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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Utopians in Wisconsin


During the 19th century, Wisconsin was home to several experiments in communal living. The urge to form perfect societies goes back to the 17th century in the United States, but the 19th century saw the greatest number of experimental social orders. While most had the common goal of reforming or recreating society, they differed radically in philosophy and method. Adherents generally believed that they could break away from mainstream life to form a perfect society, and that the rest of the world would then follow their example. Some were inspired by secular values and others by religious beliefs, but most of these groups saw themselves as peaceful pioneers for a new order to be built in the remote Wisconsin wilderness.

The best-known communal experiment in Wisconsin was the Wisconsin Phalanx, a community based on the principles of Charles Fourier, established at Ceresco (Ripon). It was the second-largest Fourierist experiment in the country, lasting from 1844 until 1850, and housed around 180 people, most of whom lived communally in the Long House. Although the Phalanx was an economic success and attraction national attention, problems developed and the members agreed to dissolve their community in 1850. Another utopian community, Hunt's Colony, was founded in 1843 by Thomas Hunt who led a party of around 30 English settlers to a farm at North Prairie in Waukesha. Accustomed to city life and with no practical farming experience, the colonists disbanded within three years and many moved to Milwaukee. Other secular communities were established in Mukwonago in 1845 (disbanded in 1848) and two in Sheboygan Falls in 1846 (one disbanded in 1847, the other in 1848).

The most famous utopian religious community formed in Wisconsin in the 19th century was Voree, the Mormon "kingdom" of James J. Strang, established first at Burlington and later on Beaver Island, in Lake Michigan. In 1850, a Moravian community named Ephraim was organized by Nils Otto Tank, a wealthy Norwegian, along the Fox River near Green Bay. A dispute over land titles in 1853 led many members to withdraw to form another commune, also called Ephraim, on the west shore of the Door County peninsula. The St. Nazianz Community in Manitowoc County, founded in 1854, has the distinction of being the only Roman Catholic communal society ever established in America. In Marquette County, the Germania Company, a Millerite colony of the Second Adventists, lasted from 1856 until the end of the century.

[Source: Wisconsin's Cultural Resources Study Units, Wisconsin Historical Society]
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