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.

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.

Ghost Walk – A Time Travel Through History

The Koreshans brought culture and industry to Southwest Florida. They owned and operated many businesses in the Historic Settlement, including a machine shop, general store, bakery, post office and school.

For more than a quarter century, Koreshan State Park and Friends of Koreshan have offered guests a view of the life and times of Dr. Cyrus Teed, their founder, and the Koreshans with the theatrical production, Ghost Walk. In each one-hour performance, volunteers in period costumes guide you through a historical journey along the candlelit shell paths of the Historic Unity Settlement.

You will stroll past restored buildings from a bygone era and watch Koreshan reenactors scenes from their lives before, during, and after they settled in Southwest Florida.

In the first scene, you will witness the tension between Dr. Teed and Gustav Damkohler, the German homesteader who, while grieving for his recently deceased wife and children, had sold Teed 300 acres of land along the Estero River for the Koreshan Unity, and now regrets that decision.

In scene two, join prospective members of the Unity as Professor Eleanor Castle gives them an orientation on Koreshan beliefs. The Koreshans were unique, promoting racial and gender equality in a time where racism and gender inequality were rampant. At least one prospect finds some of their beliefs a bit too much to bear.

In scene three, we visit some Unity men and learn about their work, personal lives and sacrifices they endured in following Dr. Teed and his utopian vision—and the epic mistake one of them made.

While the charismatic Dr. Teed traveled, evangelizing and promoting Unity membership, the women of the Planetary Court ran the community. Despite the Koreshans’ belief in equality, in scene four, which features some of these women, you will learn that some Unity members were “more equal than others.”

In scene five, the women of the Planetary Court mourn Dr. Teed’s death and ponder the future of the Koreshan Unity.

Enjoy treats made from Koreshan recipes at the restored Bakery in scene six, and get a glimpse into the lives of the bakers who were not only responsible for feeding the Unity, but also meeting a growing demand for their “risin’ bread” from the outside community.

In scene seven, join Vesta Newcomb and an old friend as they reminisce about their early life in the Unity, and how they—and the Unity are adapting to the changing times.

In scene eight, volunteers crank up the 1925 Fairbanks Morse engine that powers the Westinghouse generator and provided the “miracle of light” for the settlement.

Ghost Walk 2020 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 your tickets, click here.

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.

Celibacy and the Koreshans

The Koreshans believed celibacy was the “scientific” way to attain eternal life, but the practice was not mandatory. Members could also leave the Unity if they changed their minds about marriage and family. For example, Empress Victoria Gratia, Dr. Cyrus Teed’s female counterpart, left the Unity and attempted to form her own commune. Two years later, Continue reading “Celibacy and the Koreshans”