Cooperators and Settlers

This blog has gone mostly silent over the past year, with only occasional cross-posts from a new website, called Confluence. When I have posted here, I’ve often recalled Sacramento’s historical struggles. Chief among these are a failed uprising in 1850 that resulted in the deaths of eight people including the mayor, sheriff and assessor.

At first glance, these events are far off-topic – the blog’s title is “Cooperate and No One Gets Hurt,” for crying out loud! So I think I need to offer a little explanation: Why have I made the leap from cooperative business models to a land-based revolt that tore apart my hometown?

Cooperatives and revolutionary movements have a long and tangled relationship. And it turns out that cooperation played a central role in Sacramento’s uprising, the “Squatters’ Riot,” one of the bloodiest events in early California history.

But before things got rough, reportedly more than 1,000 people – perhaps one-sixth of Sacramento’s population – joined the nonviolent resistance to Sacramento’s land speculators, supporting a quasi-cooperative called the Sacramento Settlers’ Association.

Eventually a small fraction of those members – a few dozen men – took up arms on August 14, 1850. But despite its bloody end, I believe Sacramento’s uprising provides a model for how we can move forward today in the face of intense concentration of power and wealth, which is rapidly corroding what’s left of political democracy and provoking all sorts of extremism and political violence.

Frontier Cooperation

There’s a large gap between creating a more cooperative economy within the existing capitalist order, and starting a shootout with the mayor’s militia. And for that reason, we must distinguish between the nonviolent Settlers’ Association and the violence it inadvertently spawned after attempts to work through legal channels were repeatedly thwarted.

At the time of the revolt, the Association was raising money to hire a legal team to fight the wave of unjust evictions plaguing the community, hoping that eventual admission to the Union would finally bring justice.

That is, the Settlers were engaged in cooperative organizing: Members paid a flat $15 to join, which got them a private survey and registration of their land claim in the city. Membership benefits also included democratic participation and protection from deputies and vigilantes sent to enforce false land claims supported by a corrupt government of doubtful legitimacy.

The Association was essentially a primitive legal services and security co-op, organized in the face of a government bent on enforcing an illegal order that exploited California’s uncertain status prior to admission to the United States.

This struggle erupted only a few years after the Rochdale Pioneers organized the first modern co-op in England. It is unlikely that the Settlers were consciously organizing a cooperative, although it may be that news of Rochdale had reached Sacramento through immigrant channels connected to the Mormons in Utah.

Indeed, Mormons made up a substantial part of Sacramento’s population at that time. Their number probably included some individuals who had been ripped off by local Mormon capitalist Samuel Brannan through a short-lived pseudo-commune called New Hope, located south of town. And Brannan was the mastermind of the crooked land scheme that caused much of Sacramento’s trouble.

In any case, the Settlers were tapped into a potent frontier communalism that actually built the American West.

We usually don’t hear much about this communalism. Most histories of the West focus on individuals, often criminals, giving them far more importance than they deserve.

Stewart Udall provided an essential corrective in his book Forgotten Founders, which showed that Westerners have bought into the wrong creation myth: We believe the West was “won” by rugged individualists, when this is actually an absurd fantasy cooked up by the likes of showman Buffalo Bill Cody and Hollywood’s relentless string of gunslinger “Westerns.” This persistent myth presents a grossly distorted view of the frontier era.

A typical person traveling as a solitary emigrant wouldn’t have made it past the Missouri River. In reality, groups of people, often organized joint-stock companies sometimes named as “mutuals.” They collectively purchased supplies and the means of transport, hired guides and doctors, then traveled and often settled together. These settlers developed sophisticated community governance along the way.

The Mormons’ impressively cooperative civilization was only one end of a spectrum of frontier communalism. At the other end of the spectrum were small mining companies in which small groups of prospectors shared the labor and expense of developing infrastructure to process ores on their adjacent claims, which inspired Leland Stanford to launch his university to teach young people to cooperate. Really!

Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, was the People’s Market, which stood at the center of Sacramento before the uprising. This enterprise faced the tree under which the city’s first draft charter was hashed out, as well as the prison ship that was later brought in to quell growing dissent. It was an important spot.

But a century later, when it came time to research the People’s Market for the general plan for the Old Sacramento historic district, the state’s conclusion boiled down to three words: “Little is known.”

There is a conspicuous absence of information about a store that quite a bit of circumstantial evidence suggests was connected to Sacramento’s early struggle over whether land and economic activity would serve the many or the few.

It is as though this enterprise did not fit the needs of our capitalist mythmakers, so it was simply ignored.


The need for a new mythology is not unique to Sacramento. But capitalist ideals of rugged individualism are strong in this city so closely identified with the Gold Rush.

However, Sacramento’s amnesia is not a case of simple selective memory warping the truth over generations. The official story of Sacramento – and California – is based on an intentional deception, whose perpetrators include famed historian Hubert Howe Bancroft.

And there is my core personal motivation: I don’t like being lied to, especially about fundamental issues of identity.

I want to set the record straight: The bad guys won. A monstrous lie has convinced us that the villains in our past are actually heroes.

Take Sacramento’s purported founder Johann Augustus Sutter. He, like Brannan, has schools in Sacramento bearing his name despite being a simply awful role model for children. Sutter abandoned his family for a life of adventure and exploitation in the New World, finally trying to create Nueva Helvetia – New Switzerland – despite having no legal claim in Sacramento, which was government land and open to homesteading.

Sutter’s grand venture put him deep in debt, to the point that he fled to his true claim (north of town, near what is now Marysville) and left his young and naïve son (who had finally caught up with him) in charge of his disorderly affairs.

Then Brannan conned Sutter Jr. into dividing up his father’s (public!) land for sale. This set the stage for decades of legal and occasionally violent conflict in Sacramento, with statewide repercussions.

