Memoirs of the Wilkinson Family in America, published 1869
Memoirs of the Wilkinson Family in America, 1869

Biography No. XII — Jemima Wilkinson, cont.

After performing her mission for more than forty years she died without making any recantation. Whatever may have been her idiosyncracies, it must be acknowledged that she was a most extraordinary woman, with wonderful natural abilities, great acuteness of mind and an executive ability that would have honored any calling. During her whole life she never yielded the pretensions which she at first made, and her whole career had the merit of consistency. If any one feels disposed to throw the mantle of charity over her strange life, that of mental derangement induced by febrile disease and religious excitement is the only one that would seem to be available. For our part we offer something(?) more by way of extenuation of her strange conduct, which was a source of grief, mortification and pain to a large circle of kindred. Some have supposed she adopted this course to get a living without labor, and to gratify her avarice. Viewed in this light she was wonderfully successful. But the theory is hardly consistent with the facts. There was no necessity for its continuance after the object was accomplished.

As to her moral character the remarks of the Hon. Wilkins Updike in his History of the Narragansett Church are in point. He says,
"Whatever obloquy may justly rest on Jemima as an imposter, claiming the gift of prophecy, and the power of performing miracles, or however culpable she may have been in attempting to exercise superhuman authority, or imposing her pretensions on a weak and credulous people, there is no just cause for imputation on her moral character. Justice demands the separation of the two, and those who have been cool and discriminating enough to do so, have freely acknowledged, that the gross aspersions upon her moral purity, are wholly groundless. Hudson's history of Jemima, published after her death, at Geneva in 1821, in this respect is a mere repetition of stale fabrications."

The above is but a confirmation of the testimony borne by the most respectable people in the vicinity of her last residence.

The following description of her person in the Connecticut Magazine, 1787, will be interesting to those who have not read it.

"She is about the middle size of a woman, not genteel in her person, rather awkward in her carriage; her complexion good, her eyes remarkably black and brilliant, her hair black and waving with beautiful ringlets upon her neck and shoulders. Her features are regular, and the whole of her face is thought by many to be perfectly beautiful. As she is not supposed to be of either sex, so this neutrality is manifested in her personal appearance. She wears no cap, letting her hair hang down as has been described. She wears her neck cloth like a man; her chemise is buttoned around the neck and wrists. Her outside garment is a robe, under which it is said, she wears an expensive dress, the fashion of which is made to correspond with neither that of man or woman. Her understanding is not deficient, except touching upon her religious fanaticism. Her memory is very great. Her preaching has very little connection and is very lengthy, at times cold and languid, but occasionally lively, zealous and animated."

The portrait of Jemima—the only one ever taken, is in the possession of Peter Oliver, who resides near Penn Yan. As an artistic work it has considerable merit. The color and working up of the picture are fine, the expression admirable. The eyes black, the hair combed straight back from the forehead and hanging in curls upon her shoulders, and the cravet of white muslin surrounding her neck, one fold snug and the other hanging loosely with ends like a ephod in front, about two-and-a-half inches in width neatly crimped, pendant from the snug fold, the dress a loose, black surplice buttoned around the wrists; the whole being a work of art of no mean pretensions; and it is said, by a large number of living witnesses who have seen her, to be a very accurate likeness of the Friend at the age of sixty-three. The portrait is a bust, life size. The frame is worthy of note. It was made by a consumptive invalid with a knife, and certainly exhibits great ingenuity, skill and good taste. It is nearly a foot wide on each side of the portrait, ornamented with beaded work and other kinds of carving. It is in the shape of the front of a plain church of olden times, and was the work of many months.

For the family to which she belongs, See p. 132.


The following is a copy of that purported to be her Last Will and Testament:

"The last Will and Testament of the person called the Universal Friend of Jerusalem, in the County of Ontario, State of New York, who in the year 1776, was called Jemima Wilkinson, and ever since that time, the Friend, a new name which the mouth of the Lord hath named.

