Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Much about the Mormon Trail, the story of the French Icarian Colony at Corning, and the Amanas have been published over the years, but the story of Abner Kneeland, his colony of Salubria, and his controversial ideas are rarely mentioned today, despite the fact that during the 1840s he, his colony, and his followers enjoyed the national spotlight.

Born in Vermont in 1774, Kneeland was self-educated, teaching himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew and French. He became one of the most widely known ministers and intellectuals of his time, as he first was a Baptist preacher, then became a Universalist pastor when his doctrines became increasingly dogmatic and contradicted Baptist teachings. He published a newspaper and magazine, and soon his liberal ideas conflicted with Universalism. His thoughts were influenced by Joseph Priestly and Thomas Paine, and he closely associated himself with religious and social reformers.

Many of Kneeland’s concepts were too radical for the conservative people of New England and he began to be persecuted. In 1833, he was charged with blasphemy for an article he wrote attacking the hypocrisy of the Universal Church. The trial lasted five years with many appeals, then he was sentenced and served 60 days in prison. He differed with their belief in God and the divinity of Christ, declaring his own philosophy that “no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.”

Although branded as an Atheist, Kneeland said that he had no occasion to deny the existence of God, but he figured that God and nature were synonymous. Thus, he was not a true atheist, but a pantheist. Still, his trial aroused protest among many “free thinkers” who preached freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Among those coming to his aid were abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and writer/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

A group of his friends and possibly some of his disciples had migrated to the Farmington area of Van Buren County, Wisconsin Territory in late 1837 and 1838. Following his imprisonment in 1838, Kneeland was urged to join them in founding a unique settlement called “The First Society of Free Inquirers.” In 1839, Kneeland moved to the west after laying out and founding the little town of Salubria near the Des Moines River south of Farmington while he was still in Boston. Abner Kneeland urged others who shared his ideas to also move westward, and several families who were followers did migrate into the Farmington area where he claimed to have a congregation of more than one hundred.

There is no planned town or grid on record at the Van Buren County courthouse, but historians have always claimed that there did exist a plan and grid for the town of Salubria. It never contained more than six houses, however.

Kneeland might have been successful in the west at avoiding persecution, but his political aspirations in the new territory brought attention to himself and his colony of “free thinkers.” This alarmed and angered religious leaders in Iowa Territory, he ran into strong opposition, and he once again faced the threat of persecution.

Soon after Kneeland's sudden death from a stroke on August 27, 1844 a levy of $10 each was placed on the members of his society so that they could further his ideas and schemes. When disagreements arose on how the money was to be spent, the colony was abandoned. Within a few years, there was no trace of Salubria and his followers were soon absorbed into the area’s churches.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick