biographies-title
WHO WAS MOTHER ANN LEE? Ann Lee was the founder of the Shaker movement in America.

Born in Manchester, England in 1736, she was the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith. She was forced into marriage and had four children, all of whom died in childhood. Ann was a member of the Wardley Society which was known as the Shaking Quakers. Ann’s spiritual revelations led the small society of believers to recognize her as "Mother in Christ" and the leader of their faith.


The group faced religious persecution in England and in 1774, they fled to America to find a place to live and worship in peace. The group leased a tract of swampland northwest of Albany and established their first communal religious society in 1776.

Ann Lee resting place in the Watervliet cemetery

The group was isolated from the outside world, lived in crowded into a small cabin and often lacked proper nourishment. In 1780, the group was accused of providing supplies to British troops. Ann Lee was placed in jail until George Clinton, governor of New York, released her.


In 1780, Ann Lee embarked upon a three year missionary journey through the northeast. She died on September 8, 1784, at the age of 48. Although Mother Ann never saw her dream of a perfect religious society fully realized, she had laid the foundation for Shakerism in America, and through the hard work of those who loved and followed her, the sect would grow to approximately 6,000 members at its peak in 1850.

Top image: Library of the Congress

WHO WAS LUCY WRIGHT? This image demonstrates some motions used during ritual dance – specifically giving and receiving spiritual gifts. Mother Lucy was responsible for creating the rigid dance form that the Shaker became famous for.

Imagine that it is a Sunday in 1848. The new Meeting House, which was built to accommodate the increasing Shaker population, was finished only weeks before. The beautiful white building is filling up with members of the community for Sunday meeting, where they will sing and dance in the huge open room inside. This rigid form of dancing was developed by Mother Lucy Wright, the first female leader in the Ministry.

Meeting House

Interior of the 1848 Meeting House, circa 1920s

Library of the Congress

Wave of Revival

Lucy and her husband, Elizur visited the Watervliet Shakers during the 1780s. Elizur wanted to join the Shakers almost immediately. Lucy, on the other hand, was not as easily convinced. Many of her Goodrich relatives joined, but Lucy debated her own membership for several months. She eventually joined Elizur, who was no longer her husband but her spiritual brother. Lucy quickly became a good Shaker.

A Shaker First

Father Joseph Meacham, who stepped into the leadership role in 1787, selected Lucy to share authority with him. This was an ingenious decision for the future strength of the society. Even though the Shakers believed that God has male and female counterparts, Meacham’s decision came as a surprise to many. Mother Lucy became one of the most powerful women in America at the time but not all Shakers were willing to accept a woman as their leader. Many who were opposed to a “ petticoat government” left the Shakers. Lucy successfully fought off attacks to her leadership and went on to establish several new Shaker communities in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. She also developed the rigid form of dance that distinguished Shaker worship through most of the 19th century. In her later years, Mother Lucy returned to Watervliet, wishing to spend her final days there.

Mother Lucy Wright is described in great detail in the book by Ilyon Woo
The Great Divorce

Top image: Shaker Heritage Society.

WHO WAS DAVID MILLER? Dedicated his life to the production of herbal remedies and caregiving at the infirmary.

Brother David was a “first born” Believer, which meant that he knew Mother Ann Lee personally. The Shakers dedicated hundreds of acres to growing herbs. As the Shaker family physician, David Miller had close ties with the Shaker herb and pharmaceutical industries.

A Booming Industry

In the woods and fields of the community, Brother David sought out herbal remedies. What the Shakers didn’t grow themselves, David and others sought in the woods and surrounding areas. Neighboring Native Americans educated them about how to utilize local plant life. The Shakers marketed and sold the pharmaceuticals they made and had customers throughout the US and in parts of Europe.

The Shaker herb industry offered powdered herbs, elixirs, and mixtures for medicinal uses.

Taking Care

Brother David worked in the infirmary along with the other designated caregivers. Some of the medical caregivers had professional training or experience. Others learned through apprenticeship. In severe cases of injury or illness, the Shakers worked with local physicians and surgeons who were familiar with the Society and its customs.

Digital reconstruction of the 1783 Infirmary. The building received later additions and is referred as the Second Dwelling House.