  1. My will is that all my just debts be paid by my executors, hereafter named.

  2. I give, bequeath and devise unto Rachel Malin and Margaret Malin, now of said Jerusalem, all my earthly property both real and personal; and that is to say all my land lying in said Jerusalem and in Benton, or elsewhere in the County of Ontario, together with all the buildings thereon, to them the said Rachel and Margaret, and their heirs and assigns forever, to be equally and amicably be shared between them, the said Rachel and Margaret—and I do also give and bequeath to the said Rachel and Margaret, all my wearing apparel, all my household furniture, and my horses, cattle, sheep and swine, of every kind, together with all my farming utensils, and all my movable property of every nature and description whatever.

  3. My will is, that all the present members of my family and each of them, be employed if they please, and if employed, supported during their natural life, by the said Rachel and Margaret, and whenever any of them become unable to help themselves, they are according to such inability, kindly to be taken care of by the said Rachel and Margaret. And my will also is, that all poor persons belonging to the society of the Universal Friend, shall receive from the said Rachel and Margaret such assistance, comfort and support during their natural life as they may need; and in case any or either of my family, or others elsewhere in the society shall turn away, such shall forfeit the provisions herein made for them.

  4. I hereby ordain and appoint the above-named Rachel Malin and Margaret Malin, Executors of this my last will and testament.

In Witness whereof, I, the person called Jemina Wilkinson, but in, and ever since the year 1777, known as the Public Universal Friend, have hereunto affixed my name and Seal, this 25th day of the 2d Month, in the year of our Lord 1819.

The Public Universal Friend [L.S.]"
In the presence of, &c.

"Be it Remembered—That in order to remove all doubt of the due execution of the foregoing will and testament, being the person who before the year 1777, was known and called by the name of Jemima Wilkinson, but since that time, as the Universal Friend, do make, publish and declare the within instrument as my Last Will and Testament, as witness my hand and seal, this 17th day of the 7th month, 1819.
Jemima Wilkinson      X
Cross or mark.
Or, Universal Friend."
"Witness," &c.

The validity of the above instrument has never been legally tested by any of the heirs of Jemima, and it is still an open question whether the property belongs to them or to the present possessors.

At the risk of some repetition, I venture to give the following sketch of Jemima as penned by Judge Turner, who was well acquainted with her, having lived in the same vicinity for many years. The open and candid style of the Judge contrasts strangely with Hudson's History. He says:

"This eccentric founder of a religion, and her followers, having been the Pioneers of the entire Genessee country preceding even the Indian treaties for acquiring land titles; and having constituted in early days a prominent feature in all this region; some account of them, it may well be supposed will be looked for in a work of this character. Jemima Wilkinson, or as she was called by her followers—"The Friend," or "The Universal Friend," was a dau. of Jeremiah Wilkinson of Cumberland, R. I. She was one of a family of twelve children. The Father was a respectable ordinary N.E. farmer. When Jemima was in her twentieth year, the entire family, except her, had a severe attack of fever; and after their recovery, she was attacked, and her sickness was severe and protracted, at times her life being despaired of. In the extremity of her illness, her friends had assembled around her bed side to witness her death, when, as she affirmed, it was revealed to her that she must "raise her dead body." She arose from her bed, and kneeling by its side, made a fervent prayer, called for her clothing and announced that her carnal existence had ended; henceforward she was but divine and spiritual invested with the gift of prophecy. [This is briefly her own account of her sudden transformation as related to an informant of the author, who knew her well before and after her advent to this region.] She soon commence sic traveling and exhorting, and with a considerable degree of success; followers multiplied, some of them good N.E. farmers. They soon furnished all her wants, and would accompany her sometimes to the number of twenty, on her missions. She traveled through New England, Eastern N. Y., and spent several years in the neighborhood of Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa., accompanied by most of her followers; and she had proselytes sic wherever she went. Her authority over them was absolute. Upon one occasion, at New Milford in Conn., she proclaimed a fast for thirty days on bread and water. Most of them strictly obeyed; some of them becoming what Calvin Edson was in later years. After remaining in N.E. and Pa. about 20 years, she came to Wescern sic, N. Y. She was then near 40 years of age. The author has a copy of the New Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine of date, March, 1787, that has a letter in it from a Philadelphia correspondent written at the time "The Friend" and her followers were in Philadelphia on their way to this region. Her personal appearance is therein described.

