Members of the Kaweah Colony lived by socialist ideals in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the late 1800s.

The utopian socialist colony of the Sierra Nevada

The world’s largest tree by volume is a giant sequoia in the Sierra Nevada called General Sherman. But a nearby settlement once knew it by a different name: the Karl Marx Tree.

In the 1880s, a group of timber men conducted a grand experiment in utopian socialism known as the Kaweah Colony. Its leader, Burnette Haskell, a union organizer in San Francisco, was inspired by the Marxist idea that cooperative economics could serve as an antidote to capitalist exploitation.

With timber sales as their primary income, the colony used a “medallion” system to swap labor for goods and provided free healthcare and housing to its roughly 160 members. They also built the first road into the forest region.

Then, in 1890, Sequoia National Park was formed. The socialists were ordered out of the forest. Their leaders were arrested — and later acquitted — for cutting timber inside the park. Kaweah was over.

Haskell returned to San Francisco, where he died penniless in 1907. He once wrote, “And is there no remedy, then for the evils that oppress the poor? And is there no surety that the day is coming when justice and right shall reign on earth? I do not know; but I believe, and I hope, and I trust.”

Timeline | 48 Hills

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