Indiana: New Harmony Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This is the site of two early nineteenth century utopian communities, Harmonie and New Harmony. The community consists of original residences of George Rapp’s Harmonie Society and several buildings restored after Rapp and Robert Owen abandoned their experiments.

Site Office

Historic New Harmony

P.O. Box 579

Athenaeum/Visitors’ Center

Corner of North and Arthur Streets

New Harmony, IN 47631

ph.: (800) 231-2168; (812) 682-4488, 464-9595

Web site: www.newharmony.org

e-mail: harmony@usi.edu

New Harmony, Indiana, is home to the restored remains of two utopian community experiments of the nineteenth century with radically different purposes. The early to mid-nineteenth century saw many forms of communitarian societies that attempted to reform society and its inhabitants’ way of life for their benefit in this world or the next.

The founding inhabitants, the Harmonists (or Rappites or Swabians) followed their leader George Rapp from Württemburg, Germany, westward first to Butler County, Pennsylvania, and then to Harmonie, Indiana. In the millennialist spirit, Rapp sought to create a “harmonious” community that would be one of the first to receive Christ at the Second Coming. Robert Owen, a Scottish industrialist, then purchased Harmonie to create a moral model community and egalitarian society. He gathered a group of intellectuals who not only introduced a more practical vocation-based education to America but also introduced the first free public school. These two groups, despite their demise, have had a lasting influence on all of American society.

Father Rapp

The development of Harmonie initially began in the mind of George Rapp, a German “gentleman farmer” living in Württemburg, a hotbed of religious separatism. In the tradition of Martin Luther, Rapp became dissatisfied with the clerics who dictated theology to parishioners, disallowing independent thought. Rapp, nearly fifty years old, decided to move his followers to the United States. A well-read man, he had perused many travel accounts of the New World and found it attractive for the establishment of his society. Furthermore, his interpretation of the Book of Revelations required his community to sojourn in the wilderness in “a place prepared by God.”

Physically, George Rapp was an imposing man. Standing six feet in height, he was well proportioned and had a full beard; he was referred to as Father Rapp by his followers. In 1803 Rapp, his son Johannes, and three other members traveled to the United States to purchase farmland. Left behind were his family and Frederick Reichart, a thirty-year-old architect adopted by Rapp. Reichart, who assumed the name of Rapp, managed business dealings in Germany, a function he would also perform in the New World. After months of searching, George Rapp and his followers purchased land near Pittsburgh in Butler County, Pennsylvania, and moved one thousand settlers then waiting in New York. In their petition to the 1804 U.S. Congress, these settlers described themselves as “tradesmen, farmers, and chiefly cultivators of the vine.”

The settlement in Pennsylvania struggled not just because the poor soil limited the growth of the settlement but also because Father Rapp began to lose control over the society. Following Rapp was not easy; the society demanded celibacy, communal property, equality of work, self-denial, and separation from the outside world. Members dressed in gray in an older European style and retained their German language. All property came under the control of Rapp, who was accused by some of being greedy. Confession to a designated person in the household was to be regular. Discipline was rendered through public disapproval and ostracism. Further, as pacifists, members of the society did not serve in the military and readily paid the optional fine.

Celibacy, one of the most important and divisive membership requirements, had been adopted in 1807, two years after the founding of the colony in Pennsylvania. Marriage was generally forbidden, although it did occur. Those members who were married prior to joining the society where required to live celibately. Men and women slept on separate floors of the dormitories and houses. Legend holds that because Rapp’s son Johannes took a wife who bore a child, Rapp castrated him. Johannes died in 1812 of an unknown cause. Whether true or not, the circulation of this story is itself illustrative of Rapp’s loss of control. Because of this social disintegration and because the poor land around the settlement would not make expansion of cultivation profitable, Rapp decided to move the Harmonists further westward to Indiana in 1814.

