Out of Harmony; Indiana histories.
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. Today, Historic New Harmony is operated by the University of Southern Indiana, located at nearby Evansville. Robert Owen is important in the history of socialism. There is a romantic appeal in the idea of intellectuals engaging in philosophical, scientific and artistic discourse and endeavours in what was then a remote frontier community. Historians have been interested in the communal aspects of the two groups. The State of Indiana has taken an interest in the surviving buildings. And finally, amenities have been created that appeal to tourists.
The outdoor museum and its associated tourist attractions comprise a twelve-block area in the northern portion of contemporary New Harmony, in roughly the same location as Harmonist and Owenite New Harmony. The brick dormitories remain, as do several smaller structures, including dwellings. Some houses inhabited by Owenites during and after the life of their community are also part of the museum. There are model rooms, chiefly drawing rooms and dining rooms, that are intended to recreate the furnishings of the Owenite period. Other structures include a modern museum and gift shop. Not part of Historic New Harmony, but in the historic section, is the Workingmen's institute, begun by a group of local artisans and farmers in 1838 in the expectation of receiving a bequest from William Maclure, a wealthy associate of Owen's. Originally private, with membership restricted to `the industrious class,' it sponsored lectures and scientific demonstrations and had a small library. The bequest was never received, but the Institute remains, today a combination archival depository, lending library and local museum. Visitors may stroll along New Harmony's wide tree-shaded streets or, echoing their forbears, take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
The history presented by the museum differs somewhat from professional historians' accounts of New Harmony. Written histories usually include some mention of the problems the Harmonists had with their neighbours, although there is little attempt to know just who these neighbours were, or why there might have been conflict between the two groups. These conflicts, ultimately based on the Harmonists' distrust of the secular world and on their failure to practice reciprocal neighbourly aid, culminated in a brawl between local farmers and members of the Harmony Society in 1821, after which the Harmonists began looking for a purchaser of their property. Written histories do discuss at length disputes within the Owenite community, but again, the emphasis is on the Owenite elite, and the majority of the community members are ignored.
Historic New Harmony selects only certain aspects of official history to present to the public. It ignores the wrangling of the Owenite community and the hostility of the Harmonists toward their backwoods neighbours, smoothes over dissension and presents a tranquil image of bygone days. It emphasises the Owenite period, but it depicts an idealised version of an intellectual and social life participated in by only a few of the Owenites, stressing philosophical concerns, scientific and artistic achievements, and a social life that consisted of musical evenings, lectures, balls, and picnics. The only exhibit that takes note of the pioneer population of the area is an isolated and empty double pen log house. Demonstrations of masculine crafts such as woodworking or blacksmithing sometimes take place in the dogtrot between the pens or on the grass outside. Otherwise there is no evidence of pioneer history. As a result, two-thirds of the members of Owen's community are virtually excluded from the museum's exhibits, as they are also from the written literature.
Historical accounts must always be selective and in so being they necessarily distort the past as they create a particular historical narrative. Heritage museums, because they must appeal to the general public, simplify in order to appeal to a commercialised present. In the process, they are likely to single out one group and consign others to non-existence, glossing over the complexities of life. Unlike the original New Harmony, Historic New Harmony is harmonious, utopian and clean. It is permeated with nostalgia, presenting a closed and sanitised past. in doing so, it commodifies both history -- by making it one among many alternatives for leisure consumption -- and the artefacts on display by presenting these in 'reconstructed' rooms that are also showrooms for antiques. indeed, the model rooms in the museum are mirrored in the antique shops down the street.
The folk history of Posey County is also selective, but it reveals a very different story. The aspects of the past that residents have chosen to recount in interviews collected between 1991 and 1996 are not harmonious, nor are they nostalgic. They do not romanticise the good old days. The only famous name to be mentioned belongs to a desperado. No attention is given to the Harmony Society, although the Owen family plays a minor part in some stories. Most attention is given to early settlers and their immediate descendants. These are stories of encounters with Indians, with wild and domestic animals, and of the hardships of travel in pioneer days. There are stories of hunting and fishing, of brawls and brothels, of the Civil War -- and even of Jesse James. The subjects and style of these accounts is quite different from the accounts found in the heritage museum.
The term `folk history' is used in this instance to include both oral histories and accounts written by locals for local consumption. While county historians did make use of documents, if they existed, many of their accounts clearly came from oral sources rather than archival research. Modern people who have read these versions draw on their memories of these as well as on family stories and genealogies, so that the public and the private intertwine. These folk histories flesh out or bypass altogether the official history presented in scholarly publications and at the museum.
