Searching for context

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

[Continued from What is this stuff?]

Digging at New Harmony's Dormitory #2

What do archaeological artifacts tells us? What do they mean? These are the most important questions a museum historian can ask. The reason is because if we don’t relate the past to the present, then our artifacts just amount to a lot of stuff without any real meaning. Without the relationship between the past and the present, then the past exists in isolation, without context and without meaning. In the case of New Harmony’s Dormitory #2, we’ve found thousands of artifacts that reflect the daily lives of people who lived and worked there between 1817 and 1940. This is why these artifacts are so important — because they tell us about people. What we find is that people then were just like people now — they worked, they played and they lived their lives with an eye on a better future for their families.

So who were these people and what were they like? The first settlement at New Harmony was founded in 1814 by George Rapp and his group of Lutheran separatists who had first lived in Harmonie, Pennsylvania, the previous decade. Believing that Jesus Christ would return in their lifetimes, their goal was to live a pure life that would prepare them for the Second Coming. With self-sufficiency necessary to survive in the wilderness, the Rappites bought 7,000 acres of land along the lower Wabash River and set about the task of creating a religious based utopian community. They established orchards, vineyards, farms and began to build the town that still exists today. Within the town they established a sawmill, a brickyard and various shops and businesses to serve the needs of their growing population.

Dormitory #2

One of the buildings the Rappites (or Harmonists, as they are sometimes called) built was a community building called Dormitory #2.  Dormitory #2 is the focus of our decade long archaeological dig. Built between 1817 and 1822, it was framed in heavy wood timbers and then finished out with bricks fired on the property. Dormitory #2 served as a community building for the Harmonists while also sleeping between 40 and 60 people on the first floor. As this was a celibate community, there was little concern with men sleeping in the same building as women. Discouraged with the lack of adequate trade with eastern cities, the Harmonists sold their community to Robert Owen in 1825 and returned to Pennsylvania.

Robert Owen was a Welsh social reformer and an early advocate of socialism and the community movement. His main goal was to continue the development of a utopian community with education as the basis rather than religion. During the next century, the building was used for many purposes. Its first use was as a school and Masonic lodge, both established in 1825. In 1826, the famous “Boatload of Knowledge” arrived and headquartered in the building. Organized by Robert Owen and William Maclure, scientists and educators traveled down the Ohio River to New Harmony in the winter of 1825 with the idea of organizing a utopian socialist community based on an educated population that placed the needs of the community ahead of the needs of the individual. The community failed for a variety of reasons and, in the late 1820s, Robert Owen deeded the entire town to William Maclure.

Maclure continued to use the building as a school but also set up a print shop, one of many that would exist in the building over the next several decades. At about the same time, a blacksmith shop, a carpenter shop and a shoe store were also established. By the 1830s, the building began to be used as a hotel and a rooming house. Prince Maximilian Neuwied, the German explorer and scientist, and a group of scientists even set up a laboratory in the building in 1832. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, various businesses moved in and out, constantly providing an array of shops and services for the town, including everything from taverns to churches to schools. Other businesses included a telegraph office, a post office and a Knights of Pythias Hall. Prominent local officials and businessmen also lived in the building from time to time before the building was sold to the state in 1940. Since that time, the state has used the building for a variety of purposes. Currently, we are renovating Dormitory #2 to accommodate a climate control system and an elevator. When the renovations are complete, there is no reason why the building won’t be around to welcome visitors for the next 200 years or more!

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One Response

  1. I have an Engraved Plate and it’s accompanying issue of “THE ARIEL. A Literary Gazette” Vol 1. Published by Ellwood Walter, No 71 Market Street, Philadelphia and is dated Saturday June 16, 1827

    There’s a short article, ‘The Residence of Mr Rapp, New-Harmony Indiana.’

    And accompanying the issue of the Ariel is an engraved plate entitled “The Late Residence of Mr. Rapp, New Harmony Indiana, Published By P Price Jr for the Ariel”

    Just was wondering if the Museum would have any interest in this?

    Thank You

    Paul Goodwin

    Reading, PA

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