Crooked Lake,

She established a temporary home along a stream the group named “Brook Kedron,” now Sugar Creek, and lived there from 1794 until 1814. She continued her ministry, riding in a retinue to City Hill with a flourish every other weekend to preach in the first settlement. The members residing near Seneca Lake came to the new location on alternate Sabbaths. The whole area of both settlements was known as Jerusalem in deference to the “Friends.”

Life on the frontier was not easy. “The Universal Friend” was always on the best of terms with the Native Americans who stopped by. They were treated with kindness and consideration. In turn, they brought her venison and seemed to hold “The Friend” in high regard.

Although troubles persisted with the land titles at City Hill, and her closest associate and business manager Sarah Richards died at thirty six years of age, the settlement flourished, with followers on property all around. Her new dwelling standing on Shepherd’s Hill was ready for occupancy in 1814.

Stalwart supporters, such as James Parker and Judge Potter and others in his family, had disagreements. Newcomers were suspicious and unkind with their gossip. Throughout all of these annoyances “The Friend” remained composed and followed her credo to be a worthy friend to all, She had health problems and in her own phrase “left time” in 1819.

No strong heir to the religion stood ready to take the reins. James Potter helped the Malin sisters who had been a part of “The Friend’s” household, but her persuasive manner and magnetism was missing and the flock gradually dispersed. Many of their names are echoed in the census lists of the Town of Jerusalem and indeed all of Yates County.

Derogatory stories about her persisted for years despite a lack of evidence. Today we have a more favorable appreciation of her personality, her beliefs and her accomplishments.

Following Jane’s and Ellen’s background remarks we all entered the house and met Mrs. Florance. The house has a simple floor plan with wide high ceiling hallways on the first and second floor levels that run all the way across the house and are connected by a beautiful stair at one end. Jemima addressed her followers on both floors from the stair landing between the upstairs and downstairs hallways. All the rooms are large with beautiful windows.

After enjoying the house inside and out, many members ate lunch the Antique Inn and then drove down the ridge of the Bluff to see sights and visit Garret Chapel.

Gary Bogue suggested the Society’s excursion and Martha and Jeff Johnstone helped with the arrangements.

© 2008, Jane Davis
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