Sutter and Brannan were villains.

And most of us have no idea who were the real heroes in our story. For example, very few Sacramentans even know of Dr. Charles Robinson, who led the Settlers’ Association before it spun into insurrection.

Although Robinson’s efforts here unfortunately ended in bloodshed, his career still presents a model of nonviolent community organizing: He led a large local populist movement during the chaotic period before California was admitted to the United States. After the uprising, while recovering from bullet wounds on Sacramento’s prison ship, he was elected to represent Sacramento in the first State Assembly.

And Robinson’s Sacramento experiences would lay the groundwork for his heroic efforts as a leader of the mutually-oriented abolitionist settlements He worked to deescalate Bleeding Kansas, a major precursor to the Civil War that began in 1854, while tipping that state’s loyalty toward the North. He was elected as governor for the abolitionist Free State assembly and served while imprisoned for treason in a military camp when the pro-slave forces were ascendant. He was once again was elected governor after Kansas attained statehood.

Although Bleeding Kansas included quite a bit of violence, it appears that Robinson lessened the bloodshed in at least one case: His duties included leadership of the safety committee to protect the abolitionist settlement of Lawrence. When “border ruffians” from Missouri invaded and sacked the town (using a cannon named “Old Sacramento” to demolish the Free State Hotel, oddly enough), the only casualty was one of the attackers, killed by falling masonry. This suggests that Robinson had implemented a military strategy that was entirely defensive, as well as a high degree of discipline needed for an armed and besieged community to stand down rather than spark a bloodbath.

Toward a Truer Myth

Robinson spent a relatively short time in Sacramento. But his central role in our city’s most formative events – coupled with those events’ powerful impact on his later national influence – makes him arguably one of the city’s most important historic figures.

And yet the community’s (and nation’s) ignorance of this great leader is almost complete.

That has to change. Our society cannot truly change course until we change our myths and heroes. We must jettison the story that pits us against each other and recognize that cooperation built this society. We need to once again strike out, together, into the uncharted territory presented by climate change and increasingly frequent economic crises.

Don’t get me wrong: Cooperatives are great. Broader ownership – by communities, workers and producers – provides the best hope of maintaining civilization within the capitalist framework. A large minority of Americans are already members of co-ops and that provides an important foundation for organizing a less-awful economic system. It’s the best we’ve got at the moment.

But the deck is too badly stacked. The speculators won and they control the house. We aren’t ever going to win in this casino.

If we are ever going to shift the conversation, so that all those millions of co-op members really identify with something bigger than whatever benefits are provided by their particular cooperative. We need a new Western narrative less steeped in a militarist cowboy fantasy.

We need to acknowledge that the West was lost. The black hats won this particular shootout and the sheriff ain’t coming back.

An inherently exploitative order rules us. Over generations, this order has convinced us that there’s no other way. But there is another way, and Sacramento is one of its key points of origin.

It’s up to us – cooperators and Sacramentans – to uncover the connection running through the city’s history, buried just below the surface. The cooperative torch was passed through many hands here, from the Grangers Co-operative Business Association in the late 19th century to the Sacramento Rochdale Company and Consumers Mutual Supply Co. in the early 20th century. These cooperative waves are the ancestors of modern co-ops including one of the nation’s largest credit unions.

Modern cooperatives are heirs to this long struggle, in Sacramento and elsewhere. We need to rediscover our identity, learn some different myths, and get back to work. I hope that my research helps us tip the balance back toward a more community-based way of ownership, and invite my old readers to take a look at what happened in the city where I was born.

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The Ejectment Suits

This is another cross-post from my new project, Confluence. This post is not exactly co-op related, but don’t worry, we’ll get back to that shortly…

Something profound happened here in the Spring of 1868. It utterly dominated the news.

What would possess a serious daily newspaper, the Sacramento Daily Union, to devote nearly one-quarter of its print space in the May 2 edition? What could possibly have been worth allocating the entire front page and almost 97% of the back page?


Sacramento Union, May 2, 1868 (p.1)

Sacramento Union, May 2, 1868 (p.1)

An enormous and detailed list of lawsuits.

Sacramento Union, May 2, 1868 (p.8)

Sacramento Union, May 2, 1868 (p.8)

Something huge happened that April. I don’t know what it is yet, but I just found a big clue. On the same day the new Land Laws were printed out for readers, William Muldrow unleashed a rather phenomenal legal earthquake, which seems to have torn the community apart. (more on that soon)

It had been building for a couple of weeks. On April 17th came the announcement of Muldrow’s suits. Then for several days the lead story for the “City Intelligence” column (always on p.3 col.1) was the Ejectment Suits. More and more people piled on..

And then there was this enormous list covering the outside of the May 2 edition, to show the community how serious the problem was. It wasn’t enough to give a casual tally, like we expect today. They listed the whole mess, as well as they could. Keep in mind that this is before the days of large headlines and images to fluff up the paper. Tens of thousands of tiny letters had to be set.

My initial count indicates 143 plantiffs (with some overlap where individuals are listed multiple times with various co-plantiffs filed around 700 lawsuits, mainly during a two week period. Some of these suits were brought against very large numbers of people. For example

In at least some cases, the plaintiffs didn’t even seem to know who they were suing. Cases 12,437 and 12, 439-12,453 each sued “John Doe and 2 (others)” for 23 separate properties including an entire city block.

I cannot yet say how many property-holders were involved, and I calculate it would take many hours to tally them.

Researching this and laying it out took a tremendous amount of energy, to say nothing of the overwhelming burden put on the legal system’s employees. It appears that the Union tried valiantly to keep the community informed (in great detail!) before stepping back and trying to help the community grasp the immensity of what had just happened.

