About That Socialist Commune (It Was Racist)

A few weeks ago, at the website Timeline, the writer Meagan Day wrote an article about the Kaweah Colony, a short-lived, circa 1886-1892 socialist commune in what is now Sequoia National Forest, and which was crushed railroad conglomerates and other capitalist forces.

It was exciting to see some coverage of this little-known outpost and its dissolution. I myself only learned about Kaweah because the cabins they build showed up during research for my book, and was fascinated enough to drum up an 8,100+ word draft about the colony, its founding and its ultimate end, an end finalized by capitalist interests but brought about in part by colony infighting and paranoia. The piece went nowhere. I submitted it to one or two sites, but who wants to read 8,100 words, especially on something so esoteric?

In any event, while I appreciated the Timeline piece, I found it incomplete. In addition to overlooking the group’s internal conflicts, including a spin-off colony, the piece also didn’t mention the inglorious fact that Kaweah’s founders were xenophobic racists and misogynists. It’s an unfortunate truth that sullies the romantic image, and I admit I struggled with how to address it when I first pursued what seemed to be a fairly straight-forward and timeless tale, but Kaweah’s ugly underbelly is essential to remember nonetheless. It also makes one wonder, as I did in my scuttled piece, whether we’re better off Kaweah was crushed and scattered to the four corners. Does the world need another enclave of white supremacists, even on under the guise of cooperative living? That’s a hard no.*

All that said, here is an unedited excerpt from my unpublished piece. It picks up right after the colony’s Bay Area-based founders, Burnette G. Haskell, James J. Martin and John Redstone, decide to break away from San Francisco and start their own society in the woods.

(*It’s worth noting that California which so many of us envision as a sunshine-y liberal haven, is also a hotbed of white supremacists.)

The men’s first order of business was to find land for their new Eden, and they knew exactly where to look: Tulare County, about 230 miles southeast of San Francisco, near a town called Visalia. The Timber and Stone Act opened the land for private business in 1878, and railroad and lumber companies long ago rejected the rocky, remote region, but the sanguine colonists saw vast promise in those hills and valleys. “We meant to create amid the hills an ideal commonwealth, the Fraternal Republic of which the world will always dream,” they wrote. But in addition to eternal brotherhood, they also saw the epicenter for what they hoped would be a sprawling socialist empire to contend with capitalist behemoths. They wanted canneries, manufacturing operations and docks in the Bay. “Factories of any kind that may be deemed profitable and desirable,” Haskell later wrote.

Kaweah’s founders’ heads danced with visions of an industrial utopia arising amidst the sequoia, cedar and pine. They dreamt of lumber mills and railroads, of orchards overflowing with fruit and of mines glittering with riches. “Mountains of marble, quarries of lime, and mines of many metals… only for the hand of well-directed labor to make them sources of progress, wealth and civilization,” said Haskell. But more importantly than a bulging bottom line, tiny Kaweah, tucked for the moment in California, intended to spark global political change: “Our state would grow in strength and liveliness until all men should heed, and the whole world should follow our guidons [sic] in one resistless advance.” Like all mass­minded socialist undertakings, Kaweah wanted to forge an entirely new man, a goal encapsulated in the colony’s official motto, “Men made here.


December 25, 1889, was more than just Christmas at Kaweah. It was the colony’s first wedding, the union between colonist Carrie Swettenham and local rancher Jesse Davis. Almost all the colonists had gathered to watch unofficial “Reverend” EC Miles officiate the vows. Among them were Frank and Susanna Bishop, a young couple who were expecting their first child; Aaron Evans, a druggist who brought his wife and two teenagers from San Francisco and William and his wife, Candis Christie, who ran the colony dining room. Jennie Sturtevant, Katherina Renken, and a Mrs. W. Eglie, the colony’s only single women at the time, were there, as well. And of course, the colony’s founding families turned out: President Haskell and wife Ann; James J. Martin, his wife Marie, and their two children; President Haskell and his wife Anna; and John Redstone with his wife, Sarah, son and two daughters, both of whom would later be married at the colony. These were just a few of the five or six dozen people living in the colony, now in its third year. The number would rise to 129 after the winter thaw.

The venture had started with 56 members, mostly laborers from California, but some from as far as Illinois and Ohio, recruited over the course of eleven months. Forty­three of them filed land claims at the Visalia Land Office between October 5 and 30, 1885, amassing about 7,000 acres between them. But only thirteen of these people actually moved to the colony the next year, when organizers finally had the money and materials f or a base camp on the Kaweah River’s North Fork, their HQ while they constructed a wagon road leading into south, into the forest. Then, without much fanfare, six colonists broke ground on October 8, 1886. Since most of the colonists still relied on paychecks back in the Bay, this small group would come to rely on day laborers. Though it was tedious work ­­ hacking, axing and dynamiting at the earth ­­ they made impressive progress, about a mile a month. The rest of the colonists, primarily women, children and less skilled men, followed behind, setting up a series of haphazard road camps as land was cleared ahead. This went on through winter, until April 1887, when about 25 colonists, sick and tired of constant uprooting, turned their fourth road camp into Kaweah’s first proper homestead. Sometimes called Camp Gronlund, most Kaweahns referred to it by a more aspirational name: “Advance.” It was here, six miles into the woods, that Carrie Swettenham wed Jesse Davis.

