A History of the Kaweah Colony: Two Rising Movements
By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.
As the final decade of the 19th century began and a springtime optimism prevailed at Advance, hopes for the future of the Kaweah Colony were dependent upon two completely unrelated movements of thought and action.
These movements were kindled by the influential writings of two notable figures. The first was John Muir, a Scottish-born sheepherder, explorer, journalist and essayist, self-taught naturalist, and self-described tramp. He was a man whose name would become synonymous with the Sierra Nevada, the mountains he called the “Range of Light.” The other was Edward Bellamy, a Massachusetts-born son of a Baptist clergyman, a lawyer-turned-journalist who had achieved a modest literary reputation when the publication of his fifth novel brought him sudden and worldwide acclaim.
Muir and Bellamy were two of the most influential writers of the late-19th century, and perhaps nowhere would that influence be as greatly felt or celebrated, realized, and lamented as at the Kaweah Colony. To examine how these writers and the concurrent movements they launched would effect the Colony that summer of 1890 and afterward, it is necessary to double-back in time and bring each up to speed.
EARLY CONSERVATION ATTEMPTS
John Muir first came to the Sierra Nevada in 1869. While Muir spent much of the early 1870s exploring the Yosemite area — his name will forever be associated with Yosemite — his curiosity regarding the Sierra was boundless. By the end of the decade he had explored much of the spectacular mountain range, including Mount Whitney, Kings Canyon, and the vast sequoia groves of Grant Grove and the Giant Forest.
As pointed out in Lary Dilsaver and William Tweed’s Challenge of the Big Trees, Muir’s newspaper accounts brought about a greater appreciation of the features of the Sierra, and his writings about the sequoias added to the understanding of the Big Trees. “The primary significance of Muir’s visits,” the book proclaims, “would not become apparent for a number of years.”
By 1878, others began writing about the sequoias and lamenting their potential destruction. On October 11, 1878, the new and rather young 21-year-old editor of the Visalia Delta wrote an editorial attacking the cutting of a giant sequoia for exhibition Back East, a destructive practice first exposed and decried by Muir himself. George W. Stewart called for enforcement of state laws to prohibit the cutting of the giant trees. Little came of these pleas.
As the 1870s drew to a close, however, other prominent men had been drawn into what was definitely becoming a popular cause. Prompted by a growing presence of lumbermen in the readily accessible Grant Grove area (then known as the Fresno-Tulare Grove) in January 1880, Tipton Lindsay, receiver at the U.S. Land Office in Visalia, and J.D. Hyde, the land office registrar, were able to convince the land commissioner to withdraw from sale the sections that contained the stately grove. Stewart’s Delta was also recommending some sort of permanent preservation of the grove, and later that year George Stewart was finally able to bend the ear of someone who might really be in a position to effect a permanent solution.
During his 1880 campaign for the U.S. Senate, General John F. Miller came to Visalia and met with the editors of the local newspapers. Stewart was able to brief the senatorial candidate on a broad spectrum of local conservation issues, including the Kings and Kern canyons, Mt. Whitney, and the preservation of the “grand old redwoods.” Miller not only won appointment to the U.S. Senate, but he apparently well-remembered all that Stewart had told him.
On December 31, 1881, Senator Miller introduced a bill in the Senate to set apart a certain tract of land “as a public park and forest reservation for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The bill was given no serious consideration in the committee on public lands, to which it was referred, simply because of the vast territory it sought to set aside. The proposed park encompassed all of the upper Kern, Kaweah, and Kings rivers’ watersheds — an area covering all of modern-day Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks along with substantial timber belts to the west. It was so extensive that even Stewart stated that “opposition was universal.”
The idea of scenic preservation, which was the original impetus for the earliest national parks, was nothing new. Alfred Runte, in his 1979 book, National Parks: The American Experience, explains that a sense of national pride and monumentalism — a search for cultural identity in a relatively infant culture — as one motivation for preservation. He also notes that there evolved in Congress “a firm (if unwritten) policy that only ‘worthless’ lands might be set aside.” Worthless, that is, in terms of lacking accessible, available natural resources or potential as agricultural land — a criteria many scenic mountain lands easily met. Cultural nationalism could not compete with a national obsession with productivity and the exploitation of any available natural resource.
Even a later awareness about a growing need for wilderness, wildlife, and biological conservation did not change the primary criterion of preservation, Runte noted. National parks must begin and remain worthless to survive. While the forested land outlined in Miller’s bill was far from worthless, compared to agricultural land it was certainly low worth, and the difficulty in accessing its natural resources further kept its relative value in check. Nonetheless, no tract of land as expansive as the one Miller proposed to reserve could be perceived as anything but potentially valuable.
Sequoia National Park historian Douglas Strong, in his 1964 doctoral thesis for Syracuse University, pointed out an ironic source of opposition to Miller’s proposal, which strongly supports the argument for the preservation only of “worthless” lands.
Truth’s editor, Burnette G. Haskell, could not have known when he wrote that in 1882 just how prescient his opinion would prove. Miller’s bill quickly died, but by the end of the 1880s, Haskell would be keeping a very close eye on the proposals made by men such as John Muir, George Stewart, and the growing forest preservation movement in Tulare County.
BELLAMY’S LOOK BACKWARD
In 1888, with the publication of a work of fiction by Edward Bellamy, Haskell’s attention was drawn to a considerably different kind of movement that sprang up almost overnight. Few books in the history of American literature have had a more stimulating influence on the social thought of the time as Bellamy’s Looking Backward.
In what Bellamy described as a “romance of future happiness posed against present sorrow,” the book tells of a young man, Julian West, who wakes up from a mesmerized sleep and finds himself in the Boston of 2000 A.D. Leaving behind a 19th-century world dominated by the waste, greed, cruelty, and madness of the competitive system, the inadvertent time traveler finds an unrecognizable America in the future. The country operates under a system of state socialism; private property has been abolished, all share equally in the wealth of the country, and all contribute equally — to the best of their capacities — in their service to the industrial army that produces the wealth. Cooperation has replaced competition; acquisitiveness and aggression have disappeared in the tide of plenty for all, and no man seeks to dominate another. The transition, Julian West learns, from the tortured old society to this new utopia was effected painlessly; and the new conditions provide an answer to an ancient question — human nature is essentially good. Society has arrived, in short, at a rational and humane order devoted to the noblest ends of man.
The book had immediate political impact. That same year, 1888, the first Bellamy Club was founded in Boston to propagate the principles of nationalism, as the system of social organization Bellamy’s depiction of the future outlined was quickly labeled. A wave of clubs, more than 150 in less than two years, swept across the nation and gave meteoric rise to the Nationalist movement. To Burnette Haskell, working fervently to publicize, promote, and fund the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony, the Nationalist movement couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Although the Kaweah Colony’s political and social structure was based on another book, Laurence Gronlund’s Co-Operative Commonwealth, Bellamy’s utopian look at the future proved more accessible to the general reading public. Gronlund had provided a blueprint of socialist cooperation, but Bellamy came up with a full-color model, complete with action figures and moving parts. It wasn’t long before Haskell was claiming that the Kaweah Colony was Bellamy’s model realized.
Three early clubs were formed on the West Coast — in Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles — before the movement took hold under Haskell’s leadership. These were non-agitating groups that rose spontaneously and, like the club in Boston, were basically reading circles and discussion groups. Although it might be surprising that Haskell, a notorious San Francisco radical, would be drawn to the decidedly milder nationalism, the transition was not merely a sudden opportunistic switch. As Haskell biographer Caroline Medan points out, “He had been evolving toward more moderate types of reform since [his] anarchist period in 1883.” Medan also points out his economic motive. “Haskell already had a cooperative colony of his own,” she reminds us, “and probably saw nationalism as a lucky coincidence which would popularize his project.”
