Equality and the Koreshans

The Koreshans were light years ahead of the rest of the nation and most of the world when it came to equal rights. In the Koreshan belief system, God was both male and female. God reportedly told Dr. Teed, their founder, that women were to be treated the same as men (gender equality) and everyone was to be treated equally (human rights and racial equality).

However, as the Koreshans understood and practiced it, equality had more to do with job opportunities, equal pay and education, and they did not regard all people with absolute equality. 

One example of this practice of equality was how the Koreshans paid their workers. Instead of paying members for work performed for the Unity, workers were paid with “credits.” At this time in history, a woman made two-thirds of a man’s wage, even if she had been doing the same job longer and did it better. However, in the Koreshan Unity, women could take almost any job offered within the Unity. Credits for men or women were worth an identical amount—one credit for one hour’s work, which could be used as money and traded for goods at the Unity store. This was in addition to the food, clothing and shelter all members received.  

Matters of political or religious importance, as well as the governing of the Unity, were left to Teed. Still, all Unity members could “have their say” in these matters, however that did not mean what they had to say would be accepted by Dr. Teed, who was after all a self-proclaimed prophet and Messiah.

One new and forward-thinking concept within the Unity was to allow women to not only enter into businesses but manage them as well. In fact, seven women, known as the Planetary Council, ran all the business affairs of the Koreshan Unity, and others managed other Unity businesses from time-to-time. 

Another facet of the the Unity was Adult Education; their school, the Koreshan Pioneer University, allowed adults to attend. Men or women—including minorities—could enroll in the Koreshan school and learn useful skills.

Perhaps the Koreshan Unity was not a perfect society and did espouse some non-traditional beliefs, but when it came to equality, they were a shining example for the rest of the world.

To learn more about the Koreshan Unity and its leader, Cyrus Teed, read The Allure of Immortality, available from our online store and visit the park. Click here to purchase contactless park passes.

The Koreshan Unity Old and New Stores

The Old Store, built by the Koreshan Unity in 1902-1903, faced the Estero River, the best and likely only means of travel there. Going would have been slow. The fifteen-mile trip from Estero to Fort Myers on horseback would have taken all day, depending on the time of year. In the summer rainy season, the trail could be covered with water and muddy. During the dry winter, wagon wheels would sink in the sugar sand.

When travelers from nearby communities finally arrived at the Old Store, on the first floor they would find either merchandise just received or ready for shipment to other ports. The second floor stored items sold locally, such as bread baked by the Koreshans, honey from their beehives, and sundries. The Old Store also housed the first post office in Estero until the building burned down in 1938.

The New Store, built in 1920, still stands along Tamiami Trail and served as a general store. Both stores existed side by side for a time. Koreshans built the New Store for two reasons: 1. the Old Store had flooded several times so they wanted a new store on higher ground, and 2. by the 1920s, river transportation was yielding to the automobile, so the Koreshans built the New Store facing the county road, which later became Tamiami Trail/U.S. 41 in 1928.

As it was in the Old Store, new merchandise received or shipped was on on the first floor, along with a general store and later a restaurant. The second floor had a dorm for Unity members and rooms to rent–sort of like a Holiday Inn and 7-11 of its day. In 1956, the original façade of the New Store was removed when U.S. 41 was widened.

To learn more about the Koreshan Unity and its leader, Cyrus Teed, read The Allure of Immortality, available from our online store and visit the park. Click here to purchase contactless park passes.

New Store, c. mid-20th century, as seen from the Estero River.

The First Time Estero Became a Village

Back in the early 20th century, most of the south and especially Florida, was hardcore Democrat. In the 1904 presidential election, the Koreshan Unity voted for Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican. This angered the politicians of Fort Myers, and they threw out all the Koreshans’ ballots. After that, the Koreshans filed with the state of Florida to become their own municipality, and Florida granted their petition. The Koreshans created a town seal: the sun rising over a waterscape with a swan floating on the water. At the top, a six-pointed star representing the Seal of Solomon.

The Koreshans were able to incorporate one-hundred-ten square miles into the Village of Estero in 1904, making it the fifth largest city in terms of land mass in the United States. This did not go over well with the local population, who thought it would increase their taxes. To add fuel to the fire, the Koreshan Unity also formed their own political party, the Progressive Liberty Party.