Made mostly of canvas tents and scant lean­tos, Advance wasn’t a glamorous place, but it was far more comfortable than the slipshod settlements of the past six months. Flower­lined walkways and city­line amenities like a mess hall, barber’s and laundry tents made it more homey, and Advance’s nightly campfires sound like regular hootenannies: “Here the talent of the camp would express itself in songs, recitations, duets, choruses, instrumental music and other varieties of entertainment,” JJ Martin wrote later. Advance even had a “suburb,” Glen Park, a small field across a ravine whose residents included Dr. WD Hunter, Dr. Henry Hubbard and the German Essner-Bruhnke clan, a family of four who arrived with two wagon loads carrying what The Commonwealth described as “about 3500 lbs of furniture… chairs, tables, spring beds, bedding, pictures, several heavy cases of general household goods and an assorted collection of sundries.” These geographic and material divisions will prove troublesome down the road.

Tents at Advance, before things went south.

Now spread out over four camps, with Advance as its de facto capital, Kaweah circa 1890 was a hodgepodge of personalities. “There were temperance men and their opposites, churchmen and agnostics, freethinkers, Darwinists and spiritualists,” Haskell recalled. “There were dress­reform cranks and phonetic spelling fanatics, word­purists and vegetarians. It was a mad mad world and being so small its madness was more visible.” But regardless of disposition or diet, Kaweahns were united by a disgust for the “capitalist cabal” that ruled the outside world.

“[Members] came under the belief that his particular talents and abilities had not been properly recognized in the outside world; that a capitalist cabal or conspiracy there existed against him; and that here in Kaweah his merits would be instantly noted.”

But as heterogenous as Haskell makes the colony out to be, the founders wanted more than just a socialist commune. Their vision was far less inclusive.

Kaweah’s recruitment was done carefully, methodically, and mostly through three routes: via word of mouth among Bay Area labor allies, with op­eds in Haskell’s The Truth and through advertisements in New York and Boston’s leftist papers. Kaweah’s founders wanted to cast a wide net, but not too wide, and there were certain controls in place to weed out undesirables.

First and foremost, applicants had to pony up $100 cash, the down payment on a $500 investment. This initial deposit ­­ worth about $2,500 today ­­ proved an applicant’s personal responsibility while shoring up the colony’s coffers. The rest could be worked off through “time checks” in which an hour of labor was worth 30¢, about $7.69/hr. Next and more i nvasively came a survey on applicants’ political alignments and education. Were they read up on and did they respect Marx, Gronlund and fellow utopia­seeking lefty Albert Kimsey Owen? Did they belong to any unions? Were they religious? What magazines did they read? These questions insured ideological uniformity, an essential litmus test for colony cohesion. But the most superficial and unsettling screening process was saved for last: hopefuls had to submit a picture. And this was not a “hot or not” contest… Let’s just say content of character only went so far in the Kaweah Colony.

You see, for all their talk of cooperation and brotherhood, Kaweah’s founders were pretty big racists. Like most of the early labor movement, they were xenophobic nativists fighting against what they saw as foreign, particularly Chinese, intrusion in the job market. Kaweah founder Haskell wrote in the Denver Labor Enquirer that he wanted the city’s Labor Party to “make Chinese laundry a thing of the past, very, very shortly,” and Kaweah’s leadership later bragged to the San Francisco Chronicle that their planned railroad would be made not by the Chinese laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad, but “solely by white labor.” The colonists also made clear other groups were excluded from their utopia, too. “A colored person would probably not be elected if proposed for membership,” the colony’s official organ, The Commonwealth,  confessed in 1890. And the colony’s 1891 New Year’s Eve bash was basically a hate crime. From Stacy Colleen Kozakavich’s dissertation on the Kaweah crew:

“Racial attitudes at Kaweah seem to have involved active ‘othering’ through caricatured performance of ethnic and racial categories, as the masquerade ball costumes at New Year’s Eve 1891 included a ‘Chinaman,’ a ‘darkey wench,’ an ‘Irish biddy,’ a ‘darkey gentleman’ and ‘darkey twins.’”

While women had equality in terms of “darkey wench” action, they were mostly relegated to the colony’s kitchens and classrooms. “Men are made” in Kaweah, but their lady­folk were largely kept in their traditional place. The colony was not as noble as it appeared….

For more on the Kaweah Colony, check out Day’s piece, Stacy Colleen Kozakavich’s thesis and Jay O’Connell’s history, Co-Operative Dreams: History of the Kaweah Colony.

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