A History of the Kaweah Colony: The Spirit of the Dreamer

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.

One duty only remains to those whose hearts were with Kaweah as a cooperative experiment; it is to let the truth be known. And is there no remedy, then, for the evils that oppress the poor?  And is there no surety that the day is coming when justice and right shall reign on earth? I do not know; but I believe, and I hope, and I trust. (Burnette Haskell, Kaweah, November 1891)

This narrative grew out of an interest in local history. It has grown far beyond that. It is a story that epitomizes California and even America. This is not simply because of the prominence of such issues as land, labor, and conservation. Kaweah’s story is California’s in the utterance of a single word — dream. The California Dream. Co-Operative Dreams.

Historian Kevin Starr used the word in the title of his several volumes of California history. The first volume, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915, ends with a variation on Wallace Stegner’s observation that California is like the rest of the United States, only more so.

In a very real sense [Starr wrote], the California dream was the American dream undergoing one of its most significant variations. The hope raised by promotional writers… was the simple yet subtle hope for a better life animating America since its foundation. California provided a special context for the working-out of this aspiration, intensified it, indeed, gave it a probing, prophetic edge in which the good and evil of the American dream was sorted out and dramatized. In 1915, after sixty-five years of statehood, as, north and south, great expositions opened their gates, California, like America itself, remained an intriguing, unanswered question.

How apt this is to Kaweah, where the California dream underwent significant variation. Where hope was raised by promotional writers. Where a special context was provided for the working-out of aspirations. Where intriguing, unanswered questions certainly remain. And isn’t the story of California filled with individuals who failed to achieve their dream? They include the countless seekers who came up short in the diggings of the Gold Rush; the settlers seeking land enough to raise food and family who were unable to compete with the wealthy land barons; the immigrants and economic refugees who envisioned eating the plentiful grapes right off the vine but instead became a rootless migrant workforce; even the starstruck youths coming to Hollywood to achieve fame and fortune only to end up desperate souls on a boulevard of broken dreams.

Starr reminds us that a culture that fails to internalize some understanding of its past tragedies and past ideal has no focus upon the promise of the future nor the dangers of the present. In that way, he maintains, the elusiveness or failure of the California dream can prove a blessing. Only by remembering those who struggled but failed can we further today’s struggle for value and corrective action. “Old in error,” Starr wrote, “California remains an American hope.”

From the very beginning, the story of Kaweah was a human story of flesh and blood and passion and hope. And while it centered on the dream of cooperation, it was a story of individuals.

There has long been a popular perception that the Kaweah Colony was destroyed by the bickering within. While we have seen that this was certainly a contributing factor to its demise, it is hoped that this book has shown there was much more at the heart of the problem. One reason for this perception, however, was the writings of Burnette Haskell. Even though he blamed governmental persecution and the long arm of capitalist monopolies for the demise of the Colony, in the end (and more than once in print), he assigned blame to the failings of “too many average men.” Disgusted with everyone’s actions but his own, Haskell wrote that “men are not yet civilized enough to do right for right’s sake alone and to labor for the love of production itself.” Never once did he concede that legal or management mistakes he, himself, may have made were a factor in the Colony’s demise. With our knowledge of Haskell, this is hardly surprising.

Thus we can say that Haskell became disillusioned with cooperation because of the weakness of the individual. In his mind, the plan for cooperation did not fail; the individuals who took part did. Haskell once commented on the sheer variety of those individuals involved.

The list of membership [Haskell wrote] itself is a curious study. It is the United States in microcosm; among the members are old and young, rich and poor, wise and foolish, educated and ignorant, worker and professional man, united only by the common interest in Kaweah. There were temperance men and their opposites, churchmen and agnostics, free-thinkers, Darwinists and spiritualists, bad poets and good, musicians, artists, prophets, and priests. There were dress-reform cranks and phonetic spelling fanatics, word-purists and vegetarians. It was a mad, mad world, and being so small its madness was the more visible.

While Haskell noted that the cross section of individuals was reflective of America itself, he also felt that so varied a group was perhaps not the best of situations in such tight quarters, for while this “mad, mad world” may have been united in a common interest — Kaweah — they certainly were not united in how best to achieve its goal: cooperative utopia.