Enlarging upon her account she first gave of her rising from a bed of sickness,—dead in the flesh—she assumed that there was once such a person as Jemima Wilkinson, but that she died and went to Heaven; after which the Divine Spirit reaminated sic that same body, and it arose from the dead; now this divine inhabitant is Christ Jesus our Lord,—the friend to all mankind, and gives his name to the body to which he is united, and therefore body and spirit conjointly, is the Universal Friend. She assumed to have "two witnesses" corresponding in all respects, to those prophecied sic in Rev., Chapter xi, 3-13. verses. These were Jas. Parker and Sarah Richards.

But the reader will be principally interested in the advent of this singular personage and her followers to the Genesee country;—previous to 1786, they were living in detached localities. In that year they met in Ct. and resolved on finding some fertile, unsettled region, far from towns and cities, where the Universal Friend and her followers might live undisturbed in peace and plenty, in the enjoyment of their peculiar religion. They delegated three of their number, Abraham Dayton, Richard Smith and Thos. Hathaway to look for such a location. They went to Philadelphia and traversed the interior of Penn. Passing the Valley of Wyoming, they came across a backwoodsman by the name of Spalding, who furnished them with a glimse of the region around Seneca Lake, and gave them directions how to reach it. Following his instructions, they went up the river, and falling upon the track of Sullivan's army, reached the foot of Seneca Lake, and from thence proceeded to Cashong Creek, where they found two French traders (De Bartzch and Poudry,) who told them that they had traveled through Canada and the Western Territory, and had seen no where so fine a country as the one they were in. A few days exploration satisfied the land lookers sic and they returned by the rout sic they came, to inform the Friend of the result of their travels.

In June, 1787, twenty-five of the friends, among whom were Abel Botsford, Peleg and John Briggs and Isaac Nichols, with their families, met at Schenectady, and embarked on board of batteaux for the promised land. At Geneva, they found but a solitary log hut, and that not finished, inhabited by one Jennings. They went up the east side of the Lake to Apple Town where they remained several days searching for a mill site.

The noise of falling water, of the outlet of Crooked Lake attracted them to the west shore of Seneca Lake. Passing up the outlet they came to the falls, and exploring the neighborhood fixed upon it as their location. They began their settlement in Yates Co., about 1 mile south of the present village of Dresden. It was August when they arrived. They prepared ground and sowed a field of wheat in common, and the next season, 1789, several small fields of wheat were sown. [This corrects the impression that the first wheat was cut at Canandauga, sic 1790]. The first land purchase was made of the State, upon "the Gore," previous to the running of the new Pre-emption line. It was a tract of 14,000 acres, situated in the east part of the present town of Milo and S.E. part Starkey. Wm. Potter and Thos. Hathaway were delegated to make the purchase. They applied to Gov. Clinton for a grant of land, which was refused of course, but he assured them that if they would attend the public sale in Albany, they would be able to obtain land at a satisfactory price. They atttended sic the sale and bought the tract above named for a little less than 2s. per acre. Benedict Robinson and Thomas Hathaway, soon after bought of Phelps and Ghoram sic, the town of Jerusalem, for 1s., 3d. per acre.

The first grist mill in western, N. Y. was built by three of the society; Richard Smith, Joseph Parker and Abraham Dayton. The site was the one occupied by the "Empire Mills," two and one-half miles from Penn Yan. It was built in the summer and fall of 1789, and flour was made in it that year. Here also was opened the first public house by David Wagener. A son of his, Abraham Wagener, of Penn Yan, now 76 years of age, well remembers seeing the French Duke Laincourt sic at his father's inn. The first framed house in the Genesee Country, was built by Enoch and Elijah Malin, as a residence for the "Friend." The house is still standing and is occupied by Chas. J. Townsend. It is a mile north (?) south of Dresden, and half-a-mile east of S. B. Buckley's. The first school in the Genesee Country was opened by Rachel Malin, in a log room attached to this house. In 1789 a log meeting-house was built, in which the Friend preached and met with her followers. This house stood a few rods south of the residence of S. B. Buckley. But this is anticipating pioneer events that belong in another connection.

