A History of the Kaweah Colony: Decisions, Decisions
By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.
On April 16, 1891, after deliberating for only 15 minutes, a jury delivered its verdict to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in the case against the trustees of the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony. Charged with illegally cutting timber on government land, the Colony leaders nervously awaited the jury’s decision.
This was the second important decision for the Colony that month. A few days earlier the Secretary of the Interior ruled regarding their timber claims. Secretary Noble’s decision addressed a provision to the bill that enlarged Sequoia National Park to include the Colony claims. It was a provision on which Burnette Haskell and the colonists pinned their hopes. As they saw it, they were still entitled to their timber claims — existing rights, the provision stated, would be respected. Of course, the claims had been suspended back in 1885 and they never actually received patents on the land, but that was viewed as a mere technicality. The Kaweah Commonwealth assured members that they could rest easy. “Right and Justice will triumph in the end.” But as 1890 came to a close and the colonists could only await decisions out of their control, a sense of impending doom began to infiltrate the Colony. For some, it became a winter of discontent.
ANNIE’S WINTER MELANCHOLY
Annie Haskell was prone to periods of depression, and this tendency was certainly heightened during her first turbulent months at Kaweah. Following her dread of moving there and a brief period of satisfaction at getting to know the community, Annie slipped into a rather deep melancholy that one can certainly sympathize with given her circumstances. First, she had to make the adjustment of living in the spartan pioneer setting of Kaweah after years of life in cosmopolitan San Francisco. Next were the difficulties the Colony faced as a whole, and as always she faced the frustrations of being married to a husband who was, at best, inconsistent in his attentiveness.
Sometimes it seemed like nothing was going her way. She wrote of one day unpacking some boxes she hadn’t realized were there, left out in the rain for some time in which were “some of my treasured possessions — ruined in a thousand pieces… I told baby [Roth, about five years old] I felt as if I could cry — he said ‘well cry then. It don’t annoy me.’”
As winter approached, Annie was disgusted and resigned: “I guess there is no use my trying to care for anything. Nothing cares for me. I am like all women,” she wrote, “always whining.” For a while, when she and Burnette moved into their own house on land he homesteaded just a mile upstream from the new Kaweah Townsite, her depression lifted somewhat. Haskell called their homestead Arcady, and their little house of wood and canvas was complete with a piano, “tho I am sure it is awfully out of tune,” Annie commented. Nonetheless, depression and general ill-health quickly returned.
Haskell’s extended absence exacerbated this depression. He spent a good deal of time in Los Angeles preparing for the impending trial. As legal counsel for the Kaweah Colony he also had to deal with other legal difficulties, which took him to San Francisco to answer a charge of embezzlement by a disgruntled former colonist. Haskell managed to win acquittal of this charge in January 1891.
That same month, Annie’s diary reflected her emotional state with a wonderful literary quality and attention to detail reminiscent of a great Victorian novel:
AN UNINFORMED CONGRESS
While the colonists pinned their hopes on Secretary Noble’s upcoming decision regarding their claims, many had to wonder that winter how Congress even came to include that land as part of the new national park. While the bill enlarging Sequoia did provide that the permanent reservation of forest land would in no way affect any bona fide entry of land already made within its limits, it can be argued that Congress had no clear idea that there even were any existing claims. While the supplementary bill was neither debated nor printed, it should be noted that prior to passage of the bills creating national parks in California, Public Land Committee chairman Albert J. Payson had inquired of the Secretary of the Interior whether there were any adverse claims to the land. In an August 18, 1890, letter, Secretary Noble informed the senator that there were none. Had Noble already struck a blow against the Colony?
Milton Greenbaum, in his 1942 M.A. thesis, maintained that Noble’s answer was based on his belief that “an application to purchase under the Timber and Stone Act of 1878 does not effect a segregation of the land covered thereby.” Greenbaum faults the Secretary for never having informed Congress of the existence of Kaweah, its status or accomplishments, basing this assertion on a careful perusal of the Secretary’s outgoing correspondence. But, in defense of the Secretary, one has to ask why he would have informed Congress of the Colony claims when the land on which they had filed was not slated as part of the original Sequoia Park reserve, and the supplementary Yosemite bill, which eventually set aside that land, was not introduced until very late in the session. Therefore, when Noble responded in mid-August that there were no adverse claims on proposed park land, he was telling the truth as things then stood.
