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Friday
Jan142011

* Utopian ancestors: the oneida community 

You are bound to find some juicy facts the deeper you dig into your family roots. One of my ancestors was supposedly a member of the Oneida Community, researching the history of was quite enlightening.

Oneida Mansion House

A random handwritten family tree from the box of stuff mentioned that my gggg grandfather Josiah J Franks was a member of the Oneida Community. After some digging I found a cousin of my grandmother. He is in his nineties and as luck would have it he was an avid family historian! He sent me a wealth of information and also noted Josiah as a "member of oneida community". In addition he sent a letter dated 1856 between 2 of Josiah's sons:

“You ask how do I feel about going to Oneida to live, I can tell you that I would not live among such a set of people for anything at all. Every letter that Father [Josiah] writes to me he says more or less about me going to Oneida to live. He says he is going to send me money for me to come home but on the condition that I must spend a week at Oneida.“

Intrigued I started researching...

In 1848 the group naming themselves the Oneida Community moved to Oneida, NY. The Utopian movement was founded by the theories of John Humphrey Noyes and members lived communally under a doctrine religious and Perfectionist lifestyle. They had strict ideals and I found many of their theories to be very controversial. I'm especially interested to see how society responded to this progressive movement (more research to do!).

Life in the Oneida Community; Oneida, NY 1848

Gender Equality Men and Women worked alongside each other with equality in government and community leadership.

No monogamy allowed A principle belief: Complex Marriage "In Complex Marriage, every man was married to every woman and vice versa. This practice was to stay only within the community and had to stay within two main guidelines. The first was that before the man and woman could cohabit, they had to obtain each other's consent through a third person or persons. Secondly, no two people could have exclusive attachment with each other because it would be selfish and idolatrous*. Any two people found in any such situation would be separated and not allowed to see each other for a certain length of time."

*idolatrous?: "Given to blind or excessive devotion to something"

No babies The community discouraged it's members from having children up until 1869 when certain couples were granted permission as the prosperity of the community grew.

Public Reprimands Following an order of Mutual Criticism "each member of the community that was being reprimanded was taken in front of either a committee or sometimes the whole community to be criticized for their action."

The community was a very complex organization and it's rigid structure began to quiver. In 1880 the remaining members decided to incorporate as the "Oneida Community Ltd" and eventually "Oneida Ltd". This is the same Oneida known for their silverware and tableware and still in business today.

The original community house located in Oneida, NY is now a National Historic Landmark serving the community with tours of the property and preservation initiatives. 

The Syracuse University Library has a special collection of original sources detailing the Oneida Community. I recently contacted them to see if they had any information on my ancestor- expect a follow up!

I'll never know why Josiah left family in Brooklyn to move with the Oneida Community, but having this little piece of info helps give shape to his legacy. I am also the proud owner of another of his legacies.

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Reader Comments (2)

I was intrigued by your post. I am living in an apartment in the Oneida Community Mansion House. It is a National Historic Monument, museum, B&B and apartment house. My wife and l are living here while we create a media project about the Community. You can check out our blog at ~
https://tontine255.wordpress.com.

Here is what I copied about your family from The Oneida Family Genealogy: "One of the oldest joiners, Josiah J. Franks was born in London, England on February 19, 1794. Nothing is known of him except that he finally joined the Community at the age of 79 on November 15, 1873, and died a year later on December 19, 1874. He taught bookkeeping in the Community. He tried to join the Community over a period of twenty years, but was refused then because his family was opposed."

I checked the register of the Oneida Community Cemetery and he is not buried here.

One note of clarification on your excellent post ~ beginning in 1869, parents were chosen by the leader of the Community, John Humphrey Noyes, or a committee to be part of the only large-scale experiment in selected human breeding ever attempted in America. 58 children were born as a result.

Frank Christopher

Jan 16, 2011 at 2:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank Christopher

I am speechless right now, and that doesn't happen often!

Thank you so much for checking out my blog and searching your sources for my ancestor! The vital stats match my research and you have given me a new perspective. I had assumed Josiah was already living with the community when his son wrote of his father bribing him to check out the Oneida Community in 1856. From what you found it seems more likely Josiah needed to demonstrate his family's acceptance so he could join the community. And now to know this was only the very beginning of his campaign!

From your research, why do you think the reaction of Josiah's family would have barred him acceptance into to the Oneida Community for so long? I am also curious about their record keeping, the pictures you have found, were they labeled or organized in any coherent way? Would pictures be subject to the community pot?

I am eager to learn more and will enjoy checking out your blog! Thank you so much!

Jan 16, 2011 at 10:34 PM | Registered Commenterabbyb

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