Published September 7, 2023
We live in a nation that commemorates historical events with monuments and markers, yet so many of the monuments we visit are ripe with misinformation, disinformation, and erasure. And once literally built into stone and metal, those myths are very hard to dismantle. How can we correct this problem? We took a road trip to explore some historical monuments that actually embody a much larger - and more complex story. Jump in, buckle up, and welcome to our podcast on monumental misinformation!
And be sure to check out the primary sources below the transcript.
Tremendous thanks to Tricia Noel, Executive Director and Curator at Yates County History Center, and Dr. David Weidner, Executive Director of Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, for their contributions to this podcast episode.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack; Kathleen Barker; and Deb Fowler. You can also find this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you get your podcasts!
Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
To begin our new season, Season Three, my colleagues Kathleen Barker and Dinah Mack took a road trip to explore some historical monuments that actually embody a much larger - and more complex story. Jump in, buckle up, and welcome to our podcast on monumental misinformation!
Take it away, Kathleen!
Kathleen Barker: Imagine yourself standing in front of a historical monument or marker. Maybe you are on a battlefield, or visiting a state capitol, park, museum, or library. Now take a moment to think about the many decisions that have gone into the creation of the monument itself and how many people may have been involved in making those decisions. In front of us cast in stone and metal, we have a story– a person, an action, an event that someone deemed significant enough to celebrate, commemorate, and call to our attention.
So who determined the monument should be built in the first place and why? How was that decision made? What story is being told and by whom? Who designed it and who wrote the signage? What information is shared and what is intentionally left out? And what myths and misinformation does the monument solidify?
Monuments have been in the news a lot over the last few years. Perhaps you’ve heard stories about statues that memorialize the confederacy that have been removed from public view, or seen protests at Mount Rushmore, where faces of four United States presidents were carved into the sacred Black Hills on land stolen from the Sioux. Why were those monuments created in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Are they still relevant today? It’s often white male military figures or politicians depicted in the most controversial statues and monuments. What messages do such memorials send about the contributions of women, African Americans, or Indigenous people? What do they tell us about the actual causes of the Civil War, such as the defense of slavery?
We live in a nation that commemorates historical events with monuments and markers, yet so many of the monuments we visit are ripe with misinformation, disinformation, and erasure. And once literally built into stone and metal, those myths are very hard to dismantle. What type of institutional change must happen to deconstruct these false narratives and how are some historical organizations and individuals trying to bring more accurate histories to the public?
To examine some of these questions more closely, let’s head to our first destination, the settlement of the Public Universal Friend in New York State.
We are standing beside a cornfield. Like the edge of a green sea, it extends in all directions, and as it is mid-August, the corn is tall. We are on Hewett Road somewhere between Dresden and Penn Yan, New York, and it is empty and quiet. Cars are infrequent, and we can hear the wind in the corn, birdsong, and even our own breath. If you want to follow our path, take a drive north on Route 14 along the shore of Seneca Lake. Turn left onto Hewett Road and not too far along, on the left-hand side of the road, you will arrive at a royal blue sign with yellow writing, a brand new historical marker that has replaced a rusted and unreadable sign that marks and commemorates the location of the settlement of “Public Universal Friend”.
Public Universal Friend Marker
If you have never heard of Public Universal Friend, you are not alone. Chances are, you did not learn about The Friend in school. But if you live in Yates County, New York, the site of both the historical marker and the Yates County History Center, you may have heard the name because The Public Universal Friend and the Society of Universal Friends formed the first non-native settlement in Yates County. In fact, the Friend was the first person to establish a religious society in what had just been formed as the United States.
On November 29, 1752, Public Universal Friend was born into a Quaker family in Rhode Island, the eighth of twelve children. The Friend was identified female at birth and given the name Jemima Wilkinson. We don’t know much about Jemima’s early life, but historians describe it as pretty uneventful, with time spent at home with family on the farm and in Quaker meetings…just a typical time in a colonial town.
But on October 10, 1776 that all changed radically…
Jemima contracted a deadly fever that had spread throughout her community, and she fell unconscious. Her family thought she was going to die.
Instead, miraculously, Jemima woke up from a coma as if she had just been asleep, bolted upright, and announced to her family that Jemima Wilkinson was dead, and that the Spirit of God brought them back to life as a new person who was neither male nor female. From that moment on they declared themselves to be a genderless spirit called “Public Universal Friend” and until their death they refused to respond to the name Jemima Wilkinson. The Friend said God had instructed them to preach “to a dying and sinful world” and this they did for the next 43 years until their own death at the age of 66.
