Our Iowa Heritage: Welcome To Salubria, Iowa!

Allow me to take you to Salubria, Iowa. As you can see from the maps above, we are traveling into southeastern Iowa – Van Buren County, to be exact. Formed in 1836, the county was named for Martin Van Buren, who was Vice President of the United States when given this distinct honor. Van Buren County’s courthouse (see below), in Keosauqua, was built in September 1843 and stands today as Iowa’s oldest, and the nation’s second oldest, courthouse still in operation.

Van Buren County was actively involved in the “The 1839 Honey War” – a colorful episode in our state’s history when the State of Missouri and the Territory of Iowa entered into a bitter dispute over the border between the two entities. When Missouri attempted to collect taxes from residents north of the disputed Sullivan Line of 1816, the sheriff of Van Buren County arrested and jailed the sheriff from Kahoka, Missouri. Some Missourians, in retaliation, stole honey from bee trees in Van Buren County. Each governor sent troops to resolve the problem but, fortunately, no bloodshed resulted. The matter was turned over to the U.S. Supreme Court for arbitration and not resolved until 1849. Click here to read more.

In May of 1839, one year after Iowa had become a U.S. Territory, a zealous preacher named Abner Kneeland, a 65-year old gray-hair from Gardner, Massachusetts, traveled down the Ohio River and then north on the Mississippi until he came to Keokuk on the Des Moines River, turned left, and headed into Van Buren County. There, just a couple of miles south of Farmington, he had purchased several plots of land on the east bank of the Des Moines, on which he dreamed of building a new community he called Salubria – The First Society of Free Enquirers.

Prior to him coming west, Kneeland and some his supporters had been spreading the word that a new community in the far West was coming. In The Investigator (Boston) on May 11, 1838. Tyler Parsons, one of Kneeland’s business agents, posted this public announcement…

As you might know, starting new religious communities in the west was not a new idea. The practice was one of the primary reasons many Europeans came to America in the first place. My Boller ancestors, for example, were long-time Mennonites in, what is today, Germany, and came first to Pennsylvania (1816), then Ohio (1821), and eventually Johnson County, Iowa (1853) because they wanted to settle in a peaceful place where they could freely worship as their faith required them to do.

One of our country’s founding fathers. William Penn, came here because, as a Quaker who had experienced much persecution in Europe, he dreamed of a land where anyone could freely worship God in whatever fashion they desired. His “holy experiment” called Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods) was founded with the hope that there could be one place where all men and women were seen as equals. A land where each person was free to practice their religion as they felt they should, not because some institution was commanding them to do so in some prescribed fashion.

Iowa Territory in 1838.

When Iowa opened its doors to new settlers (1833), there were many who came here over the following decades with that same dream of building a community where they could be free to worship as they believed they should.

The Amana Colonies in Iowa County, became the home of the Community of True Inspiration in 1856. In 1873, Buxton, Iowa, in southeastern Iowa, sprung up around the coal mining industry, drawing hundreds of African-Americans looking to live out their new-found freedoms following the Civil War. Pella began as a home (1847) for those in the Dutch Reformed faith tradition, while Johnson County’s Kalona and nearby Wellman of Washington County was a gathering spot for both the Amish and Mennonites (1840’s). Quakers (1869) settled in West Branch (Cedar County) while Mormons built a community called Zarahemia (1839) in Lee County – directly across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo, Illinois. Even as late as the 1970’s, followers of the Maharashi Mahesh Yogi, the originator of Transcendental Meditation, settled in Fairfield, Iowa, building a faith community in Jefferson County – one that thrives even to today.