Shakers were known for their generosity and regularly assisted non-Shaker neighbors in times of need. One journal entry tells of a poor woman that came to them on foot through the snow to obtain medicine for her sick husband: “On her arrival she was cold, weary, and both her feet frozen. She was kindly treated by those in the Office and taken home in a sleigh by Frederick and David [Miller], our physician.”

Top image: Library of the Congress.

WHO WAS ISSACHAR BATES, Jr.? He was brought to the community in the spring of 1803 as a teenager, along with his mother Lovina and eight brothers and sisters.

To the Shakers, the definition of family did not just mean those related to you by blood or marriage. Their communities were organized around the idea of a spiritual family in which all men and women were sisters and brothers in God. At the head of this family were the lead elders and eldresses.

Shaker Families

There were traditional families that joined the Shakers together. The Bates family contained several Shakers. The Bates patriarch, Issachar, Sr., joined the Shakers in 1801. He was a veteran of the American Revolution and joined the Shakers after the war. Issachar was dispatched to the west in 1805 to help establish new Shaker settlements, leaving his wife and children behind. He never returned to Watervliet to live. Splitting up immediate families was not unusual. Family members were encouraged to avoid any special bonds with relatives since all Shakers were expected to love each other equally.

Digital reconstruction of the Ministry Workshop showing the building configuration in 1825, and its appearance in the 1920s. In the Ministry Workshop Elder Issachar Bates, Jr. would have spent many hours devoted to work and production.

Right: Library of the Congress

Shaker Elder

Issachar, Jr. remained in Watervliet his entire life. He was a prominent Shaker elder and involved in a number of important events within the community. In 1835, he was selected as part of the group that would move the bodies of Mother Ann and her brother, William. They were originally buried on land no longer belonging to the Shakers and were brought to their final resting places in the Shaker cemetery. Being chosen for this task was an honor.

The Shaker cemetery in Watervliet.

Bates, Jr. was related to two other important Watervliet families, the Harwoods and the Trains. His paternal aunts married into those families before joining the Shakers with their husbands, ending marital relationships and forming new bonds as brothers and sisters in the spirit. Issacharís Uncle Theodore, credited with inventing the flat broom, also resided at Watervliet. Even though Issachar was surrounded by his natural family, he did not treat them any differently than other Shakers. To him, they were all his family.


Top image: Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly Vol. XX July to December 1885

WHO WAS FREEGIFT WELLS? A carpenter, inventor, advocate, who helped other Shaker communities.

The Brethren’s Workshop was a hive of activity. Tailors, broom-makers, and shoemakers and a dentist worked there. Brother Freegift Wells, a hard-working and innovative Shaker, spent his time working here when he wasn’t completing carpentry projects elsewhere in the community.

Digital reconstruction of the 1822 Brethren's Workshop, showing the initial building configuration. In 1930 the Albany County completed several modifications and added the front porch.

Carpenter, Inventor, Advocate

Freegift came to the Shakers as a young teenager with his parents in 1802. He contributed to the community as a carpenter and inventor. He also helped construct the 1848 Meeting House. In 1824, he was one of eight brethren jailed for failing to pay a fine for refusing to serve in the military. He went to Albany with Brother Calvin Green more than twenty times to appeal to the Legislature for relief. The Shakers finally achieved exempt status during the Civil War after appealing directly to Abraham Lincoln.

To Ohio and Back

His skills made Freegift very useful, not just here at Watervliet, but to other Shaker communities as well. The Church Elders decided to send Freegift to Ohio in 1836 to help establish a Shaker community at Union Village. Skilled Shakers often traveled to other communities to share their talents.

Hands to Work

Freegift was a hard worker throughout his entire life and continued to work into old age. Phoebe Buckingham notes in her journal: “Freegift worked so hard outdoors in unseasonable heat that he is very sick and taken to infirmary. He does not realize it, it is thought to be his last sickness.” Freegift died that April at the age of 86, having been a Shaker for more than 70 years.

Digital reconstruction of the Church Family showing the configuration of the Shaker community in 1838, and structures that Freegift Wells helped to build.

Top image: Shaker tools on display at the Shaker Heritage Society

WHO WAS NEHEMIAH WHITE? Came to live in Watervliet as a child, separate from his family, and later served as caretaker of the young boys.

Imagine coming to live here at age 7, while the rest of your family stayed at home. Nehemiah White experienced this when he was admitted to the Watervliet Shakers in 1830. Like many Shakers, Nehemiah remained in contact with his relatives.