Yates County History Center Museum Director Tricia Noel explained the awakening like this:
Tricia Noel: “October is when they get sick with typhus or typhoid or whatever it was, really, really, really sick. Go into a coma, come out and say Jemima Wilkinson is dead, and that Jemima’s body is inhabited by a genderless spirit, so that’s what happens. So when they immediately get up and start preaching–so the family is sort of alarmed because literally they were on their deathbed and then just sort of hop out of bed and put on this outfit, you know, and they say I want to go back to this Quaker Church I got kicked out of and preach outside. So that’s the first place they go. They make a beeline and preach under a tree there and that starts it and eventually just kind of travel all over the place preaching.”
KB: After becoming The Friend, they dressed in a black robe commonly worn by traditional ministers and clergymen, a white cravat, and a wide-brimmed hat typically worn by Quaker men.
TN: “The Friend wore a long dark robe like a cassock, like you would see a Protestant minister wear, and a cravat like a man would wear, and long curled hair like you would see on a Protestant minister. So a man’s hairstyle and dress…We do believe that the Friend wore a women’s style petticoat underneath and women’s shoes because we do have some shoes in the collection.”
KB: As you can imagine, the Friend was controversial– many meeting houses wouldn’t let the Friend speak, some called the Friend a lunatic and insane, while others thought this transformation was a divine miracle. While their clothing choice and mannerisms drew some criticism, the Friend preached with great charisma to large crowds in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania and grew a following called the “Universal Friends”.
As the following grew, they planned to build a religious settlement in Western New York. They called the new town Jerusalem. According to the Yates County History Center, in 1788 the first group of 25 members of the Society of Universal Friends arrived on the western shore of Seneca Lake, a wilderness with no roads, and began to build a settlement with homes, a sawmill, and a gristmill. By 1790, The Friend arrived with the rest of the followers and established a community called “City Hill”.
Mural Depicting Abraham Wagener, Seneca Nation Figure, and Public Universal Friend
Public Universal Friend is a very important historical figure to this region of New York, so in September 1941, about one hundred and fifty citizens and officials gathered on Hewett Road, to dedicate a sign marking the site of the first home of the Public Universal Friend. The NYS Historian at the time, Arthur Pound, said, “...among all our 6,000 and more markers, I doubt if any single one, the State over, commemorates a more colorful personality or a more interesting social and religious experiment than does this one dedicated to the Universal Friend and her settlement.”
What compelled Arthur Pound to say her settlement when Public Universal Friend themselves said, “Jemima Wilkinson is dead. I am neither male nor female. My name is Public Universal Friend.”! And it wasn’t just the dedication that misgendered The Friend– even the historical marker itself said, “The Universal Friend, Jemima Wilkinson, Her Settlement.”
Contrary to the historical marker, Tricia explained that after 1776 the name Jemima Wilkinson was never used by anyone in their community. It was only Public Universal Friend or The Friend. Their life prompted a great deal of interest and intrigue outside the settlement. We asked Tricia how The Friend and their followers responded to curious visitors.
TN: “People would come to visit sort of out of curiosity and one of the visitors stopped one of the main sisters who was high up in the community and said, “Where is Jemima Wilkinson?”. And they said, “I don’t know who that person is but The Friend lives over there.” My proof too, if I ever have to prove it to people– if you look at the will that is photocopied there on that panel– the will which was written in 1815 says basically the,The Person Formerly known as Jemima Wilkinson in here because that’s still the legal name. So then you get to the end of the will—once known and called by the name of Jemima Wilkinson but since that time The Universal Friend do make blah blah blah. So they won’t actually sign it even though we know the Friends was very literate… they didn’t want to sign Jemima Wilkonson so they made an X.”
The Friend's Signature on the Will
People clearly got it in 1776, so what was going on in 1941 when the New York State Department of Education pressed this incorrect historical marker at the foundry? Maybe we can attribute this monumental misinformation to the lack of public understanding surrounding non-binary identities, maybe a historian didn’t know.
The Friend’s whole story, maybe the typesetter at the foundry thought that it was a mistake…we might never know!
For the Yates County bicentennial this August, they received a new historical marker because the old sign was extremely rusty and impossible to read.
When we arrived at the dedication ceremony, we assumed that the historical marker would have been redesigned because today in 2023, our language and understanding have developed to encompass and include non-binary identities. But when we walked over to take a closer look, we found a historical marker with the exact same language from 1941, hot off the foundry presses in royal blue and sunburst yellow paint.
Much to our dismay, the marker revealed in 2023 says, “The Universal Friend, Jemima Wilkinson, Her Settlement.”
“Is it 9:00. It is. Ok, I’ll do the introduction…Thank you all for coming here on an early Monday morning to honor Jemima Wilknson and to honor the 200th anniversary of our county…
And we thought a dedication for our plaques would be perfect at the site of a very colorful character, Jemima Wilkinson….so thank you all for coming….”
