History & Background
New Harmony, Indiana, located on the banks of the Wabash River, is an experience like no other. A community that began over two hundred years ahead of its time, New Harmony was first a spiritual sanctuary that later became a haven for international scientists, scholars, and educators who sought equality in communal living.
New Harmony was founded in 1814 by a group of 800 Pietists from Württemburg, Germany. The Harmonie Society, led by George Rapp, arrived in the United States in 1804, seeking religious freedom and establishing a community in Butler County, Pennsylvania. After ten years in Pennsylvania, the Harmonists purchased nearly 30,000 acres on the banks of the Indiana Territory’s Wabash River.
The Harmonists’ literal interpretation of biblical text, combined with their interpretation of current world events, led them to believe that a Second Coming of Jesus Christ was imminent. As a society and as individuals, they pursued Christian perfection through every aspect of their daily conduct. To that end, they created a highly ordered and productive community at New Harmony.
Within a year of the land purchase, the town founded by the Harmonie Society was platted by a professional surveyor. Between 1814 and 1824, the Harmonists constructed over 180 log, frame and brick structures in their settlement. The community was entirely self-sufficient, and produced a wide variety of goods that were recognized worldwide for their fine quality. Harmonist wares were sold throughout the United States and overseas in the British Isles, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany.
Through divine guidance, George Rapp sought a buyer for the entire town in order to facilitate their relocation back to Pennsylvania in 1824. He found a purchaser in Robert Owen, a wealthy industrialist of Welsh descent, who was operating a textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland.
In 1825, with his business partner, William Maclure, Robert Owen purchased the community of New Harmony, hoping to establish a model community where education and social equality would flourish. Maclure, a wealthy businessman and well-respected geologist, attracted many well-known scholars of the early 19 th century to New Harmony, including American naturalist Thomas Say; French naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur; and Pestalozzian educators Joseph Neef, Phiquepal d’Arusmont, and Madame Marie Duclos Fretageot. Gerard Troost, a Dutch geologist, and Frances Wright, a Scots-born early feminist, were also drawn to New Harmony.
Robert Owen’s “Community of Equality,” as the experiment was known, dissolved by 1827, ravaged by personal conflicts and the inadequacies of the community in the areas of labor and agriculture. Despite the breakdown of his experiment, Owen’s utopian dream brought significant contributions to American scientific and educational theory, study, and practice. Owen’s efforts to effect change and enlightenment came to fruition through the work of his children in New Harmony and the young scientists and educators who came with William Maclure.
After the collapse of the Owen-Maclure community in the spring of 1827, many members stayed in New Harmony and the activities of the town proceeded. William Maclure established a school in various locations adapted to different ages in the late 1820s, including a school for orphans founded in 1827. In the 1840s and 1850s a number of private schools were established.
The School of Industry continued into the 1840s; some of its students produced a newspaper, The Disseminator of Useful Knowledge, from 1828 to 1841, though not continuously. The New Harmony Gazette continued to be published by Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright until 1828 when they moved the paper, retitled the Free Enquirer, to New York City. In the 1840s three other papers were published; however there were no New Harmony newspapers from 1849 until the publication of The New Harmony Advertiser began in 1858.
Scientific activity continued in the late 1820s and 1830s by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Thomas Say. When the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition passed through New Harmony in 1832, Prince Maximilian was impressed with the work of both these men. The period from 1827 to 1860 saw much geological study. David Dale Owen conducted state and federal geological surveys during this time, using New Harmony as his headquarters. He trained many geologists in an unofficial New Harmony field school. By 1860 most of the scientists and educators had died or left New Harmony, and the Civil War brought a halt to most other scientific and scholarly activities.
Social activities such as concerts, balls, and lectures were held throughout the period. The Thespian Society was established by William Owen in the fall of 1827, and gave its first performance in 1828. The local theatrical groups performed in New Harmony off and on until the 1880s. Many touring national theatrical troupes also played in the town.
Clubs for men included the New Harmony Jockey Club, organized in 1835. Members, who included Robert Dale Owen and William Owen, raced horses on a one mile track. The club ended in 1839. The Agricultural Society of Posey County was organized in 1835; among its membership were members of several prominent New Harmony families.
The Minerva Society, a literary club for the younger women of the town, was founded by Constance Fauntleroy in 1859. It is considered one of the earliest women's clubs in America with a written constitution and by-laws; the Society was disbanded in 1863.