LEE COUNTY, Florida – Located near the heart of Estero, Koreshan State Park has a story so unusual you have to hear it to believe it.
To learn more about this country – and the people who lived here and inspired the name – we took a tour with Professor Lyn Millner of Florida Gulf Coast University.
Millner wrote a book about the Koreshan Unity settlement called The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet.
It was founded by a man named Cyrus Teed, whose first name means “Koresh” in Persian.
“He was a doctor of eclectic medicine and believed that he was a Messiah sent to redeem mankind,” Millner said.
Millner said in the late 19th century; Teed had persuaded a group of others to do so. And eventually they all started living together in a mansion in Chicago.
“And then he started getting problems with creditors; You know there were bills to pay. And he started having problems with husbands who were mad at him because their wives left them to join Cyrus Teed,” Millner said.
And those problems brought Teed to Southwest Florida.
“He hears about a country in Florida and comes down to see it, and that country hasn’t stood the test. But what transpired was that there was an old German settler who had come to settle this land in the 1880s, and so Homesteader had lost everything,” Millner said.
According to Millner, it didn’t take long for Teed to convince settler Gustav Damkohler that he was the messiah.
Soon after, Teed and his Chicago entourage moved down, took over, and began construction.
One of the last major structures to be built was the Art Hall. The surviving building was used for religious services and musical gatherings. It also contains information and artifacts central to the Koreshan belief system – which Millner says offered comfort to followers at a time when the world felt confusing.
“Back then, science and religion were at odds. And people freaked out because their faith and science didn’t go together anymore. And here was this guy who said, ‘God doesn’t give us anything we can’t understand. In a way, I have something called ‘Religious Studies’ that combines religion and science. You don’t have to worry anymore, I have the answers,” she said.
“So he did that, he had his religious studies and then he had this and that’s a perfect symbol of how ‘God wouldn’t create anything we couldn’t understand.’ The entire universe is contained in a hollow earth. We stand on the edges of it and look at the sun, the moon, the planets, the entire cosmos, and there’s just nothing outside.”
Research shows that the community also believed that through celibacy they would gain immortality and live in utopias forever. Throughout the 200-acre Estero property is a testament to the hard work that believers put into this plan — including building a home for Teed that doubled as a school and dental practice.
There was also a “Planetary Court” – where seven women lived who were appointed to leadership within the settlement.
At their peak, the Koreshans were 250 strong and self-sustaining under Teed’s leadership until his death in 1908.
“They believed he would come back to life,” Millner said.
When Teed inevitably didn’t come back, the numbers began to dwindle.
But Millner said a new book called Waco by author Jeff Guinn showed Teed living on in unexpected ways.
“So these believers persevered, they deteriorated, they aged, and in the ’30s it was called ‘Koreshanity,’ and it laid out Cyrus Teed’s testimonies and his major beliefs. Somehow, in the 1980s, this book made its way into the Waco McLennan County Public Library.” , she said.
According to Guinn’s new book, David Koresh drew inspiration from Teed’s Branch Davidian religious sect without realizing he was plagiarizing.
He was apparently fed the information by an aficionado without knowing the source.
“Koresh’s predecessor, a woman named Lois Roden, had copied some of Cyrus Teed’s philosophies and prophecies for years; that made her the leader. And David Koresh, almost word for word – he is ‘the Lamb’. He’s going to be doing all these wonderful things right from Cyrus Teed in Estero, Florida,” said Guinn.
And according to this new information, David Koresh only learned about the Teed and the “Koreshanity” books during the deadly Waco siege of 1993.
“When I started going through the tapes between the FBI and Koresh, the conversations that they had. I noticed a couple of pages, it was 60,000 pages, and two of them in particular where the FBI mentioned they had a book about it, another Koresh,” Guinn said.
“And the FBI says, ‘It seems like you just took a page from this guy Cyrus Teed. Some of it is straight out of Teed.’ He says, ‘Send it in.’ And I believe if they had done that, lives would have been saved,” Millner said.
Milner said it’s a connection and a legacy that should remind us all to step outside of ourselves and our own beliefs. And listening to others, especially when we disagree.
“If we identify another group that doesn’t necessarily agree with what we believe. More conversations need to be had. Right now what’s happening is a total release,” she said.