So, when we look back at the story of Abner Kneeland and Salubria, we are actually uncovering the very first Iowa story where pioneers came to the Hawkeye State specifically to escape religious persecution being experienced back East. Allow me, now, to tell you some of the details, beginning with Kneeland’s earliest years. For that, I’ll turn to Palimpsest author Ruth A. Gallaher…

Abner was apparently both an independent thinker and one who didn’t fear to speak out his opinions, even in his earliest days…

As a young man (age 21), Kneeland became a lay preacher in a Baptist church, but as he struggled to live a faith that was too confining for his free spirit, he converted to Universalism and was ordained in 1812 as a minister. Yet even there, his questioning and doubts continued…

As you can see from Gallaher’s story above, Abner continued to struggle with his faith and by 1829, decided, once again, to leave his ministry assignments, sending his best wishes to his friends (above right) in a parting letter.

From here, he returned to Boston, founding a pantheist group known as The First Society of Free Enquirers. If you’re not familiar with pantheism, a short definition is this: a pantheist believes that the universe and God are all one and that the combined substance, forces, and laws of nature are God, manifest in and through our existing universe.

In 1833, Kneeland declared his “Philosophical Creed” in which he stated: “I believe that God and Nature, so far as we can attach any rational idea to either, are synonymous terms. Hence, I am not an Atheist, but a Pantheist; that is, instead of believing there is no God, I believe that in the abstract, all is God. It is in God we live, move, and have our being; and that the whole duty of man consists in living as long as he can, and in promoting as much happiness as he can while he lives.”

Abner was “radical” for his times in other ways, as well, speaking up for women’s rights and racial equality, including support of such ideas as divorce rights for women, married women keeping their own names and property, birth control, and a refusal to condemn miscegenation (interracial marriage). Interestingly, Iowa was one of the first states in the U.S. to strike down the law of miscegenation in 1851.

Once back in Boston, Abner continued his writings, starting a newspaper, in 1832, called The Investigator. And it was his controversial writings in this publication that caused much push back from the very conservative Christian society in which he lived. Once again, Gallaher explains…

Sadly, these conflicts in theology quickly led the Massachusetts legal system, in 1834, to actually indict Abner, threatening him with jail sentences for breaking seldom-used laws written against blasphemy. The court trials went back and forth for four years, with Kneeland trying to explain to his accusers that he was not denying the existence of God…

Between 1834 and 1838, Abner was tried five times for blasphemy. His first three trials ended in hung juries, and the fourth was appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Kneeland, throughout the trials, used three arguments to defend himself: first, that he never denied the existence of God, he just denied the existence of a god (see above). Second, the blasphemy law violated the Massachusetts Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion. And third, the law violated the guarantee of freedom of the press.

But, despite his best efforts to calm the storm, and even with the broad support he received from others…

…it was all to no avail. The judge, Justice Lemuel Shaw (above right), described Kneeland as “a cantankerous and inflexible heretic,” and in June 1838, 64-year-old Abner was convicted of his “crime” of blasphemy, and sentenced to sixty days in jail.

Even out west in Iowa, the news of an older gentleman being sent to jail for simply expressing his religious beliefs brought an indignant response from The Iowa News in Dubuque (July 14, 1838)…

Fortunately, Kneeland’s case of blasphemy, while a kick in the teeth to civil liberties in America, was the last one ever tried in U.S. history! Yet for Abner, the die had been cast. So, when he was released from a Boston jail on August 17, 1838, he immediately proceeded with his earlier plans to relocate to the West – and that’s how Iowa became an important part of both his story and ours.

The Des Moines River in Van Buren County, Iowa.

As we mentioned earlier, Abner came to Van Buren County in May of 1839, traveling with his stepson, James Rice, and together, they built a modest two-story family home. Records show that Abner mailed letters back to Boston after arriving here in Iowa. Here are a few highlights from those letters…

We struck bottom on the Des Moines River more than 100 times. Altogether the country is the best, and most beautiful I ever saw. We walked over our premises to-day, in company with the original proprietor. There is no part but what exceeds my expectation; and if there be any preference, those lots which were drawn to me and Mr. Rice are rather superior to the rest. The community needs a saw mill, grist mill, tan yard, ferry, public house of entertainment…If I remain here, which I am now determined to do, unless sickness or death shall prevent, I hope and expect to see very great and rapid improvement going on in a short time.

