The Boatload of Knowledge

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian

In the early 19th century, New Harmony, Indiana was the site of two experiments in creating a better way of life. Very briefly, the first lasted roughly 1814-1825 and was formed by a group awaiting the Millenium, the return of Christ. The second lasted only two years (1825-1827) was an effort to put into place the ideas of social reformer and industrialist Robert Owen. This blog addresses the Owen experiment. An October 19, 2020 blog dealt with Robert Owen–read it for some more background if you like.

Sketch of Robert Owen. UASC MSS 247-8206, the Don Blair collection

Robert Owen (1771-1858) was born into a working class family in Wales and had limited educational opportunities, but he had a curious mind and was a voracious reader, and began to work his way upwards. In 1799 he married Caroline Dale, the daughter of a Scottish philanthropist and owner of a large textile mill in Lanark, Scotland. Owen and several partners purchased this mill from his father-in-law, David Dale, and at the beginning of 1800, Owen became the mill’s manager. This provided him the stage to implement many of his ideas about social reform. “His ultimate objective was to create a New Moral World, a world of enlightenment and prosperity leading to human happiness defined as mental, physical and moral health enjoyed in a rational way of life. … Educators and scientists were crucial to Owen’s plans because education, science, technology and communal living were the means he felt could effect the New Moral World.”i

Portrait of William Maclure. UASC MSS 247-4564, the Don Blair collection

Owen had a like-minded colleague in the president of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University), William Maclure (1763-1840). Born in Scotland, Maclure moved to Philadelphia and became an American citizen in 1796. He had a deep interest in educational methods, influenced by an 1805 trip to Switzerland where he met the progressive educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). Maclure was also very interested in the sciences. Many of those who came to New Harmony for the second experiment in communal living came because of their relationship with Maclure. “Maclure’s radical social philosophy divided populations into nonproductive and productive classes, the governors and the governed. He argued that knowledge held exclusively by the governing class accounted for the concentration of power and property in the hands of the few. Likewise, knowledge made available to the masses would become the engine for their liberation and the equalization of power and property.”ii

Plans began to come together when Owen came to the United States in November 1824. “He used his fame as a businessman and social reformer to propagandize his new social system among the cultural and political elite of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. And he risked about half his fortune to purchases the town of New Harmony, Indiana, and its surrounding 20,000 acres for an original price of $135,000, which was later negotiated downward to $125.000.”iii With the site established (and a good site it was, as New Harmony at that time already had a reputation as a “wonder” town with some 180 buildings, lots of farm acreage in use, and a strong market for its products), “Maclure and Owen needed to recruit members for their new “Community of Equality,” and they opened it to anyone who wanted to join. By April of 1825, the town had between 700 to 800 residents. To jumpstart New Harmony’s intellectual heart, Maclure organized something called “The Boatload of Knowledge.” On a ship named the Philanthropist, a group of European and American geologists, entomologists, naturalists, zoologists, artists, and teachers took the month-long journey down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to New Harmony.”iv They set out on December 8, 1824.

Not The Boatload of Knowledge, but what a keelboat would look like. Image found here.

Let’s be clear about that method of transport…although a streamboat was originally intended, the water levels were too low, so a keelboat was necessary. The compartment was divided into four sections: for crew, for the men, for the women, and finally, for the children. It certainly was not luxurious, probably not even particularly comfortable, and keep in mind, these travelers were not hardy pioneers, accustomed to discomfort. The journey wasn’t particularly easy, either–just 3 days after they left and only 15 miles from where they started, they were stuck in ice. They were marooned for 28 days at a spot ironically named Safe Harbor.

On January 8, a successful attempt was made to chop a path out into the main channel of the river, and the Boatload was once again underway. They stopped in Cincinnati on January 17 where they toured a museum and heard a lecture, and again stopped in Louisville on January 19. Finally, they reached Mt. Vernon, Indiana on January 23, where some disembarked for a wagon ride to New Harmony the next day, but others remained on board and went further downstream to the Wabash River, then up the Wabash to New Harmony itself.

This portrait of Thomas Say was done by Charles Willson Peale and is in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Image found here.

Let’s take a look at some of these “Boatloaders,” with the fuller list for you to examine above. We’ve already discussed Maclure and Robert Owen. Philadelphia born Thomas Say (1787-1834) was a self taught naturalist, interested in many fields of natural history–entomology, zoology, palentology, herpatology, conchology, etc. He was closely affiliated with the nation’s first natural history museum in Philadelphia as its keeper of collections. He went on several expeditions, including those to the Rocky Mountains and to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. He made a number of discoveries, publishing some of these in the 3 volumes of American entomology or Descriptions of the insects of North America, in 1824-28. Say’s work continued in New Harmony, where he married Lucy Way Sistare, a talented illustrator who had studied with Charles Alexandre Lesueur and John James Audubon. She illustrated much of her husband’s printed works. Say’s health was adversely affected by the climate in New Harmony, but he didn’t want to leave, dying there in 1834 of typhoid. Lucy died in 1886.

Say’s grave in New Harmony, located behind the Rapp/Maclure/Owen house at the corner of Main and Church Sts. UASC CS 662-117sc-0163, the Don Janzen collection
Drawing of Charles Alexandre Lesueur. UASC MSS MSS 247-4525, the Don Blair collection.

Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1778-1846) was a French artist, naturalist, and explorer. He was friends with both Maclure and Say and traveled with them to New Harmony. He had visited the United States previously and in 1833 visited Vincennes and drew the first known drawing of William Henry Harrison’s home, Grouseland. While in New Harmony he continued his drawings and collection of natural history specimens and artifacts, many of which are still in French museums. He remained in New Harmony until his friend Say died, returning to France in 1837.

Madame Marie Duclos Fretageot. UASC MSS 247-4498, the Don Blair collection

Marie Duclos Fretageot (1783-1833) was a French educator who had been trained by Pestalozzi. She was teaching in Philadelphia at this time and was familiar with and enthusiastic about Owens’s ideas on social reform. She was also well acquainted with William Maclure and perhaps helped influence him to join the Boatload of Knowledge. The boatloaders, during the stop at Louisville, met William Neef, a Pestalozzian teacher who later joined them in New Harmony. While in New Harmony, Fretageot and Neef and others eagerly began to implement a new style of education. At the Infant School (what we would call pre-school), Fretageot’s method, ala Pestalozzi, was to teach the children simply, with ample use of all their senses, and without prejudice. “The school curriculum [beyond Infant School] included arithmetic, geometry, mechanism (physics), natural history (science and health), writing and drawing, gymnastics, languages, music, and manual training. The girls followed the same curriculum, taught by Madame Fretageot, as the boys, who were instructed by Neef. Maclure believed that the school students could feed and clothe themselves and this his would be a useful part of their education; thus, both the boys and the girls worked in the cotton and woolen mills and the fields.”v Fretageot remained in New Harmony long after the Owen period, continuing to teach there until 1831 and directing Maclure’s printing press. She died in Mexico in 1833, while visiting Maclure who had moved there for his health a few years earlier. Members of the Fretageot family remained in New Harmony, including her son, Achilles, who came with her on the Boatload. A quick check of that last name shows at least 21 burials in Maple Hill Cemetery in New Harmony, the latest in 1972.

Drawing of Robert Dale Owen. UASC MSS 247-5338, the Don Blair collection

Owen’s oldest son, Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877) came along with his father in 1825 to New Harmony. He remained in New Harmony and promoted educational reform. He served in the Indiana House of Representatives 1835-1838 and 1851-1853, and in the U.S. House 1843-1847. Because of his efforts, free public education was part of the second Indiana constitution, written in 1851. In 1846 he helped establish the Smithsonian Institution, America’s “national museum.” Other Owen sons, although not part of the Boatload, also came to the United States and New Harmony. David Dale (1807-1860) gave up a career in medicine to pursue geology, and commissioned the first geological survey of Indiana in 1837. Under his leadership, New Harmony was the national headquarters for federal geological surveys from 1837-1856, before the U.S. Geological Survey came into existence in 1876. He also served as the state geologist of Kentucky, then Arkansas, and then Indiana. The youngest of Robert Owen’s sons, Richard Dale (1810-1890), succeeded his brother as Indiana state geologist, then became a natural history professor at Indiana University from 1964 to 1879, and served as the first president of Purdue University 1872-1874.

If you recall, the Owen New Harmony experiment lasted only two years. Owen’s utopian ideals, although deeply held and of real value, were not deeply rooted in practicality. “Owen never adequately understood or adopted the secrets that made the three Harmonist and nineteen Shaker communities thrive. In fact, Owen’s own faith in mental freedom and his insatiable urge to travel and speak on behalf of his social system militated against his adoption of the unquestioning commitment of members and the daily authoritarian administration that insured Harmonist and Shaker solidarity and economic success. This basic defect helps explain the monumental debates at New Harmony and the eventual dissolution of the communal aspect of Maclure’s and the other scholars’ involvement with Owen by 1827.”vi

Two years isn’t very much time, but Owen’s, his sons’, and his friends’ and colleagues’ contributions still echo today, and visitors and scholars still flock to New Harmony to partake of the utopian dream.

NOTE: the following two photographs are from the October 1977 filming of “The New Harmony Experience,” the first orientation film shown in the Atheneum/Visitors Center in New Harmony. (This is not the film shown today.) Nor are these photographs of the real Boatload of Knowledge, or necessarily even scale models. These are only the creation of the film’s artists as they sought to show visitors a representation of what the Boatload might have looked. Still, they are interesting and informative to give you a contemporary view of what might have been seen in New Harmony in 1826.

UASC UA 058-00382, the Historic New Harmony collection
UASC UA 058-00557, the Historic New Harmony collection

Resources Consulted

  • Budds, Diana.  “This small Indiana town is a hotbed of utopianism.”, August 5, 2019.
  • Pitzer, Donald E.  “The Original Boatload of Knowledge Down the Ohio River: William Maclure’s and Robert Owens’s Transfer of Science and Education to the Midwest, 1926-1827.”  Ohio Journal of Science, v. 89: no.4 (1989), p. 128-142. 
  • Pitzer, Donald E.  “William Maclure’s Boatload of Knowledge: Science and Education into the Midwest.” Indiana Magazine of History, v.94: no. 2 (June 1998), p. 110-137. 
  • Reynolds, Virginia K.  “Madame Marie Duclos Fretageot—The New Harmony Years.”  Contemporary Education, v, 58: no.2 (Winter 1987), p. 90-91. (journal article located in UA 058-1-18, the Historic New Harmony collection)

End Notes

  • iPitzer/Original, p. 130
  • ii Pitzer/William, p. 111
  • iii Pitzer/William, p. 115
  • iv Budds
  • v Reynolds, p. 91
  • vi Pitzer/William, p. 115-116
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