Why does the new historical marker use the pronoun HER and the Friend’s birth name, when the exhibit at the Yates County History Center is full of primary source documents, artifacts, and signage that provide evidence of the Friend’s non-binary identity?
Public Universal Friend Exhibit with Tricia Noel (right)
As the Director of the Yates County History Center, Tricia is committed to ensuring all visitors leave with an understanding of the way in which Public Universal Friend lived and was accepted – in fact, revered, in the community. Tricia uses the artifacts, letters and papers to paint an accurate picture of The Friend and their historical impact in the community and in the nation’s history.
TN: “This is our permanent exhibit. I don’t know how much Lisa told you, but we have had an exhibit in here since 2002. When I got here in 2018 I kind of made a mental note that I wanted to change the panels. The narrative has always been, and you probably noticed at the speech this morning that Jemima Wilkinson was the first woman here. And upon going back the papers that are in our collection, I realized about a year into working here that that wasn’t really the accurate story. The Friend did not see themselves that way and the followers did not see the Friend that way either. For about 40 years The Friend didn't use the name Jemima Wilkinson, and the followers did not either so it was very important to me that the narrative get represented better in the panels. So we raised some money and we had a couple of scholars that had come in here to do some research and one of them actually did a campaign to raise some money for us which was really kind so we were able to redo the panels and make them more historically factual, based on how the Friend actually lived.”
KB: While the marker to the Public Universal Friend is located in a rather off-the-beaten-path locale, there’s another marker to early American history, this one located in Massachusetts, that contradicts an often-repeated myth related to the Pilgrims.
Chances are you learned in your history book that the Pilgrims landed the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. Maybe you have even visited the rock itself, chiseled with the date 1620 and surrounded by an iron fence. Maybe you have even looked down at the rock and said to yourself, “That’s it?” because, after reading about Plymouth Rock in school, you expected something a little more grand. In truth, the Pilgrims didn’t ever set foot on Plymouth Rock, it wasn’t even the Mayflower’s first stop! Unable to navigate the dangerous shoals around Cape Cod, the Pilgrims first dropped their anchor in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
We visited with Dr. David Weidner, the Executive Director of Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, Cape Cod’s oldest non-profit. We discussed the origins of the Monument and Museum and the myths, absences, or misinformation the museum is trying to dismantle through its exhibits, its programming, and also through its leadership.
Pilgrim Monument and the Macmillan Pier
Dr. David Weidner: “We were founded in 1892, and we actually constructed a monument to honor the Mayflower pilgrims to memorialize them. Back between 1907 and 1910, we actually were visited by two sitting presidents. Theodore Roosevelt during his administration laid the cornerstone during, in 1907, and then William Howard Taft came back, a new president then, back in 1910 to dedicate it. It's 252 feet tall. It's all granite, and it's a series of ramps and steps to get up to the top with a gorgeous, clear view of our beautiful Provincetown Harbor. The institution was founded, as I said, in 1892, to memorialize the Mayflower Pilgrims. They landed here, not Plymouth, as many school textbooks will teach us.
The Mayflower Pilgrims landed in Provincetown first. They did not land in Plymouth. They stayed here in Provincetown for five and a half weeks they signed the Mayflower Compact, which was the first agreement that was signed here in the New World. They met the native people. This was all native soil. The Nauset and the Wampanoag Tribes, this is where they lived. This was their summer fishing grounds. And when the Mayflower Pilgrims landed in November of 1620, they were not at all very nice to the native people. They stole their winter food storage, they ransacked their burial grounds. They were quite hostile. And of course, the Native people needed to protect themselves and to protect their land and their property.
After five and a half weeks, though, the Mayflower pilgrims pulled up anchor and set sail for what we now call Plymouth, Massachusetts. At the time though it was Pawtuxet and they did land in Pawtuxet, and which was a native deserted native village that had been decimated due to plague in 1619 when the Europeans continued to bring more people over to take slaves back to Europe. So it's kind of an ugly story of the time and the landing, but that's exactly what happened. And our monument makes reference to memorializing the Mayflower pilgrims that landed here.”
KB: Is it news to you that the Mayflower Pilgrims landed in Provincetown first, and not on Plymouth rock? And why do we learn about a mythical landing on a rock from our school history books when the Pilgrims don’t mention the rock in their writings AT ALL? In fact, the first mentions of the rock don't appear in writing until 1715, nearly 100 years after the Pilgrims dropped their anchor. And it wasn’t until 1741 that a descendant of one of the original Pilgrims, 94 year old Thomas Faunce, claimed that the Mayflower landed at the boulder we now call Plymouth Rock.