Little has been said in this book of other cooperative utopian experiments, which preceded and followed Kaweah, or of Kaweah’s place amongst them. The consideration of other colonies shall be left to other studies, for it is far too encompassing a subject to adequately deal with here. But a cursory look at some of the better known American community experiments — from Brook Farm to the Oneida Community, from the Mormons to the Shakers — reveals that those with the greatest longevity were those that relied on devotion to religious or spiritual doctrine. Those that were structured around political doctrine did not fare as well. Perhaps this is due to the almost impossible task of reconciling a society based on cooperation with a strong spirit of individualism. Strong-minded individuals are needed to achieve productivity, but that same spirit can be anathema to a system of enforced cooperation, which is what any political cooperative is by definition. Oftentimes these systems of enforced cooperation become corrupted of their original intent — the good of the community — and the spirit of the individual becomes suppressed.

Such was the case some 25 years after the failure of the Kaweah experiment when, through a revolution Haskell probably would have at first cheered, a Bolshevik faction of Russian Marxists created Communist rule in Russia. Confronted with the formidable task of transforming the large, backward country into a leading industrial nation of the twentieth century, the great Soviet experiment eventually evolved and was controlled by Stalin’s brand of totalitarianism.

Perhaps the ultimate example of enforced cooperation (and nationalist zeal) followed during a time of worldwide economic turmoil. The National Socialist German Worker’s Party became the Nazi party, and its Fuhrer will forever be considered the embodiment of evil fascism.

John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, once wrote that “a vast spiritual and intellectual excitement is one thing; and the institutions that rise out of it are another. We must not judge the excitement by the institutions.” We will not, then, judge the individuals of Kaweah and the excitement they felt for their ideals by the failure of Kaweah as an institution. Nor will we, as Haskell has done, blame these individuals for that failing, although it is tempting to assign some individual blame to Haskell himself. Instead, let us admire the effort — the spiritual and intellectual excitement they displayed — and learn from the shortcomings so visible from our vantage point of 100 years of hindsight.

Haskell called Kaweah a microcosm for the United States, and in so much that Kaweah’s membership represented a sort of melting pot of individuals, that analogy holds true. America has always celebrated the spirit of the individual. America was founded on the liberties of the individual. The remarkable success of America, then, is that the spirit and liberty of the individual has somehow been integrated with the good of society. It is a precarious balance (where sometimes the good of society must be sacrificed to the rights of the individual), and one that was never achieved at Kaweah. This does not mean that we should not admire the effort these individuals who comprised Kaweah made toward that unachieved goal. Society, as well as individuals, can learn from the mistakes of the past. As Robert Hine observed, “from one more experiment in community life may yet emerge — like a phoenix, momentarily dusted with the disappointments of the past — a resplendent, reformed mankind gathered in the ideal society.”

Some never recovered from the disappointments of Kaweah. Haskell died a bitter, lonely, and broken man at the relatively young age of 50, only 16 years after the failure of the Colony. With his “belly full of cooperation, you bet,” he lost hope that any phoenix might rise from the ashes of his failed dreams.

Nearly 50 years after her days at Kaweah, Annie Haskell looked back. At 79 years of age, she wrote:

No use thinking of that day so long past—when Burnette and I were married; my life, emotionally seemed to be like a troubled sea—the waves raged and the salt was bitter. I learned a little, I suffered much, and laughed a lot. If I had it all to relive—I wonder if I shouldn’t do exactly the same, even with knowledge added. I wonder.

Annie, following the end of her marriage and the death of Burnette Haskell, lived a long and full life. She found fulfillment in her son, Roth; her career as a school teacher; and ultimately in religion. Perhaps she learned, better than anyone from the difficulties surrounding Kaweah and her tumultuous life with its founder. It was only a few years after Kaweah, as her marriage was disintegrating and the dawning of a new year brought with it only the promise of “drunkenness, poverty, abuse, and neglect,” that Annie came to a realization:

Unless there is hope for me in me, myself—then there is nothing for me.

Only through the strength of individuals able to learn from failure and maintain hope in themselves can the dream of cooperation stay alive. And will that dream ever be fully realized? To echo Burnette Haskell’s words, I do not know; but I believe, and I hope, and I trust.

SOURCES: As noted in text, Kevin Starr’s Americans and the California Dream; 1850-1915 provided a launching pad for these final thoughts. Haskell’s Out West magazine article obviously furthered the discussion, and input was even garnered from John Humphrey Noyes’s History of American Socialisms (Hillary House Publisher, NY, 1961, originally published in 1870). Robert V. Hine’s California’s Utopian Colonies contributed a note of optimism. I thank Bob for that (and for a memorable lunch we shared at UCI’s University Club). And it is fitting that the final word comes (via a transcription by Oscar Berland) from Annie Haskell. Her diaries are one of the most brilliant primary sources any historian could dream to find.