Maj. Benajah Mallory living in Lockport, N.Y., gives the names of principal heads, of families, who were followers of the Friend and located in the settlement in the earliest years:  Abraham Dayton, Wm. Potter (father of Arnold Potter), Asahel Stow, John Supplee, Richard Smith, David Waggener sic, James Parker, Samuel Lawrence, Benjamin Brown, Jessee Holmes, Josh. Brown, Nat. Ingraham, Eleazer Ingraham, David Culver, David Fish, Beloved Luther, John Gibbs, Jacob Waggener sic, William Sanford, John Barnes, Elijah Brown, Silas Hunt, Castle Dean [Dains], Jno. Dean [Dains], Benedict Robinson, Thos. Hathaway. Besides these were unmarried men, and men and women who had been separated adhering to the Friend. The followers were mostly respectable men of small property, some of them had enough to be called rich in those days. Those who had considerable property, gave her a part, or were at least liberal in supplying her wants. Man and wife were not separated; but they were forbidden to multiply. A few persons transgressed, but obtained absolution by confessing and promising not to disobey again. It was generally a well regulated community, its members mostly lived in harmony—were temperate and industrious. They had two days rest in the week, Saturday and Sunday.

At their meetings the Friend would generally speak, take a text preach and exhort, and give liberty to others to speak. The Friend appeared much devoted to the interests of her followers, and especially attentive to them in sickness. Maj. Mallory, insists that the old story of her promising to "walk on the water" is wholly false.

When Col. Pickering held his treaty with the Indians at New Town point, nearly 500 Senecas encamped at Friend's Landing, on Seneca Lake. They were accompanied by Red Jacket, Cornplanter and Good Peter, (the Indian preacher), the Rev. Kirkland, Horatio Jones, Jasper Parrish. Good Peter wanted an interview with the Universal Friend. She appointed a meeting with the Indians and preached to them. Good Peter followed her, and the Friend wanted his discourse interpreted. Good Peter objected, saying "if she is Christ, she knows what I said." This was the meeting upon the bank of Seneca Lake, that gave rise to the report alluded to.

The Friend did not join her colony until the spring of 1789. She then came with a reinforcement, a somewhat formidable sic retinue. [A Mr. Wm. Hencher helped her with his teams. His living son well remembers her singular dress, and her controlling the movements of the party.] Benedict Robinson gave her one hundred acres of land upon which she resided. Her business would seem to have been conducted by her witness Sarah Richards, who did not arrive in the settlement until June, 1789. Some correspondence of hers and memorandums have been preserved.

Jerusalem, 1st of 6th Mo., 1791.

"I arrived with Rachel Malin, Elijah Malin, E. Mehetible Smith, Maria and most of the Friend's family, and the goods which the Friend sent Elijah to assist in bringing on. We all arrived at the west side of Seneca Lake and reached the Friend's house, which the Universal Friend got built for our reception and with great joy, met the Friend once more in time, and in all walking health and as well as usual."

Sarah Richards.

Sarah Richards died in 1794 or 5, and was succeeded by Rachel Malin. The father of the Friend never became her convert, but her brother Stephen and sisters, Mercy, Betsey(?), and Deborah followed her in her advent to this region.

The meetings of this singular sect were conducted very much after the manner of the ligitimate sic Society of Friends. The congregation would sit in silence until some one would rise and speak. While the Friend lived she would generally lead the public speaking, and after her Rachel Malin. In addition to this, and the usual observance of a period of silence with each family, upon sitting down to their meals, "sittings" in each family, upon Sunday evenings was common. The family would observe perfect silence for an hour or more and then rise and shake hands.

It has been observed that the French Duke Laincourt sic visited the Friend's settlement in 1795. He became much interested in the new sect—made the acquaintance of the Friend—was a guest with his traveling companions, at her house, and attended her meetings. For one so generally liberal and candid, he writes of all he saw there in a vein of censure and in some respects, undeserved. She and her followers were then at variance with their neighbors, and the Duke too readily listened to gossip that implicated the private character of this founder of a sect and added them to his (justifiable, perhaps,) denunciations of religious imposture.

