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The Montfort Family 1624: A Narrative

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Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

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Shaker Tree of Life

The religious group more commonly known as Shakers, originated in the mid 1700's in England, as an offshoot of the Quakers.  Indeed, they were sometimes called the Shaking Quakers.  Ann Lee/Lees was an ardent follower of Jane and James Wardley/Wardlaw, who started the society of religious dissenters in the town of Manchester, England.  She had been married and bore 4 children, all of whom died very young.  causing her much mental anxiety as well as physical distress.  Ann turned increasingly towards the new faith and she became one of their most devoted members.  On several occasions she was put in jail for interrupting sevices of the Quaker churches in Manchester.   Within a few years, she became the head of the Shaker sect in England, replacing Mother Jane Wardley.

About 1774, she, along with several others of this new faith, decided to make their move to America and sailed for the port of New York.   By this time, the sect had become known for its beliefs in celibacy and the fervent dancing during their religious sevices, and communal living as well as separation of the sexes [no marriages, no close working together].   Her first settlement shortly after she arrived, was at Niskeyuna, New York and she believed people would flock to this new society.  Other settlements began springing up, in New York and Massachusetts, then westward eventually to Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky.  By the early 1820's there would be about 33 villages throughout the United States, as far south as Florida and the most western village,  Busro, Indiana, near Terre Haute and the Indiana-Illinois border. 
 
In the early 1800's in Kentucky, a series of camp meetings took place, where various religious groups gathered to hear ministers speak, take in daily sing alongs, and baptisms. These meetings would at times, draw numbers in the thousands, all coming with their wagons loaded with food and supplies to last a week.  It was such a time that three Shakers from Union Village in Ohio arrived to take part in the speaking and preaching, with hopes of winning converts to this new religion. 
 
Elisha Thomas was one of three men related to Hendrick Banta 3rd to accept this conversion and turned his large farm in Mercer County, Kentucky to building a Shaker community.  His wife was a granddaughter of Hendrick.  With him in joining were three of Hendrick's sons, Hendrick [whom the Shakers would call Vestus], Samuel, and John.  Also joining would be a daughter of Hendrick, Geertjie/Charity Banta Montfort.  By 1815, there would be some 50 or more descendants of Hendrick counted in the records of Pleasant Hill Shaker Village.
 
The first five families to join, were Banta, Thomas, Montfort, Bruner [all of the Low Dutch Colony], and Dunlavy.  In all about 20-25 men, women, and children.  They did not call themselves Shakers, as the true name of the church is United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing.  Among themselves they preferred to be known as Believers.  Since marriage ceased to exist, the members addressed each other as Brother or Sister. 
 
In 1814, the  members at Pleasant Hill signed the Covenant which bound them to the church and its rules.  Some books have recorded a person as having died in that year when they had only removed themselves from what they referred to as "The World".   One county history book refers to a man as having died in 1814 after having joined the "Quaking Shakers.'   This same man, in reading all the available journals, both original and on microfilm, in fact, lived till January of 1867 and died shortly before his 83rd birthday.  He is possibly the journalist of one particular journal recording items made in the East Family Carpenter Shop over a 19 year period and in which, he figures prominently as a prolific carpenter. 
 
The members followed strict laws of the church, called the Millenial Laws, which set out in detail, how a Shaker must live their life.  Times were set for waking, having breakfast, working during the morning time, lunch, more work, supper, religious meetings in each of the family units on a nightly basis, time to go to bed.  Also what to eat, not to eat, what to drink, not to drink,  confession of sins,holiday observances, how men and women were to behave with one another, language used, furniture, journaling, visiting in the outside world, relationships with family both inside the community and visitors of the family who are not Shakers, wandering away [departing], education, funerals, neatness, clothing.  Life was governed by a long list of rules.  Children were educated, but only reading, writing and math, nothing else mattered to the Shakers.  Boys attended school in the winter months as they were needed the rest of the year for farm chores.  The girls attended school during the summer months.  They were also taught the usual ways of the time, in learning to cook, weave, canning, cleaning, mending for the girls and working on the farm with the animals or in the gardens or some skill such as carpentry. 
 
As more buildings went up, the Shakers would separate into them forming household or "family" units.  At Pleasant Hill, there would be an East House, West House, Centre House, River House, North House, North Lot House, Tanyard House, among others.  Each house would consist of up to 100 men, women and children and have two entry doors, one for the women, one for the men.  Inside, the men would live on one side with the women on the other and separate stairways leading to the top floors, used in the same manner of one for men, and one for women.  Each family house would have all the buildings needed to sustain it, though if other family houses ran short of food or supplies, other houses would provide.  Each was a small community in itself, but ready to come to the aid and work with the rest of the community for the good of all.
 
Each of the houses would have an Elder, Eldress, Deacon and Deaconess.  They acted as a surrogate father and mother, who would make decisions, hand out work assignments, settle problems, keep a daily journal of events within the household.  [The Filson Historical Society [Louisville, Ky] as well as the Harrodsburg Historical Society [Harrodsburg, KY], have several of the original journals in their archives].  Detailed information about the comings and goings of the various houses, weather information [such as temperatures morning, noon, and night or depth of snowfall or rain fall, flooding, etc.], who made what and how much [one journal records the work at the East Family Carpenter Shop for a 19 year period detailing every item made for use of the East Family and the rest of the community as well as some offered for sale to the outside world.  In some cases, where someone ran off without any prior knowledge of the leadership, that person would be rewarded with a scurrilous entry in the journals, wishing every evil imaginable on the unfortunate person.
 
