|A Year of Indiana History - 2016|
New Harmony was the location for two social experiments led by idealists. George Rapp, along with several other men, traveled to the Indiana Territory in April 1814. They sought a new site for their community in Pennsylvania. The site the town now occupies caught their eyes. They decided it was an ideal place to establish a community as the Wabash is navigable and close to the Ohio River. They could easily access the markets of New Orleans with their goods. They would establish a community on the banks of the Wabash and thrive there for ten years. Then they sold the town to a second group and moved their congregation back to another site in Pennsylvania.
The second group, headed by idealist Robert Owen, purchased the town and used it to perform an experiment in socialism. During this time, the town became a leading center of science, especially the natural sciences. During the Owenite period, numerous scientists descended on the town. The influx of science flourished and survived long after the collapse of Owens’s proposed utopia. The first of these, William Maclure, arrived in 1826. Several other scientists accompanied him from Philadelphia on the keelboat Philanthropist. Its entourage of artists, educators and scientists gave it name "Boatload of Knowledge."
Robert Owen (May 14, 1771 – November 17, 1858)
The sixth of sixteen children born to Robert Owen and his wife in Newton, Montgomeryshire, Mid Wales, Robert's formal education ended by age ten when a clothier apprenticed him. He finished his own education in his employer’s extensive library. His readings convinced him that all religions were fraught with flaws and led him to be a Deist. As such, he believed in God and believed him an “incomprehensible power." His superior management skills led him to become superintendent of a Manchester textile mill. Shortly afterward, he convinced his business partners to purchase a mill at New Lanark, Scotland. During his time at New Lenark, he applied several of his social experiments, gradually gaining the trust of the workers with his reforms. His experiments were costly, however, and led to discontent among his business partners. He found new ones that were willing to accept lower returns on their investments and proceeded unimpeded. His mill at New Lenark was a financial success and Owen amassed a fortune. It was this fortune that he wished to invest on a huge social experiment in the United States. He chose to purchase New Harmony from George Rapp when Rapp wanted to sell the community.
The "Boatload of Knowledge"
Owen's dream was to assemble a scientific community. Owen believed that the new United States was the best place to try to develop his utopian, socialist community. In 1824, he traveled to the United States to enter negotiations between the Rappites and the Shakers. After visiting the town of Harmony on the banks of the Wabash River in Indiana, he purchased it for $135,000 from the Rappites. He renamed it New Harmony. He recruited many people from Europe to come to his new community and advertised locally. His efforts attracted many of the top scientists of the era. He purchased a keelboat he called the Philanthropist and stocked it with some of the best minds of the era. Forty scientists, educators and thinkers crowded onto its deck and began the long voyage down the Ohio River to New Harmony. On Thursday, December 8, 1825, the Philanthropist left Pittsburg. It was a freezing cold day. Owen had originally intended to use a steamboat for the voyage, but the Ohio River was too low, so he outfitted the keelboat and set off. Owen, accompanying the scientists on the boat, dubbed it the "Boatload of Knowledge." Travel by keelboat on the Ohio River proved to be a slow, and at times dangerous, enterprise. The boat could only manage a few miles a day. The weather was cold, the ice covered river created problems and the passengers endured various degrees of discomfort during the voyage. Finally, on January 26, 1836, The "Boatload of Knowledge" arrived at their destination, New Harmony.
Portions of this article are excerpted from the author's A Visit to Harmonie State Park, Indiana book.
A Year of Indiana History - 2016
© Paul Wonning