Perhaps the defining narrative in the history of Posey County is the story of the mythical `Hoop-pole Township', which is set in the 1830s. (Hoop-poles were used by coopers to bind barrel staves together, while barrels were the principle containers used to hold the produce that was shipped to New Orleans on flat boats and keel boats). The men who worked on these boats were notorious for their drinking, wenching and brawling ways. As a river town, Mount Vernon had its share of taverns and grog shops to accommodate their tastes. One of these was located across the street from a cooper's shop. During one of the boatmen's sprees, they picked a quarrel with men from this shop, who were also not opposed to hard drinking and brawling. The more numerous boatmen easily overcame the local men, who fell back and called for help. They quickly got reinforcements when enraged local citizens came to their rescue with hoop poles in hand. According to an account written in 1882, it 'terminated in a great rout'. The story passed up and down the river about the `bad set at Vernon', and whenever a boatman met another with a black eye or broken nose, he hailed him with, `Been to Vernon, pard?'
This story contains many elements found in local folk history and reflects and enforces local identity. The citizens are peaceful and hard-working, engaged in unpretentious but useful labour. The men like their whiskey. but they are not bullies and not inclined to start trouble. A fair fight is acceptable, but this was not a fair fight. With their neighbours in danger and the honour of Mount Vernon at stake, townsmen rose to the occasion, forcing the notorious boatmen to an ignominious retreat. The point is clear. As a local woman historian wrote, `We would proudly bear hoop-poles on our county escutcheon'.
Other kinds of courage and fortitude are recounted in narratives of early settlers, including those of women. Alvin Hovey, a Posey man who was governor of Indiana in the 1890s, wrote a pamphlet on Posey County history in 1876, at a time when the county had been a backwoods outpost only sixty years before. He repeats the theme of courage in adversity:
The hardy and brave pioneers, who
first settled in these Western wilds, well
deserve a glowing page in the history
of this county. The women themselves,
were often compelled to battle with the
savages who surrounded them. Polly
McFaddin, whilst in a block house with
other women and children, shot an
Indian who was in the act of stealing
the horses in the corral.
Polly McFadden was a female equivalent of the male defenders of Mount Vernon's pride. She was a living example of the `backwoods belle' of early nineteenth-century folklore.
Robert Johnson, a Posey County farmer, summarised the frontier experience while discussing his ancestor, Elias Johnson. Elias migrated from North Carolina and was one of the first settlers in the county:
Just like thousands of others, he came
through the Cumberland Gap. That in
itself was an experience. To try to drag
possessions, livestock. The settlers
were pretty rugged people. They had
to be. My grandfather (Elias' son) was
over six feet tall. And evidently his
father was larger.
Although there were few Native Americans in Posey County by the time white settlement began, Indian stories abound. Lela Grey, Robert Johnson's sister, remembered her aunt Olive telling stories about an Indian raid:
Everybody in the neighborhood gathered
together -- I think it was down
there around Barrett Switch. All the
kids had whooping cough, and they
couldn't keep them quiet -- that was
their big headache. But nobody got
killed or anything.
One Posey resident who belonged to Owen's Community of Equality, but who is not mentioned in official history is James Rankin, who later became a judge. In his youth Rankin was taken by Owenism and after Owen's community failed, he determined to create one of his own. He persuaded his step-father, Jonathan Jaquess, and his step-brothers and sisters to create a community on family land which they called Goshen. Since Jonathan's house was in the centre of family land, and since he had given surrounding land to his married sons, his house became the nucleus of the new community. In the words of family descendant Judy Lindell:
So they took down all their houses and
moved into Jonathan's house, and they
all fought and had so many problems
they decided to disband and to move
their houses back where they were
originally, so they did.
There are also stories of war and patriotism. Frank Bolton, a resident of New Harmony, in his 1895 unpublished autobiography recounted an incident he observed in 1833, during the Black Hawk War in Illinois. Bolton, whose father operated a ferry on the Wabash, describes a young recruit parting with his aged parents. As the ferry pushed off:
... his father with tears streaming down
his face sung out, goodbye johnnie
don't come home with WOUNDS in
YOUR BACK, and this last injunction of
the father to the young soldier, I have
always thought was the bravest and
expressed more noble patriotism than
any I have heard or read [sic].
The story of Old Fly is both an animal and a war story. It is a story of loyalty and love, but, like Hoop-pole Township, it also illustrates the humour with which many such tales are told. Old Fly belonged to George Barrett, the grandfather of Robert Johnson, and his sister, Lela Grey. Barrett enlisted in the cavalry in the Civil War and took his mare with him. Old Fly staunchly went through the war with him, helping him fight many battles against the Rebels. Once she saved his life:
GREY: At that time, the army, the US,
did not feed the horses for the cavalry.
They had to forage for their food. So he
was with a group of men who owned
their horses out foraging for food and
were surprised by a bunch of Rebels.
They were by a river -- I can't
remember which river it was.
JOHNSON: They were attacked, and
the commanding officer said get out
the best way you can.
GREY: Most of 'em could swim, but
Grandpa couldn't, and they pushed the
horses off the bank to swim across the
river. and he pushed Fly, and he
jumped after, and caught ahold of her
tail, and she swam across.
When the war was over, Barrett
rode Fly home. it had been a long
journey and Old Fly was tired. She
showed no interest in anything, even
as they drew near home, until about a
half-mile from the homestead, when
she lifted her head, whinnied and
`laid back her ears and didn't stop,
and he couldn't stop her, and she
went right into her old stall'.