Haskell entered the Nationalist movement via the Oakland Nationalist Club, which met bi-monthly at Hamilton Hall. He brought an appealing oratory style, along with other abilities, which he freely gave to the movement. Medan pointed out that, according to his wife Annie’s diary:
Working untiringly, he organized the First Nationalist Club of San Francisco, creatively named to compete with the Pacific Nationalist Club, which was actually first and still operating. The club’s objective, as stated in a meeting program, was “Nationalization of land and industry, thereby the promotion of Brotherhood of humanity.” Reformers of all kinds flocked to the meetings — suffragists, grangers, free silver and free tax men — and formed a more practical program of reform than had really been proposed in Looking Backward. At various times the organization advocated for the eight-hour work day, abolition of poll taxes, the direct election of United States senators and presidents, initiative, referendum, recall, free vocational schools, and women’s rights.
In the summer of 1889, as Haskell was forming his own circuit of Nationalist clubs throughout California and the West, he was still busy promoting and administering the Kaweah Colony, which he maintained represented “Bellamy’s plan in action.” The Commonwealth was still, at this time, a monthly journal published from San Francisco, where he maintained his residence with his wife, Annie, and young son Astaroth. He was also still active in various trade unions and organizations, and this period of incredible energy and productivity is testimony to the obsessive nature of his personality.
Haskell brought not only this energy, but showmanship and promotion to the movement. An account of the 3rd Public Reception of the Nationalist Club of San Francisco, held at the Palace Hotel, was printed in The Commonwealth. It was the beginning of the link between Kaweah and nationalism. As the account described:
CONSERVATION HEATS UP
Just as the change in administration and attendant shift in policy prompted the long delayed investigation of the Colony timber claims, it also served to accelerate the conservation movement (the more likely term at the time would be preservation) taking hold in the adjacent Central Valley. By 1889, rumors of withdrawn forest land, particularly in accessible sequoia groves such as the Grant Grove and Converse Basin, being returned to the market was causing great concern. This concern involved more than just Big Trees.
Irrigation had changed the Central Valley from grazing and bonanza wheat farms to an orchard and irrigated crop economy. Now Valley farmers feared that excessive logging in the adjacent Sierra would adversely effect their much-coveted watershed. Deforestation, they predicted, would accelerate spring thaws, leaving little, if any, runoff for the later summer months. The rate of snowmelt had great impact on water supply as there were no dams and reservoirs on the rivers to control runoff. What was bad for the crops was bad for the entire county, particularly for those with vested interests in land values.
In May1889, the worried farmers petitioned the Land Commissioner urging him not to reverse the withdrawal from entry of the Grant Grove area. Not only did many farmers sign the petition, but also, among others, George Stewart, F.J. Walker, and business partners J.D. Hyde and Daniel K. Zumwalt. Hyde and Zumwalt were engaged in various irrigation projects, and Zumwalt was a land agent and attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He was said to have sold more land in the area during his career than anyone. The reply they received was less than satisfactory. While assuring them that the withdrawal was still in force, Commissioner Stocksledge added ominously that “it must be apparent, however, that a reservation by order of the Commissioner of the Land Office is only temporary.”
In October 1889, a meeting of agriculturists and other interested parties motioned to appoint a Forest Committee to petition the government to create a permanent forest preserve in the area. A petition was prepared and sent to Congress in November, but there was no response. Stewart, a member of the Forest Committee, concluded that the petition had never reached Congress after learning that Representative General William Vandever had introduced a bill in March 1890 to create a national park protecting Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove, a considerable distance to the north. Vandever’s bill (H.R. 8350) did not even mention the groves of Big Trees Stewart’s petition had outlined for preservation “which [made them] think he never received much information regarding the Southern Sierra.”
Also discouraging to Stewart were rumors that the Garfield Grove, one of the last groves of Big Trees with absolutely no claims against it, and other areas were soon to be put back on the market. As spring gave way to summer, Stewart’s Visalia Delta was calling attention to the efforts of lumbermen to obtain the few remaining sequoia groves. According to Stewart, it was then that he and F.J. Walker decided that the only way to save the Big Trees was to create a “National Park” similar to Yellowstone, created in 1872. Walker, who also worked at the Delta, informed Stewart that “he had ample free time and asked how much space could be occupied in the Delta agitating the question.” All the space necessary, for as long as necessary, Stewart replied. Thus began the campaign to create Sequoia National Park.
