Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, March 12, 2009


Page 11



Land Commissioner, a Republican, Sides With Socialist Colony




It was not an affinity with the cause of socialism that caused U.S. Land Commissioner Lewis A. Groff in 1891 to take the side of a “Utopian” socialist colony that had settled in Tulare County, filed its claims, and chopped down trees. Groff was, in fact, a constant Republican—well, except for straying from the regular party in 1872 to support the presidential nominee of the flash-in-the-pan “Liberal Republican Party,” Horace Greeley (also put up by the Democrats).

No, politics didn’t motivate the land commissioner in declaring that the colonists were being victimized by the federal government through its refusal to recognize the claims and its institution of prosecutions. In fact, Groff acted contrary to the desires of the administration of President Benjamin Harrison which put him in office.

It was just that the lawyer and former jurist was inculcated with a belief that the federal constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection compelled giving an even break to everybody, including those whose philosophies were in popular disfavor.

In taking his stance, he displayed intellectual honesty and courage…and it just might be that his stance in favor of the socialists had some tie to the fact that in less than a month, it was announced that he was “resigning” from his federal post.

The settlers had established the Kaweah Co-Operative Commonwealth, more commonly known as the “Kaweah Colony.” Their camp was situated by the Kaweah River.

Federal lands were up for grabs in the west in those days simply by filing a claim and, as the 1897 “Encyclopedia of Social Reform” by William Dwight Porter Bliss tells it, the Kaweah colonists in October, 1885, filed 45 claims under the Timber Act of 1878. (Another source says it was 53 claims.) The book notes:

“The Act provides for a probationary period of 60 days ‘for the sole purpose of permitting adverse claims, if any, to be filed.’ Before the end of this period Land Commissioner [Andrew Jackson] Sparks ordered a suspension of their claims, on the ground that he doubted if they were bona fide settlers, land at that time being continually obtained by monopolies by setting up claims for dummy settlers.”

According to Bliss’ book:

“The colonists…, conscious that they were bona fide settlers and had acted legally every way, believed that in due time their claim must be acknowledged, and refused to spend any money in Washington to push it. They went ahead rather, opening up the land and building a road 18 miles long through land the timber companies had considered inaccessible, and by 1890 were prepared to haul lumber for the market. Their claims, meanwhile, dragged along uncompleted.”

The book continues:

The colony was organized on a cooperative plan in August, 1886. Shares were $500, one fifth of which had to be paid before residence was allowed. A socialistic paper was published. All went reasonably well till 1890. Then at least, as the colonists believe, the timber companies of California, fearing their competition, plotted their overthrow. A bill was hurried through Congress on the last day of its session, October 1, 1890, reserving land for Yosemite National Park, and including in it the land the colonists had taken up and had improved for five years. Stories were circulated that the colonists were cutting down the big trees of the Yosemite, which, tho near the colony, the colonists had not touched, and offered to guarantee not to touch. The colonists claimed that they had legally entered their claims, that judgment on them had been suspended only to be sure that they were bona fide settlers, and that since this was the case, they could not be dispossessed except by eminent domain, with compensation. They were, however, dispossessed. The trustees were accused of illegally cutting down five trees which the colonists argued they had done legally. The papers where the trial took place were filled with editorials against the socialistic leaders, and they were condemned to pay $300 each for cutting down five trees….

“Factories in the Field,” a 1939 book by left-of-center lawyer/journalist Carey McWilliams (later edior of “The Nation” magazine), relates:

“In response to the outcry of the colonists, United States Commissioner Lewis A. Groff was sent out West to investigate. His report, filed in Washington, February 25, 1891, vindicated the colonists in every respect. He found, for example, that they had no intention of exploiting the timber.”

The book quotes Groff as saying:

“The purpose of these colonists is of a lawful and laudatory nature; and that instead of damaging the lands or destroying the giant trees thereon, they have expended about $100,000 in improving the lands and adding to their value, and have guarded and protected the giant trees for over fives years, saving them from damage and possible destruction from forest fires on many occasions.”

Next week, I’ll take a further look at Groff’s report and the responses to it.

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