Her real character was a mixed one:—Her first incentives were the imaginations of a mind highly susceptible of religious enthusiasm and strongly tinctured with the supernatural and spiritual, which, in our own day, has found advocates and has been systematized into a creed. The physical energies prostrated by disease, the dreamy mind went out, and following its inclinations, wandered in celestial spheres, and in a 'rapt vision,' created an image, something to be, or to personate. Disease abating, consciousness returning, this image had made an impress upon the mind not to be readily effaced. She became an enthusiast; after events made her an imposter. All founders of sects upon new revelations have not had even so much in the way of induction to mitigate their frauds. A sect that has arisen in our own day, now counting its tens of thousands—the founders of a state, have nothing to show as their basis but a bold and clumsy cheat:  a designed and premeditated fraud. It had not even distempered religious enthusiasm, no sick man's or sick woman's fancy to create a primitive semblance of sincerity or integrity of purpose. The trance or dream of Jemima Wilkinson, honestly promulgated at first, while the image of its creation absorbed all of her thoughts, and threw around her a spell that reason could not dissipate, attracted the attention of the supersititious and credulous, and, perhaps, the designing. The notions of worldly ambition, power, distinction; the desire to rule came upon her when the paroxism sic of disease in body and mind had subsided, and made her what history must say she was an imposter and false pretender.

And yet there were many evidences that motives of benevolence, a kindly spirit, a wish to promote the temporal welfare of her followers was mixed up with her impositions. Her character was a compound. If she was conscious herself of imposition, as we must suppose she was, her perseverance was most extraordinary. Never through her long career did she for one moment yield the pretensions she made upon rising from her sick bed and going out upon her mission. With gravity and dignity of demeanor she would confront cavillers sic and disbelievers, and parry their assaults upon her motives and pretensions; always awing them to a surrender of their doubts and disbelief. Always self-possessed no evidence could ever be obtained of any misgivings with her touching her spiritual claims. Upon one occasion James Wadsworth called to see her. At the close of the interview she said, "Thou art a Lawyer, thou hast plead for others; hast thou ever plead for thyself to the Lord?" Mr. Wadsworth made a courteous reply, when requesting all present to kneel with her, she prayed fervently, after which she rose, shook hands with Mr. Wadsworth, and retired to her apartment.

The Friend's community at first flourishing and successful, began to decline in early years. The seclusion and separation from the world contemplated by its founders was not realized. They had selected too fine a region to make a monopoly of it. The tide of emigration reached them and before they had got fairly under way, they were surrounded by neighbors who had little faith in the Friend, or sympathy with her followers. The relations of neighborhood, town and county soon clashed, militia musters came, and the followers refused the service; fines were imposed and their property sold. The Friend was for a long time harrassed sic with indictments for blasphemy, but never convicted.

James Brown and George Clark who married heirs of Rachel Malin own the property that she inherited from the Friend."

Biography No. XIII — Charles Morris

Charles Morris, son of Charles Morris and Marium Nicols, and grand-son of Samuel Morris and Lydia Wilkinson, was born at oodstock, Conn., Oct., 1784, and died in Washington, D. C., Jan. 27, 1856. By his grandmother he was a lineal descendant of Capt. Lawrence Wilkinson, and inherited much of the firmness and daring of this paternal ancestor. As a boy he was precocious and apt. His educational advantages were those offered in the common schools of Connecticut. An incident is related illustrative of his dauntless spirit, even when he was eight or ten years of age. On one occasion the teacher thought he had sufficient cause to correct his pupil, and apprehending that a little frightening would answer in lieu of flagellation, he drew up a large cudgel, and threatened with great vehemence of gesture, and wrath of countenance to break every bone in his body. The little fellow straightened himself up in the dignity of conscious rectitude, and with a peculiar defiant expression of countenance stood firm as a rock without manifesting the least fear, or expecting the least favor. So we can imagine he stood on the deck of "Old Ironsides," while musket balls like hail-stones were whizzing past him, and through his body. The child was father of the man.

He had a strong predilection for the sea and the navy, and the reading of voyages and naval actions filled him with enthusiasm. July, 1799, at the early age of fifteen he was appointed a midshipman, and sailed from Portsmouth in the "Congress," Captain Sever. This ship together with the "Essex" had been ordered to the Indian seas, and was to give convoy to the homeward-bound India and China ships. Early in the mouth sic of Jan., 1800 they started on this cruise, then much the most distant that any American cruiser had ever attempted. A few days out the ships encountered a heavy gale and lost sight of each other. Near her destination the "Congress" was dismasted, and a spar falling on young Morris dislocated his shoulder. His father who was purser of the ship, asked him if he still chose to continue in that calling? he replied promptly, "Yes, sir!" and was permitted to continue during the cruise in the West Indies.

