Historic New Harmony
New Harmony is the site of two of America’s earliest utopian communities. It was founded in 1814 by a group of 800 Lutheran dissenters from Wurttemburg, 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 10 years, the Harmonists purchased 20,000 acres on the banks of the Indiana Territory’s Wabash River, approximately 15 miles above its confluence with the Ohio River. The Harmonists moved to the area in 1814.
The Harmonists’ literal interpretation of the Bible, 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. Each Harmonist family was provided with enough land on which to build a temporary log home and to plant a garden. Four community buildings were constructed for Harmonists not already married. Log homes were eventually replaced with frame or brick structures. Between 1814 and 1824, the Harmonists constructed more than 180 log, frame and brick structures in their settlement. The community was entirely self-sufficient and produced a wide variety of goods that were traded as far away as New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Harmonist wares also were sold overseas in the British Isles, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany.
In 1824, George Rapp decided to sell New Harmony. There were several practical reasons for the move. New Harmony was far from the eastern markets where Harmonist products were sold, malaria was still a threat, there were problems with neighbors, and the group felt isolated from others of their cultural background. George Rapp sought a buyer for the entire town in order to facilitate their relocation to Pennsylvania. 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, Owen purchased the community of New Harmony outright, hoping to establish a model community where education and social equality would flourish. Maclure, a wealthy businessman and well-respected amateur geologist, attracted many well-known scholars of the early 19th 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, an English-born early feminist, also were drawn to New Harmony.
Owen’s “Community of Equality,” as the experiment was known, had 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. Early feminist activity in New Harmony increased national awareness of the issue of women’s suffrage.
In 1937, the State of Indiana created the first New Harmony Memorial Commission to help the community preserve and protect its history. The Memorial Commission reconstructed the Harmonist labyrinth south of town, near the location of the original. The hedge maze, planted in privet, terminated at a stone temple in the center, its interior ornamented with elaborate plasterwork and wall and ceiling painting. Many of George Rapp’s well-known proverbs were incorporated into the decoration of the temple’s ceiling.
Other properties operated and maintained by Historic New Harmony include Community House No. 2, Thrall’s Opera House, the Scholle House, the Fauntleroy Home and the Harmonist Cemetery.