Digital reconstruction of the Church Family in 1838, a few year after Nehemiah came to live in here. On the far right the 1838 Garden Barn, later replaced by the 1852 Seed House.

A Green Thumb

Nehemiah served as caretaker of the young boys who were assigned to farm work. The Shakers often took in orphans or children whose parents could not care for them and raised them until adulthood, at which point they could choose to stay or leave the community. Perhaps Nehemiah’s own early years influenced his willingness to work with “his boys.”

Selling Seeds

Hard work and efficiency were important aspects of Shaker culture. Nehemiah went to Mount Lebanon to see how they put up garden seeds, because “one person there can put up 300 lbs. in a day, while at Watervliet two persons put up only 100 lbs. per day.”

Digital reconstruction of two structures associated with the activities that Nehemiah developed in the Shaker community: the 1852 Seed House and the 1838 Seed Barn.

Top image: Shaker Heritage Society.

WHO WAS REBECCA JACKSON? This gate was the physical manifestation of the Shaker belief in separation from the outside world. It kept the World’s People out of the Church Family, the center of the Shaker community.

Watervliet had the largest black population of any of the Northern or New England villages. It was here at Watervliet that Rebecca Cox Jackson, an African-American woman from Philadelphia, became a Shaker.

Dreams and Visions

When Rebecca had her first prophetic vision, she was only six years old. These dreams and visions would come to her often. Like Ann Lee, Rebecca abandoned her marriage to practice celibacy and to focus on her spiritual beliefs.

Life at Watervliet

While on a preaching tour, Rebecca was invited to observe Shaker worship. She was inspired by them and joined the community in 1847. Shakers welcomed African Americans into their community as early as 1790 and there is strong evidence that they helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom. One journal entry refers to Rebecca joining a Shaker elder to assist a fugitive slave as he fled to Canada.

Rebecca's writings are published in the book Gifts of Love, edited with and introduction by Jean Humez.

Book cover detail. University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

Rebecca became disenchanted with the regimented daily routine and the strict hierarchy of authority in the Shaker community. She left and rejoined the community several times before being granted the authority to establish a sister community in Philadelphia. It was the only urban Shaker family group to be established and it consisted of a mixed race group of women and men who worked as domestic servants to sustain themselves financially. Little is known about this Shaker family but it appears to have been active into the first decade of the 20th century.

Top image: New York State Museum.

Outer gate of the Church Family in the Watervliet Shaker Community, circa 1871.

WHO WAS SAMANTHA BOWIE? Left in the community as a child, she chose to stay and later become a vital part of the family.

Samantha is mostly associated with the 1790 Dwelling House, which was demolished by Albany County in 1927. In this building the members of the Church Family lived. There were separate entrances for men and women yet they lived under the same roof. The bell that controlled the daily schedule was located on top of the Dwelling House. The bell is all that remains of this structure.

The 1816 Dwelling House showing its final configuration in 1927. The later addition to the north more than doubled the original square footage.

Women’s Work

Samantha was brought to the Shakers by her father in 1842, at the age of three. He left less than a year later; there is little known about Samantha’s mother. It was not uncommon for children to be left with the Shakers to be taken care of. Samantha chose to remain in the community when she was of age, and she became a vital part of the family.

A mender of clothing of the Church Family.

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly Vol. XX July to December 1885.

By 1860, Samantha was living at the Church Family Office, an honor reserved for the most devout and devoted Shakers, and taking turns in the kitchen preparing meals for the family. The Shakers ate well and preferred food that was in its most “natural” form, such as whole grains. Along with cooking, Samantha cleaned, wove fabric and made bonnets, baskets, and soap for use and sale.

Top image: Shaker Heritage Society.

WHO WAS JOSIAH BARKER? His many talents included singing, teaching and repairing items ranging from clocks to windows.

Josiah apparently was brought to the Watervliet Shakers when he was less than a year old but frequently visited with his natural family members. A lifelong, devout Shaker, he was appointed as an Elder 1886 and was one of the last male Shakers at Watervliet.

1915 Barn - view from Heritage Lane (Country Rd 151).

He oversaw construction of a new barn in 1915 after an arsonist destroyed the original barn. Construction of a new barn was a leap of faith considering that the Church Family closed just ten years later. It also reflects the importance of agriculture in the daily life and economy of the Shaker family.

Interior of the barn.

Top image: Shaker Heritage Society.