Thursday, March 26, 2009
Injustice to Kaweah Colonists Goes Without Requital
By ROGER M. GRACE
U.S. Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble was quick to rebuff the Feb. 25, 1891 report by U.S. Land Commissioner Lewis A. Groff which said that a group of settlers in California’s Tulare County had “filed their applications” for land grants, “submitted proof” of having improved the land, “tendered the purchase money, and in every way complied fully with all the requirements of law.”
That apparently wasn’t what the administration of President Benjamin Harrison wanted to hear. The settlers, members of the “Kaweah Colony,” were socialists, intent on setting up a society that would prove that socialism could work. As I’ve mentioned, Groff decided—or was caused—to resign within a month of tendering his report.
The settlers had filed about 50 individual claims in 1885 to the uninhabited lands, comprising approximately 12,000 acres in all. Noble took the stance that Congress properly acted in 1890 to include the lands in the Sequoia National Park which it had decided to form because the colonists had not yet perfected title. Yet, the reason they had not perfected title was because the claims were not processed at the normal pace. A predecessor of Groff had frozen the processing, initially out of a concern that the large number of claims, many bearing the same address, might be the work of a greedy industrial conglomerate. Once the socialist nature of the colony was appreciated, there followed exceptional and seemingly calculated foot-dragging.
An April 6, 1891 Associated Press dispatch from Washington reports Noble’s decision and adds:
“It is estimated that these colonists have expended in the construction of public roads and in other improvements about $100,000, and while the Secretary’s decision may result in hardship to the colonists any relief to them must come through congressional action. The Secretary said today that he had no desire to deprive the colonists of their equities in the matter, and although law and the facts compelled a decision against their claims, he would be willing to recommend to Congress that they be reimbursed for their losses.”
A May 15, 1891 issue of the Logansport (Ind.) Pharos comments:
“The colonists improved their lands, planted orchards and vineyards, erected a sawmill, started a school, library and gymnasium, and looked forward to prosperity after some years of such hardship as pioneers must necessarily endure. The Tulare County Times, which has no connection with the Kaweans in any shape, says of them in a recent number:
“‘…They settled on the land in good faith, and the government ought to fulfill the promise made when it invited them to take up the land, and issue patents to them.’”
The equities were clear. The federal government had said, in effect: “Come out west, settle these lands, pay a minimal fee, and they’re yours.” The colonists came out west, settled the lands, paid the fees, and were denied the promised benefit of ownership.
The bill creating the Sequoia National Park, signed into law Sept. 25, 1890, did not include the Kaweah Colony within the perameters of the park. However, legislation a week later establishing the Yosemite National Park had a proviso tacked onto it adding the colony and other nearby land to the Sequoia park.
“Private lands” were not to be part of the park, under the legislation. The issue that loomed in 1891 was whether the colony’s terrain should be exempted from inclusion in the national park by means of belatedly vesting ownership in the claimants (as Groff proposed)…if compensation should be made in the same manner as if had there been a “taking” (as Noble suggested)…or if nothing should be done.
Neither retroactive land grants nor the award of compensation for taking land from parties who lacked title to it fell within standard government rules and regulations. So, nothing was done, despite applications for recompense continuing into the early part of the FDR Administration.
An irony is that if the deeds had been granted, the socialists would have embarked on their intended venture of felling trees, and manufacturing and selling lumber. Selling…in other words, engaging in the free enterprise system. They likely would have prospered—and with prosperity, their town likely would have grown, and attention would have veered from socialist theories to real-world concerns. A fresh look would doubtlessly have been taken at colony rules such as: “All land and buildings, and all other property whatsoever, except private dwellings and the personal effects of members, and goods specially excepted by the company, are held in common by the shareholders.”
Under the rules, no private stores could be established. There was only the commonly owned store which sold goods at cost.
Had the colonists been permitted to engage in capitalism, it is inevitable that their socialistic experiment would have been abandoned by them of their own accord. As it turned out, the colony was disbanded in 1892, snuffed out by the federal government.
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