The legal system had no such luxury, and that may be why there seems to be a substantial amount of information missing. I think the people who ran the law were simply overwhelmed. I don’t quite understand this incident yet, but I’m working on it.

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Sacramento was Stolen

Note: This is a cross-posting from the website for Confluence, my new project to unearth Sacramento’s hidden history. I apologize for any geographic references that are unclear to my readers outside of this very complicated patch of real estate.

I recently had the pleasure of providing “something a little different” for the Sacramento GIS Users’ Group. This biannual gathering explores geographic information systems – the technology that underlies digital mapping including everything from the maps in newspapers to smartphone apps.

Bob Earle, my instructor for an introductory course in ArcGIS (which is a prominent and powerful GIS application), had been intrigued by my midterm and invited me to share my final project. So after we heard about sophisticated techniques to support the management of vineyards, sewers and municipal transparency, I let loose with a 150-year-old legal controversy regarding 15 square miles of central Sacramento.

The Sutter Case

The trouble all started with Johann Augustus Sutter’s claim to land that actually lay miles south of what he was granted by Mexico in 1841. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually endorsed his enormous squat in 1864, but they seemed to see their ruling as simply the least objectionable solution for an unsolvable problem.

I can’t blame the Court for punting. The Civil War was providing enough trouble already, and a legitimate ruling would have unleashed legal chaos in California. I think those justices did what they had to do with the information they were given.

Even so, they were wrong.

Here is the truth: Sacramento sits on land that was taken not only from the indigenous Ninesan people, but then again from the United States government and settlers who moved onto what they correctly believed to be public land. This second theft was enforced by the city government as well as vigilantes.

The Sacramento Settlers’ Association was organized to hire lawyers to protect against evictions, and reportedly boasted over 1,000 members. They tried to work within the system, but continued harrassment provoked bloodshed during August of 1850 as the Settlers’ patience ran out.

Two days of violence claimed the lives of eight Sacramentans including the sheriff and assessor. The mayor was shot off his horse, left office and later died in San Francisco. These so-called Squatter Riots triggered the collapse of the local economy and population, followed by many years of lawsuits.

Fourteen years later, the Court apparently attempted the final cover for Sutter’s land grab, bundling 15 square miles of valuable and contested territory into a parcel with the modest name of “Lot 1” (along with Lots 2, 3 and 4 surrounding Marysville). Here’s an illustration of the official map.

Lot 1 context slideSutter’s purported holdings in Sacramento were legally not his, no matter how disruptive that truth might have been at the time. Sutter’s Fort was a squat. Sutter could not legally have given his son authority to sell the land under Sacramento City to Sam Brannan and his gang of speculators. The whole massive real estate scheme entangling everything between the American River and Broadway, the Sacramento River and Alhambra Boulevard – the core of Lot 1 and the heart of the modern city of Sacramento – was illegal.

The land on which Sacramento sits was stolen.

Unearthing the Bones

The theft was clear to many when it happened. Consider an 1851 editorial in the San Francisco Alta, after a District Court judge ruled on the case that eventually reached the nation’s highest court: “It might seem pedantic to pit our opinion against lawyers and judges of such high standing and position…But if that decision was in accordance with the law, why the less of such laws we have the better.”

The problem is less obvious now; we are all confused by deep layers of historical misinformation. I’ve found several anomalies that all point toward a concerted effort to revise history during the decades after 1850. These anomalies start to explain how Sacramento’s canonical history could be so badly at odds with what actually happened here, and I’ll explore them in other posts (like this one and this one).

Some of what I’ve discovered was hidden in plain sight, and required nothing more than a glance at a map held in the state archives: The Von Schmidt survey of 1859 (which the 1864 ruling approved) allots land approximately equaling the original 76 square miles Sutter was originally granted by Mexico nearly two decades prior – although these acres were much more valuable than Sutter’s original spread.Sutter Lots addition

It looks good at first glance. There’s a table tallying the total acreage. The numbers for Lots 1 to 4 add up, more or less.

Lot 5 bonusBut off to the side there’s this weird little note about Lot 5: another 6,733 acres (10.5 square miles!) of prime riverfront that wasn’t included in the final tally. This extravagant bonus would be like getting one entire side of Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Auburn – and that was just the part not included in the total acreage!

Lot 5 image

Lot 5, along river, connects Lot 1  (at bottom right) with the rest of the land (at top).

By leaving this central connector out of the total acreage (to meet the requirement they faced to declare one contiguous land grant) it appears that the judges undermined their entire decision. Either the eastern bank of the Sacramento was part of Sutter’s land, therefore included in the total, or it was not. To avoid this reality would only perpetuate the uncertainty.

Now I’m no lawyer, and I can’t rule out some third state between legal and illegal land holdings. More research is needed to see what actually happened with those parcels. However, this stretch of riverbank is only the start of the trouble. If this phantom land grant was an effort to soothe contested cities, then we might expect the ruling to at least hold up around those cities.

And here’s where GIS mapping really gets useful: My favorite tool in ArcGIS (so far) is georeferencing – linking an image to a certain geographical area. I use it to superimpose maps from different years, illustrating some quirks in how land ownership and development have progressed over time.

A Bad Border

I’ve been curious about the southernmost portion of the Von Schmidt survey – a few square miles along the river downstream from Sacramento. The southern boundary of Sutter’s original land grant was a single measurement of latitude – 38° 49′ 32″ – and it actually lies well north of Sacramento despite various attempts to claim that it lies to our south. One of the most common rationales for the problem was a measurement error: A survey error simply resulted in the wrong line of latitude being recorded. Wherever it lay, the southern border of Sutter’s land was a nice simple line. So why does this odd dangling tract disrupt it?

A closer look at this border reveals that it is deeply flawed: Most of Lot 1’s perimeter follows the Sacramento and American Rivers, while most of the overland survey lines follow the familiar grid visible in much of rural America, made up of township/range and section boundaries (at six and one-mile intervals, respectively).