Needless to say, Fort Myers leadership was not happy about any of this, so Fort Myers challenged the newly incorporated Village of Estero. Florida sided with Fort Myers and overturned their decision allowing Estero to incorporate and Estero once again became a suburb of Fort Myers.

Up until the 1904 presidential election, the locals, for the most part, got along with the Koreshans. The election became a flashpoint, and the relationship began to degrade. In 1906, there was a brawl in Fort Myers between the Koreshans and some Fort Myers citizens. During the fight, the town marshal severely injured Dr. Teed, which many believe eventually led to his death in 1908.

More than a hundred years would pass before the community of Estero would again become a municipality; in 2014, it officially became the Village of Estero.

Why Were Most of Teed’s Followers Women?

Photo of Early Koreshan Unity Women

Why did so many Victorian-era women become Koreshans, at one point comprising almost eighty percent of the Koreshan Unity membership? Was it the lure of Teed’s new religion that promised immortality, or were other factors at play?

Women were regarded as little more than the property of their husbands for much of history. In Teed’s time a married woman could not own property—and none could vote. Everything belonged to the husband, including any money earned or brought into the marriage by the woman.  Even marriage vows demanded wives love, honor and OBEY their husbands. In addition, many women of that time were unskilled or uneducated with large families and could not afford to leave their husbands. And since divorce was frowned upon, women who could afford to leave would choose to remain and live in quiet desperation. Teed referred to this as the Slavery of Marriage and addressed it in many of his lectures and writings.

Many women were also widowed after the Civil War and left with large families. With no work skills, education or resources, they were often impoverished. Out of desperation, many were forced into marriages to older or much younger men, since there was a shortage of men their own age due to the war. Some even resorted to prostitution. Women who could find meaningful jobs were paid much less than men.

Both women and men could join the Koreshan Unity either as an individual or with their children; spouses were “optional.” So what if they had to surrender all their belongings in order to join? Many of the women and their children likely came with little more than the clothes on their backs, and in the Koreshan Unity, since men and women were considered equal, women could take almost any job offered, learn a trade—and get paid the same as men in work “credits.” One credit = one hour’s work, which could be used for goods at the Unity store or even have a cabin built.

So perhaps many women joined the Unity more as a matter of survival than any promise of immortality.

What do you think?

Koreshan State Park Celebrates Women’s History Month and the Women’s Right to Vote Centennial

In 1894, something extraordinary was happening along the banks of Mosquito Creek in what is now known as Koreshan State Park. Dr. Cyrus Teed had sent down the first group of his followers from Chicago to clear land and begin building what would be the foundations of his vision of a religious-utopian community called the Koreshan Unity Settlement.

By 1900, over 200 of Dr. Teed’s followers, over 70% of which were women, had established roots in Estero, Florida along the re-named Estero River, where they remained until 1982 with the death of the last Koreshan.

During Women’s History Month, the park will share some of the real-life stories of these women, who led unusual and amazing lives in the closing years of the 19th century. Women at the Unity Settlement enjoyed a level of equality, leadership and self-empowerment long before women had even earned the right to vote. The Koreshans supported the Women’s Suffrage movement and so 2020 is a very special time to honor these women pioneers of the Settlement.

Women’s History Month 2020 Events:

Special Public tours – March 2, 13 and 27 at 11:00 am
Meet Koreshan women who talk about their time here in the Settlement on this 90-minute woman-led historical tour. Tickets: $10.

Private Group March Tours
Private group tours available for $15 per person, 10-person minimum. Click here to schedule.

Evening Events – March 17 and 24

March 17 at 7:00 pm in Art Hall
Cyrus Teed: An American Messiah – Come and hear Adam Morris, author of American Messiahs, talk about Koreshan Unity Settlement founder Cyrus Teed and his significant role in the formation of this religious utopian community. Tickets: $15. Seating limited.

March 24 at 7:00 pm in Art Hall
Evening of the Koreshans’ Music – A very special evening with Dr. Thomas Cimarusti from Florida Gulf Coast University who presents a talk and samples of music from the Koreshan archive surrounding their annual Lunar Festival. Tickets: $15. Seating limited.