Agricultural Success

The fertile land and isolation of western Indiana better suited the community. By 1820 Harmonie was the most prosperous settlement in Indiana, producing dark beer, wine, wool, cotton, silk, paper, coffee, tobacco, coarse and fine cloth, spices, crockery, and hats. Using the Wabash River as a connection to the Ohio River and then to the Mississippi, the community sent its goods to be sold in the markets of New Orleans. Consequently, these goods were purchased in twenty-two states and ten foreign countries. Such business transactions were the responsibility of Frederick Rapp, who insulated the Harmonists from the outside world.

The success of Harmonie in the wilderness was due, in part, to the careful planning that went into the community’s creation. The first log houses were constructed on the periphery, with construction moving toward the center. As an architect, Frederick Rapp assisted in planning the town’s grid design. Lining its streets were Lombardy poplars and, later, mulberry trees. The Harmonists, known for their gardening, planted flowers everywhere. Residential areas had public ovens and wells. The building designs were a combination of European and eastern American architecture. Because of the Harmonists’ belief in equity, all houses were constructed on the same design. The large and airy brick dwellings varied in size, depending on their use either as dormitories or single-family units. Their entrances were secluded on the side of the house and not directly off the street. Common were “Christian Doors,” six-paneled doors with the upper half forming a cross and the lower portion an open Bible. Public buildings included a granary, which could be used as a fort; a cotton mill, complete with steam engine; a brewery, which produced five hundred gallons per day; and a sawmill. Harmonie, like the other communities Rapp built, contained a labyrinth with a plain exterior and a more complicated and ornate interior that included small groves and a center grotto. The labyrinth was a metaphor for the crooked road of life; the world was not to be judged by outward appearances. By the time Rapp sold Harmonie to Robert Owen, 180 structures had been built.

Harmonie also prospered because of its insular self-sufficiency. Neighbors of the community, English, Irish, German, and Scots migrants from the hill regions of the Allegheny Mountains, believed the Harmonists to be stingy and mean with their finances. The society did not incur any labor or production costs and consequently often undercut local merchants and shopkeepers. Because the society owned the best section of the river for operating a mill, the community was legally required to grind the grain of the surrounding inhabitants. Its initial refusal resulted in a court case, a fine, and an order to process its neighbors’ grain.

Internal and External Pressures

Despite its prosperity, by 1825 the Harmonist community was shaken by internal dissension and external animosity. The population was gradually aging and, because it was celibate, not replenishing itself. In 1817 another group from Germany arrived in Philadelphia to join the colony, but Frederick Rapp refused to pay for their passage, requiring many to sell themselves into indentured servitude. Newer members who arrived lacked the commitment to Rapp and his principles that the original settlers had shared. Further, while membership was not coercive, those wishing to leave the society could not regain their investment. Rapp often told his followers how to vote, a serious social offense in the West, where democratic principles carried great weight. The Harmonists’ neighbors saw them as slave labor. The community soon faced financial difficulties as well.

By the 1820’s, banks in the West failed, causing the society to lose trade and profits. The society could have survived in isolation, but with no one to buy its goods, Rapp feared that idleness would tempt the community. As a further incentive to relocate, the Wabash River was unreliable for transporting goods because of its fluctuating water levels. Ultimately, Rapp decided to move the community back to Pennsylvania. Early in 1825, after lengthy negotiation, George Rapp sold Harmonie to Robert Owen, a Scotsman with his own utopian dream who had already founded a communitarian settlement in Scotland, New Lanark.

Enter Robert Owen

Robert Owen’s purchase of the village, which he renamed New Harmony, was quite a steal. For $125,000 he acquired twenty thousand acres and all the improvements the Harmonists had made. Rapp had purchased the original undeveloped and uncleared land for $2.50 an acre, a total cost of $50,000. Owen paid for New Harmony in installments from capital supplied by his partners at New Lanark and through personal funds. The productive community in the wilderness required little adaptation for Owen’s intended utopian community. Owen realized he could never purchase such cheap land anywhere in Europe. He chose the location not only because of various reports of the settlement that he had heard but also because President James Monroe proposed a benevolent homeland for Native Americans somewhere in the West. Owen aspired to be the U.S. government agent for the Native American community and believed New Harmony would be a perfect headquarters.