At its easternmost point, the border of Lot 1 departs the American River at what is now Howe Avenue (a section line), tracks south until it hits the boundary between townships 8 and 9, and thence eastward to the boundary of ranges 4 and 5, which is still physically clear as modern 24th Street. This would have been a very reasonable place to head southward. But as made very clear on the official map, the border continued another ½ mile (40 chains) before turning south.

Lot 1 southern boundary w 1885

Another of my slides. Click for detail!

Such a border was (and is) nonsense, as is clear from adding the court boundary to this 1885 county map. The north-south portion cuts right through the middle of a half-dozen properties along both sides of Freeport Boulevard, including the current sites of C.K. McClatchy High School and William Land Park.

The Court was of course free to approve a border wherever it chose, but their border logically should have followed existing property lines. After all, the ruling was specifically meant to resolve the ownership of particular properties.

Now, it’s not clear which of the properties shown existed in 1864. These “Sutterville Tracts” were part of ongoing legal battles involving Sutter’s trustee, Lewis Sanders, Jr. and one of Sutter’s creditors, William Muldrow. This struggle continued until at least 1868, when Muldrow launched 17 simultaneous lawsuits against the city and a great many individual landowners, in an effort to claim vast amounts of property (including, it seems, most of the central city). That all is well beyond the scope of this article, but illustrates a certain lack of closure from the 1864 ruling.

In any case, if the question before the Court was whether certain parcels had been properly bought and sold, then the answer in each case must have been either yes or no. I don’t see how part of a property could be originally Sutter’s land and another part not. Each property was presumably bought and sold in the same chain of transactions, barring some unlikely parcel-consolidation scenario for which I have found no evidence. Of course, the more I look at this history, the weirder it gets. I could be wrong.

But let’s set aside whether the survey’s split ownership makes any sense. We should find some sign of the ruling’s enforcement in the two decades between 1864 and 1885. Some or all of these unfortunate landowners should have lost a portion of their property, whether their title was based on a homesteading claim or a purchase from Brannan. They didn’t.

Instead, it seems that nothing at all happened along this border: The split properties all appear to remain intact in 1885 despite being officially divided by the U.S. Supreme Court. That was true then, and apparently remains true today despite many later subdivisions. Follow the line drawn by Von Schmidt and approved by the court, and you’ll find nothing at all to suggest a border. The range line along 24th Avenue provides a stark contrast.

The 1885 map suggests only one land action that followed the Supreme Court’s ruling: a subdivision that wrapped around the north end of this troublesome boundary. And oddly enough, this sketch of parcels does not even seem to match the streets that currently exist at that spot (nor does it appear in an 1889 map of the city, indicating that it was a speculative phantom). It appears that when someone actually attempted to follow the ruling, it was they whose scheme hit the wall of reality.

Meanwhile, a trio of nearby landholders reportedly renewed their patents in 1867. This suggests an increase in legal uncertainty in the vicinity, rather than any resolution. Sacramento’s legal troubles were far from over.

An Objectionable Charade

The Court offered a telling assessment of its own work: “We do not say that it is entirely free from objections, and from our examination of the evidence, we are satisfied that no survey or location of the tract, under the circumstances attending and surrounding the case, could be made that would be free from objection.”

But these words ring hollow: Such a cop-out ignores the obvious and less-objectionable range line that lay within a mere half-mile of their arbitrary, nonsensical and counterproductive boundary for Lot 1.

What does this all mean? As far as I can tell, the ruling was not just deeply flawed, but almost totally ineffectual and counterproductive. The Court’s decree was based on a false claim and multiple illegal actions, marred by obvious internal contradictions and in conflict with historical reality. The ruling was a catastrophic failure.

I can’t imagine how such a mess could have any lasting (positive) legal impact, but I’d love to hear a lawyer try to explain it.

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From Sacramento to Bleeding Kansas: The Struggles of Doctor Robinson

A note to my long-term readers: Last year I moved back to Sacramento, where I have launched a historical project called Confluence. I’m developing history tours and online resources to set the record straight about my hometown’s long struggle against land speculation, which has involved a good deal of cooperative organizing. My research recently pointed me toward Kansas, which was likewise a center of resistance during the 1850s, with a leader in common.

May 21 marked the anniversary of the 1856 invasion of Lawrence, Kansas. This attack was a turning point in a conflict that was serious enough in its own right: Rival governments engaged in an escalating struggle that lasted nearly a decade. The territory’s bloody struggle over whether it would be a free or slave state – a key episode in America’s slide toward the Civil War – is known as “Bleeding Kansas.” It is a day of national importance.

But May 21 should be a moment of reflection especially for Sacramento, which played an essential role in setting the stage for Lawrence. Events in Sacramento during the California Gold Rush had honed the organizing skills of Dr. Charles L. Robinson of Massachusetts, who had played a central role in both tumultuous episodes.

The Sacking of Lawrence was a key moment of escalation at the hands of orchestrated mobs of “border ruffians” from Missouri. The Free State Hotel was destroyed, along with two abolitionist newspapers and many businesses and homes. Yet although attacked by a sheriff’s posse of 800 men – many intoxicated – the community in Lawrence presented a nonviolent response that limited the raiders to pillaging and destroying property. Despite tremendous physical damage to the town, there was only one fatality that day; one of the invaders was killed by falling masonry. Although their leaders had been captured, the people of Lawrence were still able to stand down in an organized way.

The attack on Lawrence was (almost) bloodless because its residents were organized, with Dr. Robinson heading the Committee of Safety.