For more information and to purchase tickets, click here. 

Every dollar raised by these special events will assist Koreshan State Park continue to tell the exceptional story of this religious-utopian community and its rich contribution to Florida history.

Cyrus Teed In the Army

cyrus teed in the army

In 1862 at the age of twenty-two, a young medical student named Cyrus Teed enlisted in the Union Army and joined the New York Infantry of the New York volunteers. In 1863, by then a Corporal, Teed was assigned to Brigade Headquarters where he served as special aide to acting General Woodford. Some sources indicate he also worked as an assistant physician and surgeon but he may have embellished his record with this to make him and his military service seem more important.

While on the march near Warrenton Junction, Virginia, in August of 1863, he suffered sunstroke, which led to paralysis of his left arm and leg. According to army records, he was hospitalized in the army hospital in Alexandria, Virginia for almost two months.

During his hospital stay, Teed observed wounded soldiers who had a more positive outlook on life or strong religious faith recovered faster from their injuries—an observation which likely helped shape his own beliefs and contributed to his formation of Koreshanity and the Koreshan Unity.

He received an Honorable  (Medical) Discharge from the Army in October of 1863. After his discharge, he returned to New York to complete his medical studies and graduated from the Eclectic Medical College of the City of New York, in February 1868 at the age of 29.

To learn more about Cyrus Teed, Koreshanity and the Koreshan Unitytake a guided tour of the historic settlement or attend a Ghost Walk performance. Showtimes are at 6:45, 7:00, 7:15, 7:30, 7:45 and 8:00 PM on Jan 31st & Feb 1st, Feb 7th and 8th. Tickets are $25.00. Performances sell out quickly! To purchase tickets, click here.

The Birth of Koreshanity

Caduceus
Caduceus

On an autumn evening in 1869, while experimenting with a mysterious force called electricity, 30-year-old Cyrus Teed had a vision he would later call his Illumination.

The spirit of God came to him in the form of a beautiful woman in gold and purple robes who carried the Mercury’s Caduceus.

This “God-spirit” told Teed the secrets of the universe and his place in it. The spirit revealed to him that God was both male and female, and men and women, as well as all races, were equal. The spirit also told him that he was chosen to explain (or interpret) the truths of the Bible to the masses. The spirit also told Teed that the earth is hollow, and we live inside it.

Later, Cyrus Teed would adopt the name Koresh, Hebrew for Cyrus, which, in ancient Hebrew, means Shepherd. His followers were called Koreshans, and their religion, a mixture of science and theology, was called Koreshanity.

Teed had been a student of alchemy for years and claimed he had changed lead to gold. Alchemists believed through the application of alchemical processes, the physical body can be maintained through infinity, unless physcially injured or destroyed. Perhaps this in part led him to his other belief, one that would have profound implications for the Koreshans in later years: only through celibacy could one hope to obtain eternal life.

Teed was raised a Baptist but was once a member of the Shakers, another religious organization that shared may of Teed’s beliefs, including communal/utopian living. Teed later invited them to become a  part of the Koreshan Unity, but they declined, perhaps being unable to accept his unique theory of Cellular Cosmogony, the belief that…

To learn more about the Koreshan Unity and its beginnings, take a guided tour of the historic settlement or purchase The Allure of Immortality, now available in paperback in the ranger station.

Koreshan Unity Member, Moses Weaver, Painter and Sculptor

Moses Weaver

Dr. Cyrus Teed (AKA Koresh) envisioned his Koreshan Unity would someday have ten million members, and Estero Florida would become the capital of the world. Painter and sculptor Moses Weaver, a unity member, created a painting of Teed’s vision of a New Jerusalem, which now hangs in the Art Hall.

In the painting, there are four sections of roads crisscrossing the Koreshan settlement. Each section has three roads: one for foot traffic, one for horse and buggy and one for commercial traffic.

The unity had even planned a composting disposal system called an Earth Closet to take sewage out of the City to what we now call a sewage treatment plant, to be used as fertilizer for their agricultural projects. No sewage was to be dumped into the rivers, bays or the Gulf.

