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Unraveling History: Yates County and the Public Universal Friend

Yates County is a destination steeped in rich history and cultural heritage, with ties to the intriguing figure of the Public Universal Friend. The Public Universal Friend (born as Jemima Wilkinson) is historically renowned nationally and in Yates County. Locally, the Public Universal Friend and a group of followers, the Society of Universal Friends, formed the first non-native settlement in what is presently Yates County. The legacy of this era is preserved in sites like the Yates County History Center in Penn Yan.

We sat down with Tricia Noel, Executive Director and Curator at the History Center to discuss the impact of The Friend on the area, as well as their recent feature on the History UnErased podcast.

How do staff and volunteers interpret history through programs, lectures, reenactments, and tours?

We maintain three buildings, one of which features a permanent exhibit dedicated to the Public Universal Friend. Visitors are offered the option to explore this exhibit as part of our regular tours, although familiarity with the Friend may vary among guests. Alongside this permanent exhibit, we rotate displays annually. Past exhibits have explored topics such as our significant Mennonite community and stories of individuals involved in abolitionism.

In addition to our exhibits, we host a variety of events throughout the year to engage our community. These include an annual lecture series, genealogical research classes, and a history scavenger hunt. Our aim is to offer diverse interpretations and proactive engagement opportunities for all visitors.

The Public Universal Friend has had a significant influence on the history and identity of Yates County, particularly considering their unique non-binary identity and religious teachings. Can you provide additional insights into this influence?

The Society of Universal Friends had a profound influence on the region, often underestimated by many. Their arrival, beginning in 1788, marked a pivotal moment as among the first permanent non-Native American settlers in the area. By 1790, their presence had catalyzed the establishment of farms, hamlets, villages, and even a mill, fundamentally shaping the local population, economy, and culture.

Notably progressive for its time, the Society’s values and practices left an enduring mark. Women, such as the Faithful Sisterhood, assumed leadership roles within the church, with some even residing with the Friend. These progressive ideals, including the appointment of women like Sarah Richards as trustees, transcended the Society, influencing subsequent settlers and gradually integrating into the broader community’s culture.

In the History UnErased podcast, there’s mention of controversy surrounding The Friend’s attire and preaching. Can you elaborate on this controversy and its impact on The Friend’s interactions with different communities?

When the Friend began their journey in Rhode Island, their unconventional backstory, including falling ill, emerging from a coma, and adopting different attire and preaching style, was initially met with curiosity rather than opposition. Despite this, the Friend attracted a significant following in Rhode Island and Connecticut, with minimal resistance to their clothing and mannerisms, although the practice of removing their hat indoors like a man stirred some controversy.

However, the reception took a stark turn when the Friend traveled to Philadelphia. Despite repeated visits, Philadelphia did not receive the Friend well, with instances of heckling, screaming, and even violence, notably at a Methodist meeting house. The initial support from loyal followers likely helped mitigate resistance early on, but Philadelphia’s visceral negative reaction stands out as a significant shift in public reception.

You highlighted the commitment to presenting an accurate narrative through exhibits and panels in the podcast. Could you discuss specific efforts and changes made to accurately represent the The Friend’s story in the exhibits at the Yates County History Center?

Initially installed around 2002, our third building houses a permanent exhibit that over time I found increasingly uncomfortable due to its gendered language, such as referring to Jemima Wilkinson as ‘the first woman to found a religious sect.’ Despite my discomfort, the cost of replacing exhibit panels was prohibitive, so we verbally acknowledged the outdated language to visitors. After discussing my concerns with the board, we proposed allocating funds to update the panels. Fortunately, a scholar conducting remote research offered assistance and initiated a successful GoFundMe campaign among colleagues and students, enabling us to refurbish the room and create new panels with appropriate terminology, presenting the story in a more chronological order.