The Lawrence committee had much in common with the Sacramento Settlers’ Association, which had sought to protect its members’ homesteads in a conflict that sparked the August 1850 uprising known as the Squatter Riots. Sacramento’s unrest grew in response to the city’s failure to provide for the health and sanitation needs of a booming community, as well as the city’s minimal legitimacy. Here the government favored land speculators like Sam Brannan, who purchased from Johann Augustus Sutter land that didn’t really belong to Sutter, and then sold it to many others, who profited in various ways from the massive influx of immigrants seeking their fortune.

This massive scheme encompassed five square miles that are now the heart of California’s state capitol. As the city government and various mobs evicted homesteaders from the Brannan land, the community’s outrage grew. More than 1,000 people reportedly joined the Settlers’ Association, which set up a rival surveyor and title office and openly encouraged residents to ignore law enforcement. Although Robinson apparently favored peaceful tactics, hotter heads prevailed and he lost control of a militia formed to prevent evictions. The resulting bloodshed claimed the lives of eight Sacramentans including the sheriff, assessor and mayor. Martial law was established and the economy and population collapsed.

Robinson was wounded in the fighting and thrown in jail, but won election from prison that fall to represent Sacramento in the first California State Assembly. Robinson later returned to New England, where he built a thriving medical practice until 1854. Then he was recruited to lead the New England Emigrant Aid Society, settling abolitionists in Kansas in order to prevent its adopting slavery and tipping the national balance of power toward the South.

Robinson was obviously chosen for his experiences in Sacramento rather than his bedside manner. Although there are many differences in detail, Robinson’s efforts in California and Kansas are part of the same struggle – for liberty and against oppression – using similar elements of extralegal democracy and mutual aid.

The adversaries were also similar. In Sacramento, Robinson faced a cabal of merchants led by Brannan, whose tactics were both legal and extralegal, including his mob of “destroying angels” who would tear down the homes of settlers who did not submit to the scheme.

In Kansas, Robinson’s enemy was even more powerful, and often enjoyed support from Washington. Wealthy supporters of slavery organized agitators from Missouri to repeatedly invade Kansas and engage in elections fraud. Although the ruffians shared few of the benefits of slavery (which mostly accrued to the wealthy landowners who were crowding out settlers on both sides of the slavery issue) they were stirred to action by a combination of propaganda and bribes of land, cash and booze.

So Kansas got its pro-slavery “Bogus Legislature.” The Free State opposition was banned, but then organized a rival government that was declared an insurrection by President Franklin Pierce, and despite growing threats of detention and violence. Robinson was elected governor of the insurgent state, but spent much of 1856 imprisoned after his arrest at Lawrence.

In the end, the border ruffians were overcome and Kansas got a legitimate government and statehood. Robinson was again elected governor.

Unfortunately, Sacramento has forgotten this great leader of popular struggle. He is nearly absent from the card catalogs and indexes of this city’s historical resources. I have not found any of his reflections on his time in California. However, both the Settlers’ Association and the fight for Free Kansas were rooted in the American revolutionary tradition. We might pick out some clues of his perspective from his words in a speech given on July 4, 1855:

“I seem to hear the millions of freemen, and the millions of bondsmen…the patriots…the spirits of the revolutionary heroes, and the voice of God, all saying to the people of Kansas, ‘Do your duty.’”

In Sacramento as well as Lawrence, the community lacked government protection, and was indeed threatened by government. So the people improvised an extralegal but democratic response.

Both rebellions were led by the same person using strategy and tactics developed in one arena and improved for better results in the second. But in Sacramento, Robinson is nearly unknown. The insurgency was crushed after Robinson’s nonviolent tactics were overwhelmed by others’ growing despair that working with the system would ever be rewarded.

As history is written by the victors, Robinson has been nearly eliminated from Sacramento’s memory. That’s unfortunate, as he was an extremely gifted leader of national historic importance.

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Lemmings and Pioneers: Our Toxic Foundational Myth

Individualism is killing us. Our shared faith in an idol – the rugged individualist – is leading us off a cliff. We must rediscover a suppressed feature of our origins and history. We succeed when we work together, but we also face the threat of shared failure in the form of economic and ecological collapse.

Perhaps campaign finance reform can still save us from the worst of these problems, but we must keep in mind that economic and government dysfunction are symptoms of a problem that resides in the stories we tell ourselves, at the level of mythology.

The individualist myth is embedded deeply in our collective psyche.

Ultimately, it is the root of our identity as “Americans” as well as the root of our troubles. However bad our shared troubles get – economic malaise and wealth concentration, climate change and ecological devastation – we are captive to the notion that if we just work hard enough, we’ll (individually) be exempt from the (collective) consequences of our actions.

Individualism is ultimately infantile nonsense based on a selective misreading of history.

Although it may perhaps be traced back further, American Individualism is rooted in the notion that Pa Pilgrim somehow bought a ticket to the New World, buying one-way tickets for Ma, Junior and Sis Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, and later that rugged pioneers loaded their nuclear families into a wagon and headed west, perhaps with a wagon train – a democratic small town (of separate households!) on wheels.

Perhaps the American experiment was not quite what it cracked up to be. Consider all the burdensome collective emphasis in the nation’s founding documents about how “We the people” found it “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another.” These are the opening words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, respectively.

But just as most Americans of European origin left their homelands individually there was always the option of escape from what they found on this side of the ocean, via the mythical Frontier. We are ultimately a society of quitters: people who looked around them, sized up the situation and said, “Screw these losers, I’m heading west!”

Sure, they traveled in groups. But upon arrival they supposedly found the best piece of land upon which to build a homestead (idyllic and isolated, in our mind’s eye). There is truth in this; a great many people got 160 acres for themselves through formal homesteading programs that supported isolation by reducing the land to a grid of acreage (which continued until 1976 – and for another decade in Alaska).

The stereotypical rugged individualist actually stood little chance against the stereotypical bands of Indians. On the other hand, the communalist Mormons built a flourishing new civilization in a rather difficult region of the west. Although The Book of Mormon included next to nothing that explains their propensity to develop elaborate socialist economics, the Saints used commonwealth approaches to counter the hostile settlers who passed through on their way to the gold fields. More on this here and much more in Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.

We should wonder whether many pioneers would have made it to California if their path hadn’t conveniently included a stop to rest and resupply in Salt Lake City. And of course that great Mormon commonwealth (for all its flaws) was built by means of intensely collective travel: At first the community sent advance teams to build a string of camps from Missouri to Utah, and to build up the roads that would carry the wagons. The advance team also planted crops that would be ready for the main body of settlers.

For the second half of the 19th centurey the Latter Day Saints were gathered by means of the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which helped finance the hiring of ships from Europe as well as overland travel. The iconic image of Mormon migration is the handcart, which carried the goods of six people as part of a large company. When one handcart company ran into trouble, supplies were sent east to help them continue as winter approached. The Saints also built large stretches of railroad and telegraph line, creating a large and prosperous infrastructure that drew resources from Montana to Arizona into a thriving metropolis that was an essential stop for all who passed through on their way to the gold fields.

Once in the Gold Country (perhaps influenced by what they witnessed during their passage through Zion), these supposedly rugged individualists would often form collectives in which a half-dozen or so miners would band together: One would find paid work to raise cash for tools and equipment while the rest would set to work building common sluices and other infrastructure to work their nearby claims. Once development of their claims was complete, all would set to work. Leland Stanford, who made his fortune selling to miners, was so inspired by this model that he pushed co-op legislation while in the U.S. Senate and founded a university as a utopian experiment to build a cooperative world. Yes, that university.

I happen to believe that there would not have been a critical mass of emigrants to allow the United States to wrest the southwest from Mexico had it not been for the Latter Day Saints. The Great Basin would have remained a land of sparse outposts along a poorly defined border, perhaps along the lines of southern Algeria and northern Mali. We certainly wouldn’t have any Olympic host cities among the arid plains and forbidding mountains in which Brigham Young’s followers attempted to build the Kingdom of God.

The Mormons were not alone in this endeavor. And all homesteaders also built systems of mutual aid, and somewhat obviously they worked together to build new economies and systems of defense against the land’s previous residents (for better or worse). And there were many dozens of communes constantly springing up as the United States’ spread westward. This was a dominant model, as surely all but the dimmest erstwhile settler knew that simply heading off into start farming in “Indian Country” would not end well.

Although the American mythology is usually identified as “Judeo-Christian” this term is reduced to meaninglessness. If we are to make any progress against the entrenched imperial bastardization of these great traditions, we must confront what is really meant by Judeo-Christian. To wit: Christianity was an attempt to restore the deeply collectivist and anti-authoritarian nature of the ongoing Israelite resistance against Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Rome.

Whatever Judaism and its revivalist offshoot might offer in our context of collapsing empire, most American Christians studiously miss the point. We make noises about following Jesus while missing his core message: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

The expanding frontier of the United States has always been dotted with collectivists of all stripes, developing communities with loaded names like New Jerusalem or Zion. Even now the Hutterites and Amish show us that something else is possible on the outskirts, while Christian communards carry on in Chicago – including both the hippy-era Jesus People USA as well as 1950s-vintage Reba Place Fellowship.

Collective organizing did not stop with the closure of the frontier. Even in the 1950s, an era marked by paranoia against anything with a whiff of communism, huge cooperative enterprises were flourishing nationwide. As Jerry Voorhis described in American Cooperatives, a startling snapshot from 1961, well before the hippies supposedly invented co-ops as part of their counterculture, the nation was experiencing a golden age of cooperation, including major supermarket chains in numerous cities, as well as refineries to help farmers tap into the petroleum wealth under their land.

There is no Frontier anymore. We’ve got nowhere to which we might escape, so we have to stick around. We must pull out of the economy but remain facing it, ready to receive those who follow us. In the same way that the Mormons developed systems of emigration stretching all the way back to Europe, we need to find ways to draw people out from however deeply they are ensnared.

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Co-ops vs ISIS

The speed with which the supposedly pluralist Iraqi state has given way to sectarian extremism is breathtaking and heartbreaking. After nearly a century of contrived interethnic states carved out of the old Ottoman Empire, a period of score-settling seems inevitable as part of the movement toward a new equilibrium. This process has gone relatively smoothly in the mostly-Sunni (and sparsely populated) lands seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (Syria), but a much bloodier battle looms in Baghdad and the mixed communities that surround it.

ISIS now exists as a nascent state, like it or not, and the main question is about its boundaries. The speed with which ISIS has expanded using military forces generally estimated to be less than 10,000 fighters means that it will need to work with the locals to establish effective ongoing control. So governance in the areas relieved of the oppressive control of the Shi’ite-dominated Maliki government is likely to exhibit great diversity depending on the cultural conservatism, tribal influence and strength of civil society in a given community.

There is another way, and it ironically involves following the teachings contained in the Qur’an, which is the holy book of the main belligerents in this exploding crisis.

Although this conflict is much broader and more complex than a simple squabble between the two major sects of Islam, there is nonetheless a religious element involved, particularly in regards to the efforts by ISIS militants (and religious authorities) to establish Shariah law in their new caliphate.

“Shariah” is a very loaded term, so we must unpack the text on which it is based. While there are no doubt atrocities being committed in the name of Islam, it’s important not to assume these reports are true, and essential not to generalize them. I suspect that there are also a great many people already involved in more decentralist and less authoritarian structures, looking for opportunities to maintain or expand their work. We should be looking for such groups and seeking to make contact to support their work.

The cooperative model, by relieving pressure on geographically defined political structures through emphasis of voluntary mutual systems, provides our last chance to avert a future of ongoing ethnic and religious division. There are certainly cooperative financial and insurance organizations in the conflict zone, and these must be supported in some way as they join the struggle to address a massive financial disruption and humanitarian catastrophe. I don’t pretend to know the specifics of how such support should unfold, but I hope that this writing calls attention to some ideas that may help guide discussions among those in a better position to help.

Cooperators would benefit from a cursory survey of what the Qur’an actually teaches about rules and power. To that end, I’d like to revisit a section of a paper that I presented at the 2008 International Co-operative Alliance Research Conference, held in Italy. “Holy Cooperation: The Economy of Reconciliation” looked at how all three Abrahamic faiths taught something like cooperative organizing, and observed ways in which that has manifested among followers of each religion.


Because of the serious misconceptions shared by many (including myself before undertaking this research), it seems helpful to spend some time establishing what the Qur’an actually teaches in regards to belief and disbelief.

The actions of a militant fringe have led to widespread perception that Islam is an inherently rigid faith that seeks to bring the entire world under theocratic control. While it is true that this goal is shared – to varying degrees – by some Muslims, the same can be said of Christianity with its vigorous missionary tendencies and its past penchant for theocracy and crusades.

Three points must be considered when considering a Qur’anic perspective on social organization with regards to the subject at hand. First, the Qur’an clearly identifies the Jewish and Christian scriptures as being from God and teaches respect for those who follow such scriptures. Second, any calls to fight against the enemies of Islam are clearly qualified as defensive in nature. Finally, it is important to spread the word and seek converts, but that does not mean that any sort of coercion is appropriate.

Islam has a complex relationship with Judaism and Christianity, whose followers are known by Muslims as “People of the Book” (or Scripture) and distinguished from other nonbelievers. The Qur’an contains dozens of references to the stories of its older siblings. Jesus himself is mentioned more than 50 times throughout the Qur’an. His mother Mary is mentioned nearly 20 times, many of which are in the surah (chapter) that bears her name and describes her conceiving despite never being touched by a man. (19:20-21)Another passage confirms the importance of many Hebrew prophets, including Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, John the Baptist, Jesus, Elias, Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah and Lot. (6:83-6)

This topical overlap is complicated by a number of contradictions, and these should not be minimized since they are the essence of why we have three religions and not one. We cannot ignore these real disagreements if we are to seek a meaningful reconciliation.

In any case, the Qur’an provides a generally favorable view of the other two religions, their teachings, and their followers (misguided as they may be). In the Qur’an, Jesus is portrayed as a prophet sent to once again straighten out God’s chosen people, the Jews.

Jesus’ Gospel was a revelation from God, and his disciples submitted to God. “But when Jesus became conscious of their disbelief, he cried: Who will be my helpers in the cause of Allah? The disciples said: We will be Allah’s helpers. We believe in Allah, and bear thou witness that we have surrendered (unto Him).” (3:52)

Christians and Jews may be viewed as stray Muslims, but the Qur’an teaches that their paths can still lead them closer to God. The Qur’an explicitly calls for Jewish people to be good followers of their Law, and Christians to be good followers of Christ.

For example, those who believe in what the Torah revealed may be redeemed through good works, “especially the diligent in prayer and those who pay the poor-due, the believers in Allah and the Last Day. Upon these Weshall bestow immense reward.” (4:162)

Christians, meanwhile, should be held to their own standard: “Let the People of the Gospel judge by that which Allah hath revealed therein. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are evil-livers.” (5:47)

What’s more, Muslims are encouraged to study Jewish and Christian scripture and teachings in order to better understand God’s wisdom: “And this is a blessed Scripture which We have revealed. So follow it and ward off (evil), that ye may find mercy. Lest ye should say: The Scripture was revealed only to two sects before us, and we in sooth were unaware of what they read” (6:155-6)

Ultimately, the Qur’an teaches respect for those of other religions as long as they live good lives. “And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender.” (29:46)

Having established Muslim scripture teaches a generally tolerant and respectful view towards Jewish and Christian scriptures, which are revelations from the same God, we now turn towards the Qur’an’s teachings on how to handle discipline.

There are indeed specific rules about what is right or wrong, sometimes with prescribed punishments that strike the modern secular westerner as overly harsh. To cite a notorious example, “As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands.” (5:38)

These strict teachings have been reinforced by later writings. However, these sort of passages are difficult to square with others. When the Qur’an is examined by itself, as the religion’s central text and the final word of God, a picture emerges which demands serious consideration of how to live together in a pluralist society. It may well be best to live by a strict moral standard, but the Qur’an warns against the imposition of such a standard.

Today’s news from the so-called “War on Terror” is filled with fearsome news articles referring to a violent and apparently insatiable jihad (which literally means merely “struggle”) with a goal of establishing a strict theocracy based on shariah (Islamic jurisprudence), and it does seem that there are some militants who will not rest until all the infidels are vanquished.

However, this sort of aggressive stance is contrary to several passages in the Qur’an, which consistently call for any such struggle to cease when the opponent is no longer actively attacking.

For example: “And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.” (2:193)

Furthermore, another passage cautions against acting in ways that might intimidate people into right behavior: “We are best aware of what they say, and thou (O Muhammad) art in no wise a compeller over them. But warn by the Qur’an him who feareth My threat.” (50:45)

There are numerous passages that emphasize this theme that moral decisions are between the individual and God. The most striking of these is a short surah near the end of the Qur’an. This passage may be understood as a warning against religious compromise, but it is incompatible with religious coercion.

“Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.”(109:1-6)

This passage is not an exception to some rule. The Qur’an acknowledges elsewhere that one’s belief or lack thereof is under God’s control alone, and the plurality of faiths is part of the divine will. “If We will, We can send down on them from the sky a portent so that their necks would remain bowed before it.” (26:4)

Not only that, but it is not the believer’s concern to worry about others’ faith: “Had Allah willed, they had not been idolatrous. We have not set thee as a keeper over them, nor art thou responsible for them.” (6:107)

Muslims are taught to trust that God will reveal God’s will to people: “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break.” (2:256)

The Qur’an also teaches that God speaks through people from outside the worldly power structures, and Muhammad himself was from an unremarkable background. These messengers sometimes worked in groups to support each other. For example, this passage describes what happens when two previous messengers were not heeded.

“And there came from the uttermost part of the city a man running. He cried: O my people! Follow those who have been sent!” (36:20)

Clearly, the encouragement did not come from within the halls of power.

Indeed, these messengers, much like the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, offered a message that was based in justice and mutual aid, and this was apparently not well received by those with something to lose from a more just distribution of wealth.

“And We sent not unto any township a warner, but its pampered ones declared: Lo! we are disbelievers in that which ye bring unto.” (34:34)

Ultimately, the Muslim is called to spread the word of God without attachment to its acceptance. “But if ye deny, then nations have denied before you. The messenger is only to convey (the message) plainly.” (29:18)

Not only this, the Qur’an also teaches that Muslim leaders are not to coerce others: “And lower thy wing (in kindness) unto those believers who follow thee. And if they (thy kinsfolk) disobey thee, say: Lo! I am innocent of what they do.” (26:215-6)

How does all this square with specific punishments dictated elsewhere in the Qur’an? Ultimately, this will be a decision for Muslim communities, themselves. However, it is worth noting that specific rules can be interpreted as secondary to general principles about how rules are to be applied. That is, Muslims are encouraged to make agreements that are in accordance with the Qur’an, to whatever degree of strictness they feel is appropriate. Once someone has made that commitment by joining a given community, they will be held to the more specific standards.

Ultimately, this is the same principle by which members of certain cooperatives pledge to do business through the cooperative. For example, in order for a dairy co-op to function well, it needs to know that its members are committed and will be bringing their milk to be processed. The benefit of joining the society is tied to certain expectations, which vary widely from one society to another.

This may resemble a relativism that would be promptly rejected by most Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. However, the passage is not about whether it is right or wrong to follow a specific rule. It does not say “if they disobey you, that’s no problem and Allah doesn’t mind.”

Instead, it focuses on the leader’s role of stepping back from a perceived wrong, and letting God handle any disciplinary actions through the natural consequences of the act. This is not much different than the model shown by Israel’s Judges who gave room for people to act according to their own conscience, or the conflict resolution process prescribed for Christians in the book of Matthew, chapter 18.


I encourage readers to view my whole paper, which looks at the broader religious context of the “children of Abraham” and also shows how each of the three great faiths have applied their cooperative teachings. Although the Syrian/ISIS/Iraqi conflict is currently playing out mainly among Muslims, there are communities of Jews and Christians caught in the struggle already. And while established nation-states seem to be setting aside their rivalries to thwart this new arrival, it is not hard to see how Israel may be drawn in to the conflict, or the United States might revisit its unhelpful crusader role, further inflaming the situation. Futhermore, it’s quite possible that this conflict may spread and metastasize (along with those in Ukraine, Libya and other places where centralized national power is collapsing).

This situation is dire and urgent, and I pray that my humble offering may provide some help in thinking through ways that cooperatives and civil society outside the immediate conflict zone can play a productive role.


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Everyday Collapse

My last post was a bit heavy, I’ll admit. Pondering statewide catastrophes that lead to permanent regional change is not easy reading, and probably most people would rather not think about it too much.  If I lost anyone, I regret it.

So today I’ll get back to my old modus operandi of focusing on positive solutions! In this case I want to share a way to address a much more modest sort of deterioration, which if left unaddressed would eventually lead to a collapse of habitability for 850 households in Tennessee.

The Harpeth Wastewater Cooperative was formed to address an apparently common problem of which I was previously oblivious (having lived with well-organized public sewage systems except for a couple of years of outhouses during my Alaska phase). I discovered this story through the excellent electric co-op news site, I love that one “utility” co-op form is providing expertise to another field that is less-developed – this is what cooperation among co-ops is about.

A electric co-op state association staffer, Mike Knotts, is leading the effort to bring a badly-neglected sewer system near Nashville, Tenn. under community control. They created a (de facto) co-op following a “bloodless coup” to wrest control from the last in a long series of owners, who (foolishly) changed their unprofitable business into a nonprofit in an attempt to skirt regulation.

This passage in the article really shows the nature of the beast.

The story really begins some 40 years ago, when a developer wanted to build homes in a vacant part of Williamson County, Tenn., outside Nashville. “He built his own sewer system to serve that neighborhood,” said Knotts, noting that it’s a somewhat common business model.

Over the decades, the sewer utility was sold to one private owner after another. “All of those owners have been property developers. Everyone who has purchased that utility has purchased it for the purpose of developing a new neighborhood,” said Knotts.

Many of those prospects failed, Knotts said, with the result that “every owner has been sitting on an asset that they don’t know how to run, and that they no longer have any profit motive to own.”


Harpeth apparently faces colossal problems related to four decades of patchwork construction to serve the real-estate development needs of its various profiteers, combined with their structural lack of interest in maintenance. So the members probably have a hard struggle ahead, as they try to balance growing needs for major work against increased costs to members.

Will they be able to meet the challenge? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: They are more likely to succeed in restoring this decrepit sewer than would an absentee owner whose success depends on minimizing expense on the existing system in order to expand its periphery. Such parasitic ownership has a definition of success that is in obvious opposition to the success of the community.

Harpeth’s co-op probably has a good struggle ahead, but at least they’re moving in the right direction, with support from a much-better-developed co-op sector in a related field of operation.


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