Founders House, ca. 1900

Koresh even had plans to reroute the Estero River around the settlement to build a moat with a drawbridge. This would give the settlement a castle-like appearance for his New Jerusalem. His settlement home (now the Founders House) was to have a turret like those found in medieval European castles, sheathed in gold, which resembled Teed’s vision of Heaven.

Moses, born in Lancaster Pennsylvania in 1862 and died December 1965 in Utah, served for a time as a Koreshan Unity council member. He later left the Unity to join the Mormon Church.

To learn more about the Koreshan Unity and this unique period of Florida history, take a guided tour of the Koreshan Unity Historic Settlement.

The Seven Sisters of The Planetary Court

The seven women known as the Seven Sisters ran the day to day business affairs of the Koreshan Unity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At this time in history, women were not involved in business, but Koresh (Cyrus Teed) believed in gender equality and placed these women in positions of authority.

The Seven Sisters took their name from Pleiades, a star cluster called the Seven Sisters. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were the seven daughters of the Titan, Atlas and the Oceanid, Pleione, and were companions of Artemis, the god of war.

The Seven Sisters lived in the Planetary Court, built in 1904, named for the seven known planets in our solar system at that time.

The Planetary Council

The Seven Sisters formed the Planetary Council, the governing body of the Koreshan Unity, who conducted the day-to-day business affairs of the Unity. Unlike other female members of the Unity, who lived in an ordinary dorm, the Seven Sisters had their own home and private bedchambers, and office in the Planetary Court.

The only male occupant of the Planetary Court was Henry Silverfriend, a brother of one of the Sisters, Henrietta (Etta) Silverfriend. Henry lived on the top floor, the cupola and acted as the protector of the sisters. Because the men of that time refused to do business with women, he was also the spokesman for the sisters in business dealings with the local townsmen.

The Sisters

Virginia Andrews – Also Secretary of the Board. She was married to a doctor who died in 1891. Her two sons learned printing. One son, Allen, later became editor of The American Eagle, a Koreshan political newspaper.

Eleanor Castle – Professor of Languages from Chicago. She was the educator of the Koreshan Unity and taught both children and adults.

Berthaldine (Beth) Boomer – Writer and wealthy patron of the Unity. Although married, her husband remained in Chicago. Berthaldine was the first of the Seven Sisters to die; she passed in 1935.

Evelyn Bubbett – Business manager of The Guiding Star, another Koreshan newspaper, and served as the Unity’s Secretary of the Board. She was married and had three children.

Ella Graham – Linotype operator in the printshop. She was married and had four children. Her husband and three of her children eventually left the Unity.

Rose Welton Gilbert – First female U.S. Postmaster in Florida, she held this post from 1914 until 1941, making her Estero’s longest-serving postmaster. She had only one son.

Etta Silverfriend – Unity treasurer, manager of the Koreshan newspaper, The Flaming Sword, and Unity bookkeeper. She was single, and briefly worked for Victoria Woodhull, a leader of the American women’s suffrage movement and nominee for United States president in 1872. Etta was later nominated for Unity president.

These seven women served in leadership roles long before women could vote, and were active in the suffrage movement, which eventually led to 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.

To learn more about these exceptional women, and the Koreshan Unity and Settlement, take a guided tour or purchase The Allure of Immortality, now available in paperback in the ranger station.

The Koreshan Laundry House

The Koreshan Laundry House was built in 1903 in the Industrial Area of the park, where the entire settlement’s laundry could be washed and dried in only one day (11 hours).

All of the Unity laundry was done at the laundry house. There were between five and seven staff members. The laundry building contained three machines. One was a (VERY) large capacity washer, and the two other machines were called an extractor and a tumbler.

After the clothing and bedding were washed in the washer, The extractor, which operated like a modern spin dryer, reportedly spun at 3,000 RPM. It extracted all the water out of the newly washed items, leaving them virtually dry but tightly pressed together. The compressed items were then placed in the tumbler. The tumbler would rotate and loosen the items so they could be hung up to dry. In the Florida sun and heat, most of the wrinkles fell out, so little ironing was needed.

The laundry house was torn down in the mid 1950s, when it was no longer needed.