The updated exhibit now offers a clearer understanding of the context, from the story’s origins through the Friend’s passing and the subsequent impact on the county. We’ve also included panels on various topics, such as the Faithful Sisterhood and the Friend’s unconventional clothing choices, while addressing myths that have circulated within the community over the past two centuries. This update marks a significant improvement and a necessary step forward, made possible by the support of those who contributed to this cause.

The Scherer Carriage House serves as the permanent home of the exhibit on The Friend. Can you share details about this exhibit, its significance, and any plans for future expansions or enhancements?

We’re currently considering expanding the building for storage purposes. While it’s uncertain if we’ll have the capacity to expand the exhibit space, I’m hopeful because there are items we haven’t been able to showcase yet, or at least update. One remarkable item we have is the Friend’s coachee, which is truly something to behold. A coachee is akin to a small coach or stagecoach, designed for just four passengers instead of the usual 12 or 15. It’s one of only three known examples from that time period still in existence in the country, and it’s the only one known to have belonged to the Friend. Its presence is a testament to the historical significance of our collection.

Given the recent scholarly reevaluation of The Friend’s story, how does the Yates County History Center ensure that the evolving understanding of gender roles and identity in U.S. history is reflected in their interpretation and presentation of The Friend’s story?

Over the past couple of years, there has been a noticeable shift in our approach to the narrative surrounding the Public Universal Friend. Initially, the focus centered on the gendered aspect, highlighting America’s first religion founded by a woman. However, a pivotal moment came during a women’s history conference featuring Paul Moyer, author of the latest book about the Friend, who advocated using female pronouns before the Friend’s transition and male pronouns afterward, prompting a reconsideration of our approach.

Upon closer examination of correspondence and letters, it became evident that updates to our language were necessary, as there were no references to ‘She’ or ‘Jemima’ in historical records after 1776. This realization prompted efforts to revise the exhibit, adjust staff language, and engage with our board of trustees. We also make a point to communicate to visitors that the Friend never identified as Jemima Wilkinson after this period, even noting instances such as in their will, where they choose to sign with an “X” in lieu of this name. This ongoing process reflects our commitment to accurately representing the Friend’s identity and story.

How has the Yates County History Center evolved to become more inclusive, especially in terms of incorporating narratives related to the LGBTQ+ community and people of color?

Yates County, traditionally less diverse, has taken strides to amplify overlooked narratives, such as showcasing an exhibit on the Underground Railroad, challenging the common perception of primarily white Quaker support by highlighting the significant role played by people of color, including local figures who aided freedom seekers. Similarly, efforts have been dedicated to spotlighting the Mennonite community to foster understanding and addressing misunderstandings, alongside initiatives focused on women’s history. Despite limited diversity, the county remains committed to showcasing diverse narratives and engaging with underrepresented communities. Even within its military displays, which often represents the standard narrative centered on white men, the museum sheds light on women and minorities who served both through their displays and in articles and social posts.

Finally, are there any ongoing research or educational initiatives by the Yates County History Center that our audience should be aware of, especially those related to uncovering and sharing lesser-known aspects of Yates County’s history?

We’re always engaged in research, and one of our exciting projects is the New York State Historic Newspapers website. We have dedicated volunteers who scan our newspapers, which are then made searchable by keywords on the website. So far, we’ve digitized over 200,000 newspapers, thanks to the incredible work of a man in his 90s who founded the project. This resource has revolutionized our research process, making it much easier to explore a wide range of topics such as farming, weather, immigration, and politics—all at our fingertips instead of sifting through fragile, old papers. 

Additionally, we maintain an active presence on social media, constantly seeking out interesting content to share. Personally, I contribute a monthly article to our local newspaper, covering various historical topics, which we also distribute to other history centers in our community. We’re always on the lookout for new and engaging stories to share with our audience.

Yates County offers visitors a captivating journey through time, intertwined with the story of the Public Universal Friend and other notable figures who have shaped its identity. Learn more at: http://www.yatespast.org/. And see the post that Wandercuse made when she visited the area and learned the story at: https://www.instagram.com/.