Owen was a unique idealist and a reformer who shaped the notion of education and society in the future midwest. George Rapp had created the Harmonie Society to offer salvation to a few believers. Owen wanted to transform the world. He believed that society was the major shaper and corrupter of the human character. Individual property and religious belief led to inequalities of labor, to crime, and to poverty. Owen’s solution to overcoming the evils was equal division of labor, equal participation (including for women) in community affairs, and a more vocational or practical education. Some of his communitarian ideas had already been tested on the inhabitants of New Lanark, his cotton manufacturing community in Scotland inherited from his father-in-law. The survival and prosperity of his new community relied on four elements of organization: the economic system of labor, the methodology of governance, the social organization, and the educational process.

Owen’s Principles

Based on what Owen called the “Principles of United Production and Consumption,” the community required individuals to work at only those essential activities necessary for survival. Work was the moral force of Owen’s scheme. Actual monetary reward to the individual was unusual. Rather, individuals gave their skills to the community in exchange for a decent living. This communal concept attracted many who were poor or had large, young families, and not a few who were simply freeloaders. The large number of young children made for a small labor pool. In addition, those who entered the society wealthy could pay not to work. In 1825, the community had 812 residents of which only 137 were employed in the “professions,” which included farmers. Problems arose in trying to reconcile payment with labor; for example, a credit for three hours of garden weeding might offset the debit of a pot of molasses and four pounds of corn meal.

The governance of the “society of cooperation” changed numerous times within the first year. The original constitution provided for the community, not Owen, to own the land after the first three years of operation. A council was elected to negotiate outside business. Throughout the community’s history, however, Owen was in constant need of cash, causing several reorganizations. In one of his reorganizations, he leased land to some community members, the major lessor being William Maclure, who managed education.

Social Organization

The society’s basic organization was built on a principle of equality (however, African Americans were discouraged from joining and were not given equal rights). Women, who had access to day care provided by the community, worked and possessed full voting and property rights. Society members wore the same clothes, ate the same food, and, when possible, lived in identical housing. They were to treat one another as brothers and sisters. The society was divided into work groups: agriculture, manufacturing, education, domestic economy, general economy, and commerce. Superintendents, or military police as they had been called at New Lanark, administered each division. Anyone who dissented from the society was permitted to leave, usually leasing uncleared property outside the central town.

Practical Education

The most unusual part of Owen’s community was its view of what constituted a practical education. Owen’s eldest son, Robert Dale Owen, had been educated in Switzerland according to the Pestalozzi principles, which emphasized an industrial and vocational education. Owen and his son gathered around them a group of intellectuals and educators who were to become pioneers and leaders in the fields of natural science and education. In the process of purchasing New Harmony, Owen had traveled the eastern United States extensively, professing his ideals. In Philadelphia, he met members of the Academy of Natural Sciences and its president, William Maclure. Maclure, enthusiastic over Owen’s ideas, joined the communal society with several other members of the academy: Charles Alexander Lesueur, artist and naturalist; Gerard Troost, chemist and mineralogist; and Thomas Say, entomologist. Joining them were Joseph Neef, a Pestalozzian teacher, and Marie Fretageot, a Frenchwoman who ran an experimental boarding school in Philadelphia. This extraordinary group of individuals revolutionized the American educational system with their concept of free, public, and practical education. Arriving in New Harmony together on a flatboat called the Boatload of Knowledge, they were particularly excited about contributing their talents and knowledge to the community.

The First Vocational Boarding School

Neef organized the first public vocational boarding school. Financed by the community, it was open to anyone who wished to attend and incorporated practical education with apprenticeships. Maclure brought with him his own excellent natural sciences library and opened it to the public. The educational experiment was the most successful aspect of Owen’s project. The rest of the society remained chronically in debt and never self-sufficient. Owen was continually reorganizing the governing structure of the society, reconfiguring the board of directors, and changing community representation. One such reorganization divided the society into three groups: the Agricultural and Pastoral Society, the Mechanic and Manufacturing Society, and the Education Society. Owen controlled and administered the first two divisions and gave Maclure sole control of the third. Although still in support of Owen’s ideas, Maclure realized that Owen’s debts would eventually destroy the experimental society and with it Maclure’s school.