STEWART’S SEQUOIA: THE GARFIELD GROVE
“Save the Big Trees!” read the headline of an editorial in Stewart’s Visalia Delta on July 10, 1890. Bringing attention to efforts to restore withdrawn timber land to the market that would “result in forever removing from public control the finest body of grand sequoia that exists in the world,” the Delta pointed out that there remained a grove of giant trees “over which the government has an undisputed right of control.” That grove, Stewart explained, lay in Township 18 South, Range 30 East, Mt. Diablo Meridian. Translated, he was describing the Garfield Grove area, located a considerable distance south of the timber claims of the Kaweah Colony.
Stewart and colleague Frank Walker’s campaign to create a national park concentrated on reserving the Garfield Grove area because, as the Delta had stated on July 3, 1890, “nearly all the [other] groves have already passed into private ownership. Certain tracts, like the Giant Forest, that were once on the market and filed on by applicants in good faith, should be restored to the market.” The applicants referred to were, of course, the Kaweah Colonists. As efforts to create a national park intensified, Burnette Haskell certainly took notice and was especially interested and undoubtedly relieved to note the location of the proposed preserve. In fact, The Kaweah Commonwealth reprinted portions of a Delta article that came out on August 21, 1890, addressing that issue with the following:
In addition to editorializing in the Delta, Stewart and Walker wrote letters to anyone they thought could help. As a result, the Secretary of the Interior John Noble began receiving correspondence from influential people all over the country urging the reservation of sequoia forest land. Many of these, such as New York Tribune editor W.A. Stiles, were undoubtedly writing at the behest of Stewart and Walker. Stiles, in a letter to his former college classmate who had become Secretary of the Interior, stated, “I have received in my capacity as editor… several communications from California relating to a grove of Big Trees in Tulare County.”
On July 28, 1890, as a result of a vigorous letter writing campaign, numerous newspaper editorials, and various petitions (some of which were once thought lost or ignored), General William Vandever, member of Congress for the 6th District of California, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to reserve a certain tract of land, encompassing two townships containing the Garfield Grove and backcountry to its immediate east. It was virtually just as George Stewart had suggested and outlined.
While an earlier bill introduced by Vandever to reserve the Yosemite Valley and its watershed was languishing, this later Sequoia bill fairly raced through Congress. It was passed by the House on August 23, 1890. The Senate approved the bill on September 8, 1890, and it was promptly sent on to the President for final enactment into law.
THE NATIONALIST DISORDER
While the conservation movement was steadily building in California, urged on by men such as John Muir and George Stewart, nationalism had taken the country by storm. Nationalist clubs had sprung up all over the country, in large cities and small towns, and Kaweah was no exception. Of course, it was natural that Kaweah would support an active Nationalist Club. The philosophies behind both were similar. In fact, the socialist endeavor was actually being referred to in the press as a “Bellamy Colony.”
The Colony’s own newspaper quickly became one part Colony booming sheet and one part Nationalist organ. It ran advertisements for other Nationalist publications in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston and published reprints of Nationalist essays and articles. Throughout the spring of 1890, it printed accounts of the local Nationalist meetings. A typical example ran in the March 1, 1890, issue:
The growth of Nationalism and the network of clubs and newspapers across the country was an obvious source for publicizing the Kaweah Colony. Burnette Haskell took advantage of this, but in his zeal to control the movement he brought on disharmony that was reminiscent of early Kaweah Colony struggles. It showed a pattern Haskell seemed destined to repeat again and again.
A talented motivator and stump-speaker, Haskell organized Nationalist clubs in Ocean View, San Jose, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Fresno. He eventually saw the movement as a viable political party, announcing at one reception that the Nationalists would enter the municipal elections of 1890. That spring, the California Nationalist Convention was held. Its purpose was to unify the clubs by means of a central committee, broaden the clubs’ influence and plan for upcoming elections.