DW: “The Mayflower story is really quite a difficult story. And it starts in the early 1600s, not just when they landed in 1620, but. The pilgrims weren't polite when they got here and so that whole noble citizenry business about how the Mayflower pilgrims were all quite noble and nice is just not true. And history, history portrays that, that way portrays them to be noble. Well, we, we know that museums need to educate and the facts that we share with our patrons, whether it be young school children, whether it be senior citizens and people from all over the world that come to visit the Pilgrim Monument, we like to debunk the myths. So, that whole business about the Mayflower Pilgrims landing in Plymouth is something we always have to talk about. And we always, it seems I constantly have to, that's the story of the day. And everyone also thinks that Thanksgiving occurred, you know, well, Thanksgiving, we, Provincetown have no Thanksgiving story. There's no reference to Thanksgiving at all in any of the Bradford Diaries or anything here, while the Mayflower pilgrims were here in Provincetown. So, we do not do a Thanksgiving program because it's really not part of our program.
Our Story Exhibit
We were able to put in a new exhibit dedicated to the Wampanoag people, written, created by them. Actually, one of our board of trustees, Steven Peters, owns a communications firm, a Wampanoag-native firm in Massachusetts. Steven's family and his associates created the Our Story Journey that we have here at the museum. It's the only one like it in the world, talks about the Native Wampanoag people here on Cape Cod from the early 1600s through slavery, through the pandemic of 1619 through their landing here in Provincetown in 1620, and then their departure in 1621 to Plymouth. But it really gets into the root of what happened. And, uh, it's all very native voice. The only white voice in it is mine at the beginning introducing the exhibit to people. Prior to my beginning the executive directorship, we were never allowed to talk about gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender people, people of color. We had no mention of the BIPOC community here at the museum. We had no mention of the Native people at all. We talked all about the Mayflower which was appropriate because that is part of our history, but it's not the whole history.
The institution has changed. Our bylaws prior to my being here were void of anything related to our BIPOC community, to our LGBTQ+ community, to our native Wampanoag community. And so I worked with the Board of Trustees and we rewrote the bylaws and passed them by our membership to now be inclusive and have inclusive language, specific language in our bylaws to relate to our LGBTQ+ community, our native Wampanoag community, our BIPOC community, as well as our other communities of our Portuguese, our Bulgarian, and our Jamaican communities that are here in Provincetown.”
KB: People do not resist the change itself, but they resist the threat of loss that comes with change. What are we afraid of losing by sharing a more inclusive telling of history? Do we fear a lack of efficacy in talking about diverse histories because we never learned about it ourselves? What principles can guide us as we make these changes? David and his colleagues use the TRUTH acronym to guide these efforts, which gives the institution a unique opportunity to promote its commitment to these five principles: Tolerance, Respect, Unity, Trust, and a commitment to telling Her-His-Their story.
DW: “We're an institution of acceptance and tolerance and we're just starting that story, It’s critical that we tell the truth and we talk about that - and people say, oh, well, well, everybody's truth's different. No, there's factual points to the truth. And, we use truth here at the Pilgrim Monument, and we use the acronym, we talk about tolerance. We talk about respect, we talk about unity, we talk about trust, and we talk about her, his, and their story.
We are declaring a more inclusive and more accurate knowledge about the truth of the landing of the Mayflower pilgrims. If people leave with nothing else and they know that Plymouth was not the landing point of the Mayflower pilgrims, I think we will have done our job. I mean, I think that's one element. So that's a big, that's a big deal for me because people every day go away with, “Wow, I thought they landed in Plymouth.” So that to me is a big, that, that I have to say that above all else that's, that's a, that's one thing. Um, but also tied to that though, is that the poor problems and the challenges that the native people had with the Mayflower pilgrims need to be addressed. And that connection to that first landing here in Provincetown is a big deal, so we need to know that…We are walking the walk. We're not far, we're not done yet. We have a lot of work to do. Um, but we want everyone to be welcome in this inclusive and safe space.”
KB: So that’s two monumental myths busted in a single podcast episode. The Public Universal Friend was a non-binary religious figure who established their own settlement –and following – in New York. Although their “new’ shiny blue marker still isn't quite accurate, the Yates County History Center is devoted to sharing a much more authentic history of The Friend. The Pilgrims landed in Provincetown before Plymouth, a story that’s commemorated by the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
We hope that someday you’ll be able to visit these beautiful places and experience these histories for yourself. Until then, take a much closer, and more critical look, at a monument, marker, or memorial near you. What myths and misinformation will you uncover? Visit your local historical society, and talk to your local archivists and librarians! They can help you unerase hidden histories and share more accurate stories of your community’s past.
DF: Kathleen Barker is History UnErased’s program director and is a library and information specialist and public historian with 20 years of experience as a museum and library educator.
This podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack, our youth equity program director.
Our theme music is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.