Religious cult or Utopia? Explore Florida's Fascinating History at Koreshan State Park in Estero
In the late 19th century, when most of south Florida was still a harsh swampland, a group of intrepid spirits followed a New York physician to southwest Florida because they believed he was a Messiah, and the Earth was hollow, and that they lived inside. It's a wild tale, if only it was fiction. But this is a true story, made even fascinating when you visit the Koreshan State Park in Estero, and see this nugget of amazing history for yourself.
Koreshan State Park
The fascinating history of the Park, also called the Koreshan State Historic Site, lies in the small town of Estero, between Ft. Myers and Naples on the southwest coast of Florida. It's worth a day trip from your beach vacation not just for its interesting history but because much of the Koreshan Unity Settlement is still there and well preserved, which makes it that much more compelling. Today it's a lovely Park and a great place for easy light hiking. There's also overnight camping in the Park and a weekly farmers market with local vendors and growers.
What comes to mind when you hear the word "Koreshan"? If you’re like me, it conjures up odd feelings of suspicion, fear, and judgement. I first lived in southwest Florida in the early 90’s, coincidentally at the very same time that a group of religious cultists calling themselves The Branch Davidians were in the news for stock-piling a massive amount of weapons and explosives and barricading themselves inside a secluded compound in Waco, Texas. When the U.S. government raided the compound, 78 of the cult members died in the ensuing explosions, along with their leader, Vernon Wayne Howell, aka David Koresh.
Howell adopted the name Koresh, after the Hebrew name given to Cyrus the Great, a Persian king. Like Jim Jones in the late 1970’s and countless other cult leaders through the ages, David Koresh, believed himself to be the Messiah.
This was always in the back of my mind as I would drive past the small brown State Park sign for the Koreshan State Historic Site every day on my way to work, wondering why on earth the state of Florida would immortalize such a place. Shallow, I know. I always wondered about it, but never actually visited the site, until recently.
History of Koreshan Unity Settlement
The Koreshan Unity Settlement was founded in 1894 by Dr. Cyrus Teed, an unconventional physician from Utica, New York, though he actually graduated from the Eclectic Medical College of New York, which was later considered fraudulent and declared defunct. He was known to have a fondness for women and in fact, several women moved with Teed to Estero without their husbands.
He also called himself Koresh, and in 1869, claiming divine inspiration - or what he called his “illumination” after experimenting in his lab - proposed a new set of scientific and religious ideas he called Koreshanity, including a ‘Hollow Earth’ theory where the Earth and sky existed inside the inner surface of a sphere.
When his ideas didn’t gain much traction in New York state, he moved his family to Chicago where he gained a stronger following of roughly 150 people. It’s unclear just why he left Chicago, but eventually he and his group went in search of an isolated location away from public scrutiny. In 1894, they landed in remote Estero, Florida, on the southwest coast of the state between Fort Myers and Naples, and created the Koreshan Unity Settlement.
Teed’s grand vision was to create “The New Jerusalem”, a home for 10 million people, though the original settlement was only around 300 acres of swampland. The settlement was founded on his beliefs of alchemy, the Hollow Sphere theory, reincarnation, celibacy, and communism or communal living - each according to his ability and needs.
The Koreshan State Park Today
The Koreshan State Park makes a nice day hike - among many options for a short hike in southwest Florida - with lots to explore. It runs along the Estero River and there are access points to the river at several areas in the Park.
Most buildings are open to the public, either with a docent or left open with glass partitions restricting access but offering good views into the staged interiors.
The day we visited, the Planetary Court was not open and had a sign on the window explaining the shortage of volunteers. The docent we talked with in the Arts Center was very friendly, knowledgable, and eager to share history and even a glimpse inside the circa 1890 Steinway piano.
The park terrain offers easy, relatively flat hiking, and a shady 1/2 mile hike along the river and through a bamboo forest. The trail eventually leads to a 60-site campground, all with electricity and water, picnic table and fire ring.
Twelve campsites are designated for tents only and located next to the Estero River, Four paved ADA campsites are also available.
You can fish, canoe and kayak in the Park, and canoes are available for rent.
The Arts Hall
The Planetary Court
The Founders Residence - Cyrus Teed's Home
The Damkohler Cottage
It’s fascinating to imagine what the first Settlement members endured to follow a dream because south Florida, in its natural state, is an extremely harsh environment. It's a swamp, even today. The Everglades ecosystem encompasses this entire region, and there's an abundance of crawling and biting ticks, mosquitos, scorpions and venomous snakes. It’s also home to animals such as black bears, big cats, and alligators.
For the first year, the Koreshans lived exclusively in tents, through torrential rains and ensuing mud, hurricanes, and intense Florida heat and sun. According to letters and other documents, for their first winter they subsisted solely on peanuts.
This was an intrepid group, who toiled day and night to build their New Jerusalem. At its most successful and cohesive, the Unity Settlement had 250 members and had built homes, an Arts Center, bakery, general store, power station, workshop, and printing house.
They held regular theatrical performances and encouraged well-roundedness in their children, which included apprenticeships at the bakery and other vocations at the Settlement.
The Koreshans were also credited with incorporating the town of Estero, which was over 100 square miles and one of the largest incorporated towns in the country at the time.
Religion or spiritual beliefs/non-beliefs aside, the Koreshan Unity Settlement is intriguing on many levels. Considering that Teed espoused peaceful living and considered himself a sort of Prophet, there seems to be nothing pointing to the usual deviance, abuse, or hypocritical shortcomings that typically emerge with those who think they’re the Messiah.
However, if there was, it's unlikely it was reported or recorded. By all accounts, Teed appears to have been in earnest about creating a genuine Utopian society. But what was the ultimate cost to the ones who followed him here?
Whether you believe it was a religious cult or the start of something better, the Koreshan State Historic Site is an interesting place to visit, even if simply to enjoy a view of old Florida rarely seen anymore. But the historical significance is undeniable and by all means worth a much longer look.
So, What Became of The Prophet, Cyrus Teed?
Cyrus Teed died in 1908, two years after suffering injuries in a physical altercation with a Fort Myers marshall. In 1921, a hurricane destroyed his tomb on the southern end of Estero island and washed his coffin out to sea.
In 1961, the last remaining members donated the Unity Settlement to the State of Florida for use as a State Historic Site. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
IF YOU GO
Koreshan State Park - 3800 Corkscrew Road, Estero, FL 33928, FloridaStateParks.org
Hours: The park is open daily, 365 days a year from 8:00 AM until sunset. The historic settlement is open daily from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM.
Fees: $5.00 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle, $4.00 Single Occupant Vehicle, $2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass.
There are many stories and accounts on the Koreshans of Estero to delve into further - written both from outsiders looking in and direct descendants of the followers. Here are a few links I found: