A History of the Kaweah Colony: Pioneers of Kaweah
By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.
Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga christened it Rio San Gabriel in the early 1880s, but by the middle of the 19th century, the river had come to be called Kaweah. Tulare County historians have explained the name as being derived from the Gawia Indians, a band of Yokuts who once lived on its banks. It has also been suggested that the name means “raven,” or perhaps more accurately a combination of the Yokuts words for “raven’s call” and “water,” making the Kaweah the “river of the calling raven.”
Burnette Haskell, a brilliant propagandist, once offered his own origin of the name:
In 1887 and 1888, a number of people began to settle along those clear, cold waters and sylvan shades, attracted no doubt by Haskell’s description of the place. With the arrival of families at Advance, the Kaweah Colony began a new phase wherein its “Prime Mission,” as stated in a pamphlet, to “insure its members against want, or fear of want, by providing comfortable homes, ample sustenance, educational and recreative facilities and to promote and maintain harmonious social relations, on the solid and grand bases of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” would finally be put to the very practical test of day-to-day living.
In a tent community, situated in an otherwise lightly settled foothill canyon many miles from the nearest town or village, this experiment was also a test of the pioneer spirit. Would families, many of whom had come from large cities such as San Francisco, be able to adapt to the rugged setting? Did they really expect the Colony to provide all it promised in such glowing terms? Who were these people who would stake everything just to find out if a better life might really await them in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada? They were true pioneers.
Over 500 people were ultimately attracted to, and became members of, the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony. Less than half that number were resident members, with the population at Kaweah hovering around 150 or so at its greatest. They were a varied and diversified lot. “A curious study,” Haskell once called the membership, which he claimed represented the United States in microcosm.
“Among the members,” Haskell wrote, “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.”
A brief look at some of the families who lived at Kaweah will help illustrate the diversity of the Colony. Two of these were the families of Colony leaders and organizers: the Martins and the Redstones. The other three families — the Tings, the Hengsts, and the Purdys — are examples of the different kinds of people attracted to the promise and potential at Kaweah.
MARTINS AND REDSTONES
James J. Martin, born in Long Milford, England, came to America around 1869 at the age of 25. He became a newspaper reporter in Galveston, Texas, where he met and married Marie Louise, a beautiful Creole woman from Louisiana. They moved to New Orleans where Martin ran a successful coffee and tea wholesale business. After their daughter Daisy was born, the family moved to California, hoping the climate would improve the baby’s frail health. They eventually ended up in San Francisco where Martin became interested in labor unions and began his association with Burnette Haskell.
Martin was involved with the Kaweah Colony from its very inception, serving as secretary for nearly every associated organization that evolved along the way: The Land Purchase and Colonization Association, the Timber Pool, the Tulare Valley and Giant Forest Railroad, the Giant Forest Wagon and Toll Road, the short-lived Kaweah Co-Operative Colony Corporation and, finally, the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony Company, Joint Stock, Limited. Throughout much of this early period he kept a home and office in Traver, which Charles Keller had let to him. With the organizational crisis and Keller’s exodus from the Colony, Martin established a residence at Advance and before long his family came to join him.
James Martin was described in Will Purdy’s poem “Kaweah: The Sage of the Old Colony” as:
A man of genial presence, kindly smile;
A noble head set firm on shoulders square
And crowned with wavy mats of graying hair;
Stern of purpose he, a man to trust,
Whose judgments would be kind as well as just
High faith, and temper firm in word and deed,
He was the type of man e’er born to lead.
Soon after Martin moved his family to the tent “city” of Advance, Mrs. Martin’s tent became a kind of social center in the community. She was a fine cook and had a knack with plants and flowers. Her garden even boasted a fountain, which she had constructed of rock surrounding a pipe to supply water. Daisy, now a healthy, rambunctious, and pretty girl of 12 years, and Martin’s adult son, Albion (Albie), were also active members of the community. Unfortunately, they didn’t see much of their father as before long he set up a Colony office in Visalia and spent most of his time living and working there.
John Redstone, considered the patriarch of the entire Kaweah Colony, was, along with Haskell and Martin, one of the primary driving forces behind its organization and management. If Haskell was the great motivator and propagandist and Martin was the business genius of the operation, then Redstone filled the niche of spiritual philosopher and wise old man of the utopian cult. Perhaps nowhere is there a better (albeit overtly glowing) description of Redstone and his remarkable family than that found in the 1932 memoir of Phil Winser, who came to the Colony from England late in its existence.
Little is known of Redstone’s wife, Sarah Ann Griffith, except that she was of Welsh descent and apparently not politically minded. Her metier was, in Winser’s words, the care of husband, children, and grandchildren. When the Redstones came to Advance, one of their daughters was already married to Frank Brann. The young couple, along with their two sons, also became pioneer residents at Advance.
During the early days at the Colony settlement, Redstone still spent much of his time in San Francisco while the family helped establish the community at Advance. The Colony kept offices in San Francisco, where Redstone did much of its recruitment of membership. It is also likely he needed to remain in the city to continue earning a living, for he must have well realized that the Colony was not yet in a position to furnish the family with all the “ample sustenance” it pledged to provide. An outside source of income was still needed for that.
MORE PIONEER FAMILIES
In 1979, Italia Ting Crooks published a small volume of family history that offers a glimpse into what brought one family, not involved in the establishment of the Colony like the Martins and Redstones, to Kaweah.
In 1887, Peter Ting, a German immigrant who ran a bakery in Pomona, California, married Bessie Miles, the daughter of liberal Unitarian minister Elum Miles. The early days of Bessie and Peter’s marriage were happy and full of pleasure. They shared a love and talent for music. Peter got along famously with Bessie’s father; he was a “willing student sitting before the learned man, drinking in the ideals of Unitarian faith and liberal politics.”
It was during this period of his life that Peter became “interested in reforms of all kinds religious and political.” But Peter’s health was failing. “Long hours of work at the bakery were taking a toll,” Italia wrote. Peter had found his “so-called nervous disability improved” when he made a visit to Kaweah with his father-in-law. Later, after the death of their first baby and “at the insistence of doctors” Peter turned over the business to a friend. He and Bessie would “try a new life in the mountain colony, Kaweah.”
So the couple, along with Elum Miles (“who was waiting for a reason to live there himself”) and Bessie’s brothers and sisters, George, Waldo, Clara and Kate, moved to the Colony. They had evidently been accepted as members and had paid at least $100 towards their membership, which would make them eligible for residency and employment at the Colony.
“These eager, talented young people were soon integrated into the colony life,” their descendant, Italia, boasted. Peter joined the road crew and became a prolific game hunter for the Colony. Along with his musically inclined wife, they were soon taking their places in the social life, and the Ting tent-house became the center of evening social events centered around music. They had the only piano at Advance, and as the Colony newspaper once reported, “If you walk into the Ting tent, you may find Mrs. Ting and Mrs. Frost playing music of the highest class, upon a piano of great excellence.”
On October 12, 1889, Peter and Bessie were blessed with a daughter, Italia. Scanning the list of resident children in April 1890, one learns that little Italia was one of five babies at the Colony that spring.
Another child listed was 11-month-old Burnette Kaweah Hengst. Perhaps no other Colony family produced as many descendants that remained in the area as the Hengsts. Several Hengst brothers settled in the area, but two were involved with the Colony. Dedo Hengst was the first to come, followed by his brother Frank Guido Hengst. Frank was duly confirmed for membership on April 2, 1889, and came to Advance, but ultimately settled with his wife at the Colony camp of East Branch, or Avalon, several miles up canyon from Advance. (Avalon was located at the confluence of the North Fork and Yucca Creek, a tributary known to the Colony simply as East Branch.)
Hengst, who was born in Saxony, Germany, in 1863, was one of several German immigrants at the Colony. He worked on the road crew and later at the Colony hayfield. His enthusiasm for the Colony was reflected in the name he chose for his son born there. Little Burnette Kaweah Hengst eventually became known, however, as George.
Another family attracted to the promise of reform the Colony offered were the Purdys. Phil Winser described them in his memoirs:
George A. Purdy was a veteran of the Union Army, and both he and his wife had been members of the fabled “Underground Railroad,” which assisted runaway slaves in escaping to Canada. After the Civil War, they joined the westward movement in a covered wagon and settled in Greenwood, Colorado. It was while living there that they learned of the Kaweah Colony. Its idealistic program appealed to the couple with a strong pioneering spirit and grand sense of justice. In 1889, they came to Kaweah with their teenage daughter and 11-year-old son. Winser also wrote of the younger generation of Purdys:
Will Purdy later described, in poetic verse, the intangible force that brought all these families to the mountains of Kaweah:
Ideals, like beauty, are eternal joys;
Their images our vision never cloys;
Fair progeny of the aspiring mind,
Round all her projects are their arms entwined.
Haskell noted that among those attracted by these ideals were “temperance men and their opposites, churchmen and agnostics, free-thinkers, Darwinists, and spiritualists, bad poets and good, musicians, artists, prophets and priests.” The one trait they all shared — a trait often shared by people willing to give up their old life for a chance at something better — was an enthusiasm for new ideas. It was the enthusiasm of the reformer. That was, after all, what made temperance men, churchmen, Darwinists, and spiritualists of them all. And it was that enthusiasm that brought them all to Kaweah where they hoped to find, as Haskell believed he had found, a “road to human happiness.”
SOURCES: Information about the origin of the Kaweah name was found in William Tweed’s “The Kaweah Rivers—How Many Forks?” in Kaweah Quarterly (The Kaweah Land Trust Newsletter, Fall 1995) and via the writings of Burnette Haskell in The Commonwealth (October 1889) and his booklet A Pen Picture of the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony (San Francisco, 1889). Other sources for this chapter include Haskell’s Out West article “How and Why the Colony Died (August 1920, the James J. Martin Family papers housed at Bancroft Library), Phil Winser’s “Memories,” and The Story of the Life of Bessie Humbolt Miles, by Italia Crooks (published by Eleanor Ester Howell and David Weaver, 1979, Three Rivers Public Library.) Two other published remembrances were also consulted: “John Hooper Redstone: My Most Unforgettable Character,” by Phillip Redstone Hopping (Los Tulares, No. 94, June 1974) and “Remembrances of my Early Life,” by Peter Ting (Tulare County Historical Society Newsletter, date unknown, Visalia Public Library.) Many of Joe Doctor’s notes on interviews, a letter to the author from Wilma Hengst Kauling, and contemporary articles in the 20th-century The Kaweah Commonwealth were also valuable sources. Will Purdy’s poem describing the Colony was published, circa 1930, by the Tulare County Historical Society with the title “An Epic of the Old Colony.” The poem was also found at both the Bancroft Library and the Visalia Public Library under the title “The Saga of the Old Colony.”