Returning home, he went out with Commodore Edward Preble in the "Constitution," and served with distinction in the war with Tripoli which continued from 1801 to 1805. On the night of Feb. 15th, 1804, he took a prominent part in the expedition commanded by Lt. Stephen Decatur, which destroyed the frigate "Philadelphia" in the harbor of Tripoli. This frigate, commanded by Captain Bainbridge, was one of Preble's squadron, and having ventured too far into the harbor, grounded. Being under the guns of the Tripolitan battery and having no means of escape, the officers, crew and ship were captured. It was to re-capture and burn the "Philadelphia" that this night expedition was set on foot. Decatur having just previously arrived at Syracuse, and learning the state of affairs, obtained the consent of his Commodore, selected seventy volunteers, and putting them on board the ketch "Intrepid," which he had a short time before captured from the enemy, accompanied by the brig "Syren," started about eight o'clock in the evening. The "Philadelphia," lying within half gun-shot of the Bashaw's castle and of the principal battery made the adventure extremely hazardous. About 11 o'clock, he approached within two hundred yards when he was hailed and ordered to anchor. He directed a Maltese pilot to answer that the anchor had been lost in a gale of wind. His object was not suspected until he was almost alongside of the frigate, when the Turks were thrown into the utmost confusion. Before they were aware of the character of their visitors, Midshipman Morris had sprang sic on board followed by Lieut. Decatur. These officers were nearly a minute on deck, dealing heavy blows with their sabres, before their companions joined them. That minute seemed an hour! Two men against a ship's crew of forty! Fortunately, the surprise was so great that before the Turks could recover themselves a sufficient number had assembled equal to their adversaries; about twenty Turks were killed, the rest jumped overboard or fled below. After setting fire to the ship in several places, Decatur and crew returned to the ketch. A favorable breeze springing up soon carried them beyond the reach of the enemy's guns, which had opened fire upon them from the batteries, and castle and two corsairs. In this daring exploit not one man was killed, and only four wounded.

Charles was now twenty years of age, and being faithful in the performance of every duty and obedient to the orders of his commander, he was a universal favorite among his superiors in office. After a peace had been conquered he returned to America, and Jan., 1807, was promoted to a lieutenancy. During the five years following, he devoted himself to his calling, and served with honor in many important positions. On the 8th of Jan., 1711 sic, the armed schooner "Revenge," under the command of Oliver H. Perry was wrecked on Watch Hill Reef. A court consisting of Com. Hull, Lieut. Morris and Capt. Ludlow fully acquitted Perry of all blame, and extolled his coolness and judgment. Morris was exceedingly careful of casting a reproach, or even a reflection upon the prospects of his fellow officers. He rejoiced in their promotion. Envy had no place in his breast; hence he was eagerly sought to preside in cases like the above.

On the 18th day of June, 1812, the President signed the bill declaring war against Great Britain. One of the causes of this declaration was the impressment of American seamen, and the navy felt bound to protect its honor. The "Constitution," a forty-four gun frigate, Capt. Hull, had returned from Europe only a few days before, and was receiving a new crew with many new officers. "Every nerve was strained," says Cooper, to get the ship ready for sea as soon as possible. So hurried were the equipments that one hundred of the ship's people joined her only the night previous to the day on which she sailed from Annapolis." Charles was given a Lieutenancy on this frigate and distinguished himself as a seaman and naval officer as the sequel will show. The author above quoted, says "the 'Constitution' was exceedingly well officered. For her first Lieutenant she had Charles Morris, one of the very ablest men the American marine ever possessed. This gentleman enjoyed a reputation very unusual for one of his rank; while at the present time, after filling many places of high responsibility, no officer commands more of the confidence and respect both of the service and the country."

The "Constitution" lifted her anchor on the 12th of July, 1812, and sailed for the Chesapeake bound for New York. On the 16th descried a frigate and gave chase, but the winds were to sic light to overtake her. Next day fell in with a British squadron consisting of a line-of-battle ship, 64 guns;—four frigates, each as heavily armed as herself, a brig and schooner; all of which gave chase. This fleet was commanded by Com. Broke of the British navy. Captain Hull had no intention of risking battle against such odds, and made sail with a full determination to escape if possible.

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