Out of Harmony; Indiana Histories

By Kamau, Lucy Joyce | History Today, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Out of Harmony; Indiana Histories


Kamau, Lucy Joyce, History Today


Two very contrasting versions of the county's past can be found in the rural backwater of Posey County, Indiana. One is an official history as displayed at Historic New Harmony, an outdoor heritage museum; the other is a folk history narrated by persons from the area and also described in local histories of the county. The stories they tell are quite different.

Posey County is located at the confluence of the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. It was first settled by European-Americans in 1805 when families crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky and settled at what is now the county seat of Mount Vernon. They were the people known as `backwoodsmen', small farmers who produced much of their own subsistence. In its short history not much has happened in Posey County. There would be no official history, much less a heritage museum, were it not for two unusual groups who settled along the Wabash, seventeen miles north of Mount Vernon at a place called New Harmony.

The first of these groups arrived in 1815. The Harmony Society was a collection of about a thousand German Pietists who believed that the Millennium was imminent and who wanted to escape the corrupting miasma of the world. The Harmonists lived communally and, in their day, were as famous as the Shakers. They built the village of Harmonie in accordance with their traditional concepts of housing and they also constructed large communal dormitories and other imposing structures. Harmonie was unlike anything else in the backwoods.

Although the Harmony Society was economically successful, they did not get along with their backwoods neighbours. After nine years of conflict, the Harmonists had had enough of the indiana frontier and moved to Pennsylvania, where Pietism was common and communal groups not unknown. They sold their property intact to the British cotton mill entrepreneur and visionary, Robert Owen, in 1824.

A wealthy industrial capitalist himself, Owen nevertheless believed that the world was corrupted by industrial capitalism and by the class system. His dream was to create a communal utopia in which everyone's needs would be met, in which all people would work according to their abilities and in which everyone would be equal and happy. However, during its short life, the community was split by dissension and quarrels, made the worse by Owen's continued absence. After purchasing the property from the Harmony Society in January 1824, Owen immediately returned to Britain, leaving his son, William, in charge of the fledgling community. Owen returned again in January, 1826, frequently left the community for varying periods of time, and finally departed for good and the community dissolved in 1827.

Unlike the Harmony Society, the Owen community was extremely open. Robert Owen was a missionary anxious to convert and attract persons from all social ranks. He persuaded bourgeois artists, scientists, reformers and thinkers from the east coast of the United States, Britain and Europe to join in his utopian dream. About one-third of his community was composed of such people. The remainder were recruited locally. Of the local recruits the majority were Anglo-American farmers and artisans.

The Owenites' hope was to establish a kind of Athens on the Wabash, and although this never happened, the Owen legacy continued long after Owen himself was gone. His children continued to live in New Harmony, raising their families there alongside other eminent members of the community. Ephemeral as it was, Owen's community left a deeper impress on the county than the Harmony Society had done, and it is largely because of Owenism that part of New Harmony is today a Living History museum.

There are a number of reasons for the creation of this museum which was founded in 1939, when a former residence of one of Robert Owen's children, Jane, was donated to the State of Indiana, which then created the New Harmony State Memorial. Over time, other buildings and grounds were added. …

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