Withdrawal of Owen

Despite another reorganization, Owen withdrew his financial support from the community in the spring of 1827. He sold selected town buildings (the store, tavern, flour mill, and cotton mill) and tried to reclaim the land he had leased to Maclure. In that same year, Frederick Rapp demanded payment of forty thousand dollars worth of unpaid bonds for the property left by the Harmonists. Maclure paid the bonds in an attempt to entice Owen to deed him the land he leased. In dire financial straits, Owen sold New Lanark to pay off his debts and to support his wife and daughters, whom he had virtually abandoned in Scotland. In the final settlement, Owen’s children, Robert Dale, William, David Dale, Nancy, and Richard, retained equal portions of New Harmony, each paying their father an annual fee of three hundred dollars.

Many of the Owenites remained at New Harmony and continued to work. The school, despite the fact that Maclure had left New Harmony, continued to be led by Marie Fretageot and later Maclure’s brother and sister. With Robert Owen back in England, the remaining community managed to prosper. His children eventually settled in New Harmony themselves. Robert Dale Owen, his eldest son, had a lackluster career in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he sponsored the bill that created the Smithsonian Institution, and later he was appointed U.S. chargé d’affaires in Naples. Toward the end of his life he became a spiritual medium, ironic considering his father’s distrust of religion. David Dale Owen became U.S. Geologist in 1839 and directed the U.S. Geological Survey. Richard Owen was a professor at Indiana University and in 1872 became the first president of Purdue University.

The Owen influence remained strong in New Harmony (some of his descendants still have ties there), and the community gradually grew and diversified. After the Civil War, it became known for its French grapes and wine. Until World War I, some farming implements were manufactured there as well. In the 1880’s Dormitory Number Four became Thrall’s Opera House.

Historic Preservation

The first attempts at historic preservation occurred under the auspices of the New Harmony Commission, established in 1937 by the state of Indiana. The commission, which purchased several key historic sites in the town, was disbanded in 1955. In the 1940’s, New Harmony was visited by Jane Blaffer Owen, the wife of a descendant of Robert Owen and also the daughter of Humble Oil (now Exxon) founder Robert Lee Blaffer. She was taken with the town and began purchasing and renovating several buildings associated with New Harmony. In 1959 she founded the Robert Lee Blaffer Trust, which began construction of several new buildings, including the Roofless Church, designed by architect Philip Johnson and completed in 1960.

Over the next thirty years, additional renovation and development was carried out by a succession of private and state-run foundations, including a second New Harmony Commission, under the direction of urban planner Ralph G. Schwarz. Renovations included Dormitory Number Two, which had served alternately as a school, a telephone office, a newspaper plant, an inn, a tenement, and now a museum. Thrall’s Opera House was also restored and now houses musical performances and conferences. New constructions included the New Harmony Inn, built in the simple architectural style of the Harmonists, and the award-winning Atheneum visitors’ center, designed by architect Richard Meier. In 1975 a state park was created south of the town, and in 1991 the town’s various historic commissions were unified under the auspices of the University of Southern Indiana.

For Further Information
  • Menke, R. H. Mary Fauntleroy and New Harmony: In Search of Community. New Harmony, Ind.: Harmonie Haus, 1996. Includes a biography of Fauntleroy and historical documents. Addresses the community agenda of New Harmony.
  • Taylor, Anne. Visions of Harmony: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Millenarianism. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. Somewhat scholarly. Despite Taylor’s title, her examination of New Harmony concentrates more on Owen’s experiment than the Harmonists. She also provides interesting discussions of Rapp and Owen.
  • Wilson, William E. The Angel and the Serpent: The Story of New Harmony. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964. An excellent and highly readable account of the two utopian communities. Wilson examines not only the history of the area but also the folklore and beliefs of the two societies and their aftermath.
  • Young, Marguerite. Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945. An anecdotal account of the communities; Young’s text is interesting to read but undocumented.
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