New Harmony’s early utopian communities were so unique and eventful they often draw the majority of historical interest toward the beginning of the 19th century, leaving in the shadows the important role this small town played in promoting critical scientific inquires in mid-century. The Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites has recently recognized one noteworthy New Harmony trailblazer by including a buckskin blanket which belonged to David Dale Owen in its Indiana in 200 Objects: A Bicentennial Celebration. The third of Robert Owen’s children, David was a presence in New Harmony from 1833-1859 as he steadily strengthened New Harmony’s legacy of scientific discovery.
The Owenite utopian community brought eminent scientists into the Midwest heartland with a resulting ripple effect. Gerald Troost, the first president of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, carried out his research in New Harmony and in the process inspired David Dale Owen, who accompanied Troost on a geological survey of Tennessee in 1836. Owen passionately followed in Troost’s footsteps to become the State of Indiana’s first contracted geologist in 1837. Based in New Harmony, David Dale Owen proceeded to conduct groundbreaking geological surveys.
Owen recorded meeting Plains Indians in territories surveyed like Arkansas and Minnesota. On one such frontier expedition, a Plains tribe gifted Owen with the buckskin tunic, blanket, and leggings. These beautiful pieces of craftsmanship, featuring a variety of colorful beads, feathers, quillwork, and tassels – reminders of the respect and friendship that could exist between diverse communities of people – long were displayed in New Harmony’s Old Fauntleroy Home. Jane Owen Fauntleroy, David Dale Owen’s sister, and her scientist husband, Robert Henry Fauntleroy, were residents of the Fauntleroy Home for a number of years. Within sight of the Fauntleroy Home stands the Granary, David Dale Owen’s lecture hall and third research laboratory from 1843-1859.
Thus, the beautifully restored Granary of today is not merely a reminder of the hard work and economic accomplishments of the early Harmonists, nor a simple memory of the unique Owenite utopian community. Instead, its nearly two million pounds of local Wabash sandstone serve as a witness to the area’s beauty and natural resources, while David Dale Owen’s buckskin tunic, blanket, and leggings testify to the intellectual importance and long-term impact of New Harmony’s later thinkers. As the pace of science accelerates exponentially in our current, computerized period, a set of finely crafted frontier buckskins and a remarkably versatile historical building can remind us that the spirit of discovery must continue to be cultivated in light of rare natural and manmade beauty seldom combined so well as in New Harmony.
Indiana in 200 Objects: A Bicentennial Celebration will be on display at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis until January 29, 2017. See 200 Objects and its sister exhibit 200 Years of Indiana Art, which will run through October 2, 2016.
Written by Stanley Schwartz, New Harmony State Historic Site intern.