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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