By William W. Abbott
California’s historic settlement patterns are far more diverse than what would first appear to be the case. In addition to the religious (San Bernardino, Compton, Whittier ), the ethnic (Solvang, Ft. Ross) and the timber company towns (Samoa, Westwood, McCloud), there are numerous spiritual, philosophical, labor and socialist undertakings in this state’s history. This article is an overview of the labor/socialist origins of the Kaweah Colony, located in eastern Tulare County.
The period following the Civil War was a time, both nationally and internationally, in which there was rising dissatisfaction with capitalism as preferred of national economic model. An American socialist, Laurence Grodlund, wrote of Gwerman socialism in Co-operative Commonwealth, a publication which circulated in the United States. Labor activists in the San Francisco Bay Area became interested in Grodlund’s description of a better way. Influenced by Grodlund and other prominent writers, a group of Bay Area residents, lead by the labor activists, organized the Kaweah Co-Operative Commonwealth (the Kaweah Colony). Its purpose was to patent the newly opened timbered resources of eastern Tulare County and use the timber as the basis for a new society. Eastern Tulare was largely inaccessible and thus of little interest to commercial timber interests. The participants applied for 53 patents covering 12,000 acres of land surrounding the forks of the Kaweah River. The Land Patent Office, suspicious of recent fraudulent patent activity in Humboldt County, was slow to process the claims. Assuming success, and perhaps encouraged by the land agents to move forward, the Kaweah Commonwealth was launched without the patents. Funds were not only raised by the participants as part of a buy-in, but also from national and European sources as well. Many of the members never lived at Kaweah, but active clubs supporting Kaweah existed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and New York. The colony was begun, and its principal undertaking, starting in 1886, was the construction of an 18 mile road over a four-year period to access the standing timber resources. The plan was that the logs were to be cut, milled, and then hauled to market. In terms of daily life, the colony has its own medium of exchange, wherein all participants were paid, based upon the time devoted to Colony undertakings. The time credits could be exchanged for meals and goods at the Colony store. Recognizing that all labor was valuable, all work was credited at the same exchange rate.
The Colony began at Arcady, up from Three Rivers. As most labor and resources were devoted to the road construction, few other prominent improvements were developed other than improvised road construction camps. The Colony received a death-blow, when, at the same time that the road was completed in 1890, Congress created Sequoia National Park, with the surrounding lands dedicated to national forest. As the Land Office had never taken final action on the colonists land patents, their work was for naught. Their land claims were rejected and they were now trespassers, charged with stealing timber resources from the federal lands.
By 1890, colony constructed buildings in Kaweah, including a hall for dining and meetings, a blacksmith shop, a print shop, a barn and a blacksmith shop. The post office still stands (although in a different location), and the colonist’s road was used by the Park Service for many years as the only road to the sequoia groves. Among other accomplishments, the colonists published a newspaper, the Kaweah Commonwealth (still published today.)
By 1892, most of the Colony had disbanded. Its peak population is estimated at about 300 individuals, and membership peaked at 500.
For further reading, I recommend California’s Utopian Colonies (Yale Western Americana Paperbound, 1953 by Robert Hine) and Co-Operative Dreams: A History of the Kaweah Colony (Raven River Press, 1999 by Jay O’Connell).