This, however, is not to say that he wasn’t keenly aware of the Kaweah colonists. Of course, in the months leading up to the passage of the park bills, Noble’s knowledge of the colonists would have been based primarily on Cauldwell’s first report, as well as that of the first land agent who investigated the Colony, B.F. Allen. Both Allen and Cauldwell had originally commented, in their official reports, that the colonists had made many improvements on the land. Farmland had been cultivated and a newspaper was being published and they both reported the existence of stores and shops and numerous other improvements, not the least of which was 18 miles of first-rate mountain road. But in the months immediately following the park’s establishment, Noble’s perception of the colonists via subsequent reports by Cauldwell would have been shaded considerably darker.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of Cauldwell’s sudden shift in attitude toward the Colony. Perhaps Martin’s challenging response to Cauldwell’s cease-and-desist order contributed to the strained relations. It could have been personal, for there certainly were some abrasive personalities involved. And maybe, as the colonists themselves believed, it was purely political. For whatever reason, by late November, Cauldwell had denounced the colonists bitterly. His contemptuous actions had already contributed to the arrest of the Colony trustees, and in the intervening months before the trial, Cauldwell’s remarks would help to further influence public opinion as well as that of Secretary Noble.
COLONY BUNCO GAME
Cauldwell’s comments seemed designed to arouse prejudice against the Colony. He stated that the trustees were operating a “bunco game par excellence,” which was netting them huge returns. They worked the resident Colony members hard and in return furnished the “poor fools” meager rations and promises. Outside sources contributed “between three thousand and five thousand dollars per month” whereas only two or three hundred was spent on beans, oatmeal, flour, coffee, and tea — the only food they fed their “victims and workers.” The surplus “evidently went into the pockets of the trustees.” Was it any wonder, Cauldwell rhetorically asked, that “they resort to every dishonest means in their power to keep up the delusion?”
The trustees, Cauldwell claimed, also poisoned the minds of newspaper editors throughout the country by means of “bogus letters from imaginary individuals lauding the Colony and condemning the government for attempting to deprive the honest colonists of their timber lands upon which they have made valuable improvements.” The land agent who owed his job to the current Republican administration railed at “all the local Democratic, as well as Farmers’ Alliance, Labor Union and other kindred papers” that helped the Colony leaders “spread abuse and lies” about the government.
Ironically enough, Haskell was at the same time accusing the lumber trusts of using the press to “further influence the public against Kaweah.” An editorial in Haskell’s Commonwealth in December, 1890, noted that:
Several of the large San Francisco dailies, including the Daily Times, the Examiner, and the Chronicle, printed accounts that were less than favorable toward the Colony, but no paper attacked the Kaweah Colony as vehemently as the San Francisco Star, which had once said of Burnette Haskell that he was a “systematic teacher of arson and assassination and this if there can be any excuse for his conduct, it must be that he is mad.” James Martin claimed that the Star was an open enemy of Mr. Haskell and that the editor was “well known in San Francisco as being reckless in his statements.” Whether this was true or not, it is readily apparent that the Star and its editor were certainly ready to do battle with Haskell via the press.
On December 27, 1890, the Star explained to its readers, under the headline “They Fooled The Papers,” that the “almost unequaled capacities for lying, characteristic of one (perhaps more) of the trustees of the Kaweah Joint Stock Colony, continue unimpaired.” The paper pointed out that a recent dispatch in the Examiner to the effect that the government didn’t have a very strong case against the Colony in the Los Angeles trial was the result of lies and bribes. “The purpose evidently was to inspire confidence,” the Star surmised, “so that the remittances would continue to come in, to be appropriated by the sharpers and liars who ran the concern.” The Star proudly pointed out that they published the Examiner’s dispatch with “but one line of comment, as we want to be fair, even in dealing with scoundrels.”
There were, it should be pointed out, individuals in the government who did not favor the way the case against the colonists was being conducted. In December 1890, then acting commissioner of the General Land Office, W.M. Stone, felt hearings should be held on the reasons for the original suspension of the Colony’s filings.
His successor in office, Lewis A. Groff, felt even more strongly about it, viewing the current charges against the Colony as “mere allegations or ex-parte evidence.” In looking at their original filings, Groff felt the colonists had fully complied with all the requirements of the law. The default in carrying the claims to patent, he declared, was due to the failure of the government to fulfill its obligations early enough, noting the suspensions had been in effect for over five years and no proof of fraud had ever been offered.
In a letter dated February 25, 1891, to Secretary Noble, Groff advocated that the colonists be granted a hearing, and if they could establish the legitimacy of their original filings, they should receive a patent to the land or be indemnified by Congress for labor and money expended. When news of Groff’s recommendations reached the Colony, a tangible sense of hope returned. The Kaweah Commonwealth ran headlines proclaiming the “Important Document from Land Commissioner Goff [sic].” “The Commissioner believes,” they reported, “that the Colonists have protected the giant trees, and that they should be allowed to retain the lands they now hold on the reservation [national park].”
The arrival of this news made possible a legitimate recovery of optimism in the Colony just as spring was making its triumphant return to Kaweah. March is the most beautiful month in the Sierra foothills, as spring arrives in a flood of water, sunshine, and wildflowers. And everywhere green! This was just the thing that might bring many of the colonists out of an almost unbearable winter funk due to various community and personal difficulties that had nearly extinguished any glimmer of hopefulness.
Meanwhile, optimism itself was embodied in the person of one new arrival to the Colony. Phil Winser recalled in his memoirs, after becoming a Kaweah Colony member from England, booking passage on the Cunarder Cephalonia from Liverpool to Boston in early 1891:
Winser’s memoir tells how he was met in Boston by his cousin, Harry Talbot, who “was kindness itself.” Talbot invited the newly arrived immigrant to stay and see the sights and they attended a Nationalist club meeting, which led to an interview with Edward Bellamy himself. Winser noted that Bellamy was quite interested in his adventure, but “shook his head at such an experiment being made a success except on a national scale.” This weakened Winser’s faith not one whit. He took a train cross-country, traveling “tourist sleeper and fell easily into its ways, hearing odds and ends of information from fellow occupants.” One fellow urged him to change his destination and get off to join the imminent Oklahoma land rushes. Winser’s memoir continued the account:
AN UNFORTUNATE SITUATION
During the spring, both Annie Haskell and her child fought severe illness. In March, she wrote that the “baby is sick… I have consulted my medical book until I am crazy.” A few days later she reported he was “pretty sick again today” and that it “distresses me more than I can tell. Poor little darling, he takes medicine like a little man.” When Roth finally got better, a relieved Annie wrote “I think he has no more fever… he can walk some now… It is a great strain off my mind.” A few weeks after that she herself became so ill that several entries in her diary read only “sick.” Later on, she was able to elaborate: “I was attacked with that awful, horrible disease — dysentery.” With typical understatement, she simply called it “very unpleasant,” but later the pages of her diary seemed to moan “oh, the misery of it. Some of these days in bed I thought I would never be able to get up again and I didn’t care much.”
Though Annie often complained of various ailments, it would be a mistake to assume that she overplayed her illness or depression, or that she was by nature weak and frail. Her resilient, tough, and amazing strength of character, as well as the rudimentary state of health care in the Colony, are best illustrated in the following passage:
While Commissioner Groff’s recommendation provided hope for the Colony, Secretary Noble’s decision quickly deflated it. On April 9, 1891, the Tulare County Times reported the bad news. “Secretary of the Interior Noble rejected about forty-three entries of the Kaweah colonists, land embraced in the Sequoia National Park.”
Noble apparently disagreed with the view of his commissioners. He declared that the General Land Office had the right to withdraw the land in question from entry. The Secretary maintained that applications to purchase are not entries of lands, and parties making the same acquire no vested right thereby. Congress still had the power to dispose of the land until the settler had made his final entry. In this case, Congress disposed of the land by establishing a forest reservation before the claimants made final entry. It was an unfortunate situation, Noble admitted, but the colonists had “no vestige of right to the land, and their entries are canceled.”
As Greenbaum pointed out in his “History of the Kaweah Colony,” Noble preferred to take refuge in a technicality in canceling the entries of the colonists. By taking the stand he did, not only were the colonists denied an administrative hearing on the original question of whether their entries were bona fide, but they were unable to take the case to court. They couldn’t appeal Noble’s decision because no hearing had been held. If the colonists sought redress, they would have to get it from Congress.
A few months later, The Kaweah Commonwealth finally admitted the dismal situation into which Noble’s ruling had thrust them:
THE JURY’S VERDICT
A few days after Noble’s ruling, the trustees stood trial in Los Angeles for illegally cutting timber on government land. The proceedings were widely reported, detailed accounts appearing in newspapers throughout the state, including the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald.
A star witness for the prosecution was none other than Land Agent Andrew Cauldwell. According to the Times, Cauldwell testified “that he had seen trees cut and that defendant Martin had told him that they had a legal right to cut them. [Cauldwell] admitted that defendant Taylor told him they were cutting on the Zobrist claim.” The defense maintained that the trees cut were on Colony-member Zobrist’s homestead claim and were used solely for improvements thereon.
The following day the defense called its first witness, John Zobrist. He testified that in 1888 he homesteaded his claim, laid the foundation for his cabin, and in the following month went to the Land Office in Visalia and attempted to file on the land, but that the registrar refused to allow him to do so, claiming it had been suspended by the commissioner in 1882. The Herald noted that “this is the vital law point of the case; as to whether the commissioner had any legal power to abrogate an act of Congress [the Timber and Stone Act of 1878] and close the land to entry.”
On the final day of the trial, the attorney for the Colony, Henry Dillon, argued at length the points of the Colony’s case, maintaining that the commissioner had no power to suspend; that they were entitled to their homes and had a right to ask the court to interfere in the protections; and finally that they were entitled to take the lumber to support their improvements. The courts refused to consider the issue of whether the colonists had any right to the land — and considering Noble’s recent decision on these grounds, it was obvious the Colony had a slim case in that respect — but were instead trying them on the assumption that the land was government domain, indisputably a part of Sequoia National Park. According to the Herald, “Haskell then addressed the jury, asking them if they could acquit his four confreres, and convict him alone, as he had been their unfortunate legal adviser and they had innocently relied upon his advice.” The court commented on his generous plea and the jury retired to deliberate.
The Visalia Delta was one of many papers that reported “a verdict of guilty was returned.” The four trustees were each fined $301 — Haskell’s plea was ignored, and probably seen by the jury as simply a ploy to save the Colony company money — and they all returned to Kaweah to figure out what to do next.
DAMAGE CONTROL AND SUPPORT FROM AFAR
Commenting on the Secretary of the Interior’s devastating decision concerning the Colony land claims, the Commonwealth reported that “as foreshadowed and expected, Secretary Noble declined to interfere on our behalf and leave our titles to be settled by the courts.” The paper was putting what modern commentators would call a “positive spin” on a truly dismal situation. “All of us understanding the situation,” the paper continued, “feel still more determined than ever to fight to a finish and we have no doubt of final victory. We propose to stay by the ship! What do you say?”
It was already evident, however, that many were choosing not to stay by the ship. Even before Colony timber claims were canceled, a negative population flow was taking place at Kaweah. The Commonwealth reported on the loss of one prominent Kaweah family:
Even though some comrades had apparently given up on Kaweah, they still held hope for the dream of cooperation.
The establishment of Sequoia and Secretary Noble’s decision undoubtedly hastened this exodus. This was particularly frustrating to Colony leaders, as they now needed membership dues more than ever. With logging operations suspended, no income was generated and expenses, particularly legal fees, were piling up.
To encourage new members, their propaganda tool — The Kaweah Commonwealth — had to paint a positive, hopeful picture. They quit printing notices of members leaving. They were, however, quick to mention new members arriving:
When the Commonwealth did later mention some members who had left, they were not shy about pointing out the failure that consequently beset them:
After news of the convictions in Los Angeles, Haskell again urged a call to arms via the Commonwealth. After a telegraphic dispatch proclaimed the verdict being “guilty as charged,” the paper urged on readers with typical Haskell prose:
A Defense Fund had by that time been established to help defer the mounting legal costs. This call was answered in places far and wide, as evidence in the following letter, which appeared in the Commonwealth that spring:
Not more than a year later, Fred Savage began his long journey “around the Horn” to Kaweah. Like his countryman, Phil Winser, Savage seemed to have little doubt that the great experiment would still be flourishing when he arrived.
SOURCES: Numerous contemporary newspaper articles provided source material for this chapter, including The Kaweah Commonwealth; San Francisco Star; Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles Herald and the Visalia Weekly Delta. Phil Winser’s “Memories” manuscript, Annie Haskell’s diaries, and Milton Greenbaum’s “History of the Kaweah Colony” thesis paper (Sequoia National Park library) were also consulted. Information on Fred Savage was provided via an author interview with Kenneth Milton Savage (grandson) in June 1995 in Three Rivers, Calif.