My thoughts are wholly taken up with this wonderful and beautiful country and making provision for my family when they shall arrive.

Even aside from the persecution I have endured in my native state, I know of no place in Boston that could afford me half the pleasure, as to the beauty and grandeur of the scenery, as it does to sit in my front door here and look across the Des Moines River; to see the large branching trees on the nearest bank and the beautiful green forest on the opposite side – this wonderful country which is destined to outvie everything which can be even imagined in the East.

Kneeland’s wife, Dolly and her four daughters soon followed, leaving Boston in June and arriving in Iowa in mid-July. Soon the home they built together was called the mansion of Salubria – the grandest house in all Iowa at the time. The house was made of beautiful woods, both native and pine brought from Louisiana. The fireplaces were beautiful, and in a downstairs room, Kneeland had his library, gave talks, and performed an occasional marriage ceremony. Sadly, Abner lived only five more years, but here are some of his accomplishments in Iowa…

By some estimates, between 1840 and 1845, there were as many as one-hundred Salubrians in and around Van Buren County. Yet, some misunderstandings about Salubria have developed over the years. In no way was Salubriad intended to be communal in nature (i.e. like the Amana Colonies), but simply a community free of organized religion. Before Abner died in 1844, he was known to have lectured in the river towns of Farmington, Bonaparte, Bentonsport, Keosauqua, and elsewhere, continuing his contributions via letter to The Investigator back in Boston. But when Abner died, Salubria lost its primary leader, and within a few years, the people scattered, leaving it, much like Napoleon in Johnson County – one of Iowa’s many ghost towns today.

Abner Kneeland was buried with others in a little cemetery at Salubria which remained there for about 40 years. Among those who joined him were his stepson-in-law, Thomas Crim, who died June 6, 1858; his stepdaughter, Dorcas J. (Rice) Crim, who reportedly died in 1864; a James Kneeland, and Dolly, Abner’s wife, who died at Keokuk at the home of her daughter, Dolly L. (Rice) Drummond/Farris on November 5, 1871, at the age of 71.

In the late 1880’s, the Kneelands and their tombstones were brought into Farmington and the bodies re-interred in a new addition to the Farmington Cemetery, located on a bluff just east of town. And there they remain to this day.

Abner Kneeland

In closing, allow me to share the words of Indianola newspaper man, John H. Knox, who wrote about Abner in the 1880’s…

Abner Kneeland was a man of marked ability and force of character. He lacked many of the qualities that make for personal or political success. He was too prone to talk straight out precisely what he thought. If he had any doubts about the foundations of belief or conduct he did not deal mincingly with them or keep still in order to retain position and his stipend. He nearly always turned the contents of his skillet into the fire and there was a blaze. His work was for the most part iconoclastic rather than constructive. He was one with such men as Paine and Priestley, who broke lances against the stiff-backed notions of theology of the last half of the eighteenth century. But while he was disposed to be belligerent in the advocacy of views that greatly perturbed his contemporaries, he had an unsullied character. Those who knew him intimately found a man of sweet and gracious disposition.

A tip of the old hat to Abner Kneeland and to Salubria – as a Christ-follower, might I ask you to please forgive those of us who tried to force you into a belief system that didn’t fit your free spirit and then punished you when you refused. I’m certainly glad you found peace and joy here in Iowa. Rest in peace and may the universe be with you!

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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Van Buren County, Iowa, Wikipedia

Abner Kneeland — Pioneer Pantheist, Ruth A. Gallaher, The Palimpsest, Volume 20 – Number 7 – Article 2, July 1, 1939, pp 209-225

Abner Kneeland, Wikipedia

Abner Kneeland, Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society, 1999-2020

Abner Kneeland don’t get no respect …, Frank D. Myers, August 14, 2008

Abner Kneeland: His Relations To Early Iowa History, Mary R. Whitcomb, The Annals of Iowa, Iowa Biographies Project

Salubria Cemetery, IAGENWeb-Van Buren County

Abner Kneeland, Find-A-Grave

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