At a meeting of his First Nationalist Club of San Francisco prior to the convention, Haskell failed to gain control of the delegation. Charges of fraud and mismanagement had begun to surface against Haskell, who desired decisive control of the delegation and thus, he hoped, control of the upcoming convention. He instead found the club divided, making a final fight for power inevitable.
When the convention convened in Metropolitan Hall in San Francisco on April 8, 1890, Haskell quickly met opposition on the issue of proxy votes. Several smaller clubs were unable to send delegates, and Haskell presented their proxy votes, backing them up with written permission for each proxy and strong arguments that to deny these proxies was to discriminate against the poor, who could not afford to vote in person.
With Haskell proxies allowed, a subsequent battle ensued over election of a committee chairman, which became deadlocked between Haskell’s choice, W.C. Owen, and a rival’s, T.V. Cator. Again rose the issue of proxy votes. Caroline Medan described the scene in her 1950 biographical thesis on Haskell.
PATTERN AND PROPHECY
This was one more example of Haskell’s peculiar talent for influencing (read “fixing”) elections. Charles Keller had seen that talent in action and, like Cator, was prompted to leave with his followers. Dr. Hubbard had seen it, resulting in his tearful resignation as editor and ultimate sacrifice of his valuable printing press.
The convention’s split and the subsequent press attack was devastating. The San Francisco Star noted that the San Francisco Nationalist movement had early been “seized upon” by Haskell and was from that moment on divided. It went on to call Haskell “one of the most thoroughly untrustworthy persons who ever fooled the unwary public, or made simple-hearted folks believe him a little tin god on wheels.”
Haskell’s First Nationalist Club in San Francisco quickly faced failing attendance. Resignations and disagreement were increasing daily until an especially bitter May 21 meeting. The disintegration was nearly completed. Bellamy nationalism was founded on the precept that human nature, being essentially good, would arrive at a rational and humane order devoted to the noblest ends of man, but Haskell’s ego and incredible drive to dominate insisted on utter control of that process. His impatience served only to hasten the movement’s decline.
Yet despite the decline of the movement in California, on a broader horizon Bellamy’s brand of nationalism continued to influence and incite enthusiasm worldwide and even helped recruit members to Kaweah from as far away as England. Philip Winser’s memoir, which he penned in the 1930s, provides an excellent example of how Nationalism attracted members to Kaweah from so far away.
The eldest son of a dissenting Unitarian family, Philip Winser was struggling to keep the family farm solvent in Kent, England, when, with an ailing father, he came up with a plan to “wind things up, realize everything and pay off.” He made “preparations for the sale [of the farm] and arrangements for migrating” were put into effect. After setting up his mother and remaining family in a house by the sea where they could take in boarders for income, Winser’s personal plans “began to formulate.”
Winser stumbled upon his utopia after a Boston cousin sent him literature as to a Bellamy Nationalist club and movement. Included in that literature was an article describing the Kaweah Colony. It was “Bellamy’s dream realized” in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, Winser remembered thinking. Writing to the secretary of the Colony, Winser soon received notice of his acceptance. He promptly remitted the initial $100 and made plans to cross the Atlantic.
SOURCES: In addition to the books cited in the body of the chapter, including John Muir’s Our National Parks; Dilsaver and Tweed’s Challenge of the Big Trees; Alfred Runte’s National Parks: The American Experience (University of Nebraska Press, 1997); and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887 (including the introduction to the edition published by R.C. Elliott, 1966), this chapter also relied heavily on several primary sources such as the Haskell Papers (Bancroft Library) and the George Stewart Papers (Visalia Public Library). An article from the Pacific Historical Review, 1948, by Ruth R. Lewis entitled “Kaweah An Experiment in Co-Operative Colonization” was consulted, as well as Caroline Medan’s “Burnette Gregor Haskell: A California Radical” thesis; Douglas Strong’s “History of Sequoia National Park” manuscript, and Phil Winser’s unpublished “Memories.” Contemporary newspaper reports from the Visalia Weekly Delta, San Francisco Examiner, and San Francisco Star were additional sources.