After she died aged thirty-eight Old Fly was buried. However, thanks to the younger Owens, who had close ties with the Smithsonian Institution, her body was exhumed and sent to the Smithsonian, where her bones were reassembled and mounted. After being on exhibit in Washington and indianapolis she was donated to the little museum on the second floor of the Workingmen's institute (where she can still be seen) with the condition that Barrett or any of his family could see Old Fly whenever they wished. Some years later, a young Barrett, about six years old, informed the librarian that he wanted to go upstairs. As Robert Johnson told the story:
She said, `No, not without an adult.
Why do you want to go up there?'
Some of my relations is up there.'
`Well, what of your relations is up
there?' `Old Fly!' And she said, `Well all
right, we'll go up and look.' Course she
probably knew who it was.
There are even Jesse James stories told in Posey County, probably because there was a family named James that lived near Mount Vernon. Although there is no evidence whatsoever of any kinship between any Posey County resident and Jesse James, there are rumours that Jesse, being a good judge of horseflesh and fond of horse racing came for a visit and raced his horses at the Mount Vernon Fair.
There are also stories of Jesse and his gang hiding out in the Mount Vernon area. One tale bears a close relationship to the well-known story of Jesse and the widow. In that tale, Jesse lodges incognito with a widow. Upon finding that she is about to lose her farm to the bank, he gives her the mortgage money and then recoups it by robbing the banker. The Posey County version is similar, but it is about a poor farmer named Zimri Gale. Three men knocked on his door one rainy night and asked for lodging. As is common in this kind of story, Gale said he hadn't much, but they were welcome to what he had. one of the men played with Gale's two-year-old daughter for awhile before bedtime. During the night, Gale noticed that one man of the three always kept watch at the window, a revolver within easy reach.
At breakfast the next morning, one of the men posed a traditional outlaw riddle: would you be frightened if Jesse James came here? Gale replied that he had nothing an outlaw would want. As they began to leave, one of the men asked Gale how much they owed him. Again in traditional style, Gale refused to take any money. The stranger placed a ten-dollar gold piece on the table. Gale, in shock, said he couldn't change it. `Take it for the little girl' the outlaw replied. As they left the other two followed suit.
About thirty years later, Gale met Frank, Jesse's brother, at the Mount Vernon fair, where Frank, now pardoned of his crimes, worked as a starter for the horse races. After a few drinks together, Frank indicated that he knew where Gale lived and asked him. `How is the little girl? She must be a fine young lady by now'. Gale finally learned who the generous strangers were who stopped at his house that rainy night.
At least one member of the Posey County James' family developed an irrational fear of Jesse. Tom James, a college-educated man who failed to live up to his promise, was terrified that Jesse would come to him. In the words of Darlene MacConnell, a James descendant:
Tom had a little two-acre spread out in
Lynn Township, and it wasn't good for
anything, and it was across the field
from the school, I think it was
McFadden School. He would not allow his
children to walk through that field to
the school, because he was afraid of
Jesse James. Some people in the family
say that he said that he was related and
worried about that, and others think
just him being a James-I'm a James.
you're a James, I need help. So he's
supposed to have been afraid, and he
walked the road with a shotgun,
guarded the road all the time. His wife sewed
for people for a living. He did what
little bit of math and letter-writing
people would pay him for, and he
made his boys chop wood for money.
And no education for any of 'em. I
think he was paranoid. He had
paranoia, probably brought on by alcohol.
These stories present a very different picture than that presented by official history. Folk history creates a kind of `ethnographic allegory', to use James Clifford's apt phrase. They are representations of the past that form part of present reality. They describe events that are important to the tellers, they make moral statements, and they provide sources for social identity. The kind of people depicted in the folk histories are almost the antitheses of the people described at the heritage museum. The heroes and heroines of folk history are not intellectuals or people of ideas. They are people of action. They are not members of the bourgeoisie. They are farmers and artisans. They are a peaceable people, but they will react strongly and courageously when provoked. They are kind to people in need, even to strangers. They admire loyalty, even in animals. They also admire courage, as many stories demonstrate. They can co-operate together when necessary, but they are also individualistic, so much so that even kinsmen cannot form a communal society. They have an affection for desperadoes -- at least famous ones. They work hard and live simply, but they are no fools. Through their narratives, the people of Posey County select those historical tales which have meaning to them, which tell them who they are and which create and reinforce a sense of social solidarity.
The ordinary people of Posey County sometimes express resentment that Historic New Harmony has no interest in their history. On the other hand, the two histories speak to different groups. One group is that of strangers, of tourists who come for a day or two and who see the rest of the county through the windows of their cars as they drive to their destination. The other group lives there. It has a permanent identity. History to the first group is a transitory amusement, educational, but nevertheless a leisure activity. History to the second group is a part of life and a source of identity which goes deep into local character and helps to define just who are the citizens of Posey County.
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|Title Annotation:||History and Memory; Robert Owen's utopian dream for New Harmony, IN|
|Author:||Kamau, Lucy Joyce|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1997|
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