Oftimes, one would choose to leave and consult with the leadership, be given a small sum of money to help them get back to "the World".  Many times it was the young of the first to join, who would seek to rejoin the outside world, especially inthe 1820's as they came of age. 
 
Two things differ with the Eastern Shakers [Mass, NY, CT, Maine], and the Western Shakers [KY, Ohio, IN].  One was the Western Shakers were allowed to plant trees near their dwellings to help with the humid summer heat.  More important from the standpoint of the membership in the church, the Shakers in Kentucky, did not sign the Covenant till they reached legal age, which in Kentucky at the time, was 21.  In the East, any age could sign, and would be bound to honor the commitment with the Shakers.  Many of the younger Shakers in Kentucky, seemed to leave shortly before they turned 21 or shortly after.
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They first lived in several cabins along the Shawnee Run, east of Harrodsburg on what is now Ky Hwy 68.  This was the farm of Elisha Thomas and given over to the Shakers to start their community in 1805-06.  By 1809, the membership had increased to about 100 and the first stone building was built.  The women lived with children in the top floor of the two story building and the men on the first floor till more buildings could be built.  Some may have remained in the log cabins till the other buildings could be constructed.
 
Their meeting house was built in 1820 and still stands with the original wooden planked floor in place.  A remarkbly built structure 60-44 foot in size, free of any pillars to hold the ceiling up.  This was the center of their community, where they held their weekly Sabbath meetings with much singing and dancing.  The noise generated could be heard all the way into Harrodsburg, a 7 mile distance.  Visitors flocked to the Sabbath meetings to observe the singing and dancing, and to be entertained. 

Since the Shakers practiced celibacy, this extended into the meeting house and to their visitors, who were separated by their sex, as well.  Men would sit on one side of the meeting house and women opposite.  Visitors had benches constructed around the room, with them expected to separate as did the Shakers.  Members of the church accepted this intrusion, thinking they might, must might, get a convert or two.  Two of the Elders of the church would sit at windows in the second story loft to observe for any touching of the men and women of the community and to watch for any sign of interest among the visitors.
 
As  you can tell, the practice of celibacy doomed this social experiment from the start.  Familes joined together in the early days, but as the children of these families grew to be adults, many had a desire to leave.  The Shakers took in orphans, and often widows with young children.   Many times a family would bring their children to Pleasant HIll when they were unable to care for them.  They knew the Shakers would provide a warm bed, a good meal, education and teach a skill to their children.  Some would come and be known as Winter Shakers, usually men, with no home or family.  They would come and stay through the harsh Kentucky winters, knowing they would be fed, clothed and offered a warm place to stay, then when the spring came, off they went.  This was accepted by the Shakers with the thought that one day, these Winter Shakers, might be inclined to stay when spring came.
 
During the Civil War, they professed their neutrality, but in reading the journals that remain of that time period, one gets a different perspective.  The women practiced it better then the men, though distressed at the news of the Lincoln Assassination.  The men seemed to be more Northern in their thinking and one journal in particular bears witness to that.  The journalist refers to THEM REBBELS, taking, taking, taking.  He counted all the wagons, troops, animals, foot soldiers passing through Pleasant Hill in October of 1863, on the way to and from the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky.  The journalist made complaint about them REBBELS, drying up all of their wells, eating all the food they had put up for the winter, taking their horses, making a mess of the yards.  The woman journalist talked about caring for the sick and wounded, no matter their side in the war, wondering where they would get more food to feed the hungry and how they were gong to manage during the winter months. 
 
Regarding the reason for the war, the Shakers often took in blacks, either buying a slave and setting them free, or offering them a place to live.  They were treated as equals as any of the other Shakers would be treated.
 
By 1923, the last Shaker at Pleasant Hill had passed away and the village lay empty.  Occasionally buildings would be bought and used as a tavern or church or even a car repair shop.  In the early 1960's, a non profit educational organization was started to restore and preserve this historic site.  It is now on the National Historic Landmark Register.  Some 33 of the original buildings have been restored, the largest Shaker site restoration in the US.  One can eat a meal at the Trustees House or tour the buildings on the grounds, take in a variety of re-enactments of Shaker activities.  At the Meeting House you can listen and watch the music of the Shakers and  see some of their dancing.   Better yet, spend a night in one of the restored houses and take an evening stroll to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the village and the surrounding scenery. 
 
One other Shaker village existed in Kentucky.  It is located in Logan County, KY near Bowling Green and known as South Union.  It has a few restored of its houses and the trustee house restored.
 
There is one Shaker village in existence today, though not continual from the 1800's.  It is located at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, with 7 known men and women practicing the early Shaker beliefs.  They have a library there and are kind to answer questions about the Shakers.  Not long ago,they recorded a cd of original Shaker hymns, including the most well known,  A Shaker Hymn;
 
Tis the gift to be simple,  tis the gift to be free.
Tis the gift that takes you where you ought to be......
 
The song has appeared as background for numerous television commercials and is featured in Aaron Copelands "Appalachian Spring'. 

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