The Icarians may have been the most successful secular utopians to settle in Iowa in the mid-1800s, but they were far from the only ones. Many groups saw the newly opened state as a prime chance to test their particular political theories on the frontier. For most, that test proved too much, and their utopias collapsed within a few years. Today, little remains of these communities but their stories.
Before coming to Iowa, Abner Kneeland (1774-1844) was the last person convicted of blasphemy in the United States. A former Universalist pastor in Boston, Kneeland advocated for women’s rights, racial equality, and religious skepticism. Some called him an atheist, but he actually professed pantheism, believing that “in the abstract, all is God,” as he said. Kneeland became infamous throughout New England as a lecturer for the First Society of Free Enquirers. Critics described the group’s gatherings as “infidel orgies.”
When Kneeland was convicted of blasphemy in 1838, his defenders included transcendentalist leader Ralph Waldo Emerson and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Ultimately, he served just 60 days in prison, but the episode may have convinced Kneeland that Boston was not the place for his ideas.
In 1839, Kneeland and a handful of other Society members traveled to southeast Iowa, near Farmington and founded the utopian community of Salubria, which was dedicated to freedom of inquiry. For five years, Kneeland and the other residents attempted to clear the soil and live off the land in a collection of rough cabins and quality libraries. Kneeland also lectured in nearby Farmington, Bonaparte, Bentonsport, and Keosauqua, provoking the ire Iowa missionaries. However, time ran out before these evangelists’ dire predictions of atheism could come to pass.
Kneeland’s death in 1844 crippled the colony and it soon dissolved. His followers integrated into the surrounding communities and returned to traditional churches. There is little trace remains of Salubria today.
Charles Fourier was an early French socialist and a founder of utopian socialism. He believed that an ideal society could be arranged into “phalanxes,” small self-contained communities of 500 to 2,000 people where cooperation and mutual benefit reigned and everything harmonized with nature. Fourier’s ideas inspired a multitude of utopian communities (which I will likely address in more depth at some point), but only a few are known to have existed in Iowa. Most had little or no success, including the Iowa Pioneer Phalanx in Mahaska County (1844-1845), Hopeville in Clarke County (1850, although the town survived after the colony dissolved), and Garden Grove in Decatur County (c. 1848), about which little is known and which may have never progressed past the planning stage. One, however, has a fairly notable history: Communia, in Clayton County.
Ten men, including three from a previous Fourierist colony in Missouri, founded Communia in 1847. They aimed to establish an agrarian-handicraft economy but found little success. They struggled with farming, although conditions slowly improved.
However, the internal strife that would come to define Communia soon surfaced. The group suspected its leader, Heinrich Koch, of embezzling, especially since all the land was kept under his name. After Koch left in 1849, the group established Articles of Association, which included rules for new members (a three month trial period and the transfer of all possessions to the colony), a requirement to hold all resources in common, a range of social welfare benefits (e.g. providing for families after a member’s death), and colonists’ right to leave with their full original investments. Members held weekly democratic meetings to make decisions and ate together in a common dining hall.
By the early 1850s, Communia was gaining new members (although the population never passed 100). In 1851, an early leading European communist named Wilhelm Weitling praised the colony, leading to investment from Weitling’s organization, the Workingmen’s League. After this, however, members drafted a new constitution that gave more power to the later (and wealthier) colonists. Weitling was appointed administrator – despite being in New York at the time. His influence prompted Karl Marx to describe Weitling as “the dictator of the colony, Communia” (Armstrong, “Utopians in Clayton County, Iowa,” p. 934). More internal strife eventually pushed Weitling out in 1854 and the colony lost the League’s support.
Communia’s final years were defined by factional arguments between the “old” colonists and Weitling’s followers. The colony devolved into violence and court battles as the settlers attempted to disband around 1858. In the aftermath, a few made their way to Icaria in Nauvoo.
Other Lost Utopias
Several other secular utopias were established in Iowa, although relatively little is known about most of them. Clydesdale Colony, also in Clayton County, was established in 1849 by members from Scotland as a joint stock company and dissolved in 1852. Notably, Alexander Gardner managed Clydesdale’s affairs from Scotland. Gardner went on to become a famous photographer in the American Civil War.
A Hungarian Count and his followers, fleeing the revolution in their native country, founded New Buda in 1850 in Decatur County, but the colony also dissolved within a few years. A group of Germans came to Clayton County, not far from Communia, and established Liberty Colony in 1851. It barely survived a year. Many other disappeared communities, including Jasper Kolonie and a variety of Mormon settlements, were mainly religious in nature. I’ll cover those later in this series.
Sources and Further Reading
- “Few Recall ‘Infidel’ Town of Salubria” by George Shane (In Annals of Iowa, 1964)
- “Abner Kneeland, The Free-Speech Martyr Convicted of Blasphemy in 1838” from the New England Historical Society
- “Iowa Utopians: Fourierites” by Alice Hoyt Veen (Prairie Roots Research, 2019)
- “Utopians in Clayton County, Iowa” by Gary W. Armstrong (In Annals of Iowa, 1972)
- The Germans of Iowa and Their Achievements by Joseph Eiboeck, Chapter 9: Iowa’s Colonies (Book, 1900)
- “Communal Groups” by Peter Hoehnle (Iowa Pathways)
- Iowa Stories: Communal Societies in Iowa by Peter Hoehnle (Recorded Webinar)
Special thanks to Dr. Peter Hoehnle, former President of the Communal Studies Association, for his help throughout the creation of this article.