Utopia or Hell on Earth?

By Paul Rowney on 22nd Jun 2022

The 18th and 19th centuries spawned countless groups of people who wanted to create their own communities in the freedom America offered at that time. From the ultra religious to those advocating free love, here we look at some of their stories.

By Paul Hunter


Since the arrival of the Pilgrims, groups have come to America seeking a lifestyle and community that reflected their values and beliefs. For most this could be achieved within the loose, informal environment of their city, town or village. But for some, the need for a more controlled community that followed their own specific ideals led to the rise of what is now called ‘Intentional Communities’, or for some, at the time, a version of Utopia.

The word Utopia comes from the book Sir Thomas More wrote in 1516, describing a perfect political and social system on an imaginary island. This book popularized the modern definition of “Utopia” as being any place or situation of ‘ideal perfection’.

And in the 18th and 19th century the wide open spaces of America proved to be a fertile ground for the founding of many such Utopian societies.

Indeed, 52 utopian communities were founded in the US in the 1840s alone. Most were based on religious beliefs and their founder’s interpretation of how lives should be led to ensure spiritual fulfillment. But today, the manner in which these societies were run would be far from Utopian for most of us. Some others had more down to earth ideals: safe homes for emancipated slaves, to free sex and Eugenics.

The Shakers

An ultra strict religious community that banned sex, but managed to last for 150 years.

One of the best-known and earliest communities that could be called ‘Utopian’ or ‘Intentional’  were the Shakers. The name derived from their seemingly uncontrollable dancing, singing and erratic behavior during revivalist meetings. Initially called the ‘Shaking Quakers’ they later became known simply as the ‘Shakers’. Formed in 1774 by Ann Lee, it was taken over by John Whittaker after her death. They had many rules and beliefs that to most would have made them an unattractive group to join: They practiced communal living, where all property was shared. They didn’t believe in procreation, and therefore had to adopt children and recruit converts into their community. For those that were adopted, they were given a choice to either stay within the community or leave when they turned 21. Men were called ‘Brothers’ and women ‘Sisters’.

All of which led to such bizarre practices as: brothers and sisters were not allowed to pass on the stairs, were not allowed to give each other presents nor were they allowed to visit individuals of the opposite sex without being accompanied by companions of their own sex. Indeed the two sexes ate, worked, worshipped and walked apart at all times to “maintain a distance and reserve towards each other”.

But the Shakers also advanced notions of gender and racial equality. They believed in opportunities for intellectual and artistic development within the Society. Simplicity in dress, speech, and manner were encouraged, as was living in rural colonies away from the corrupting influences of the cities.

Despite the ban on procreation, by 1830 membership had reached 5000 believers. Enjoyment of any kind was frowned upon. Books, tobacco, drinking coffee, painting, conducting plays or games of any sort were banned. The only form of relaxation was the learning of new hymns and singing. They did, famously, produce excellent furniture but were primarily and agricultural-based community and generally vegetarian. Despite all these strictures and constraints the Shakers lasted for 150 years.

The Oneida Community

The Oneida community in the 1860s

A society that shunned marriage, allowed free love, practiced Eugenics, and produced top quality cutlery!

The Oneida ‘communal society’ was established in 1848. Founded by John Humphrey Noyes, this religiously-based community challenged contemporary social views on property ownership, gender roles, child-rearing practices, monogamous marriage, and work.

The Oneida community strongly believed in a system of free love – a term which Noyes is credited with coining – which was known as ‘complex marriage’, where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented. ‘Possessiveness and exclusive relationships’ were frowned upon.

They also introduced a form of Eugenics – using selective, controlled reproduction within the Community, one devised by Noyes and implemented in 1869.  It was designed to create more ‘spiritually and physically perfect children’. Community members who wished to be parents would go before a committee to be approved and matched based on their spiritual and moral and intellectual qualities. 53 women and 38 men participated in this program. The experiment yielded 58 children, nine of whom were fathered by Noyes.

But turmoil rocked the commune in the latter half of 1879 when Noyes had to flee to Canada after a prosecution for rape was issued.He never returned to the USA. He tried to pass leadership along to his son but this was unsuccessful. Influenced by both internal and external pressures, the Community disbanded in 1880 and formed a joint-stock corporation, Oneida Community Ltd. to take control of their communally owned properties and businesses.

 New Harmony in Scotland and America

The vision of a pioneering Scots industrialist who believed in creating a healthy and safe working and living environment for his workers.

Robert Owen was a successful mill owner in New Lanark, Scotland who introduced many revolutionary ideas for his workers ‘model planned community’ such as establishing schools for children, (rather than making them work up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week – as was common at the time). He also proposed adult workers should only work an eight hour day.

He redesigned his mills to be more health and safety-conscious. He started company stores which supplied produce at affordable prices and any proceeds from the heavily subsidized company store went back into funding the schools. Inspired by his success Owen looked to replicate it in America. He bought the failing Rappite township in Indiana, some 2000 acres with 180 buildings and homes for 800 people. Also included were a mill, shops, a distillery, and brewery.

Despite its success in Scotland, New Harmony USA style failed to flourish, class differences, division of labor disagreements, confusing admission criteria and lack of any real organizational structure, (compounded by Owen’s prolonged absences) eventually led to its breakdown after just three years. Though his ideas and principles did continue in a number of other villages across the US until 1863.

The Sanctificationists.

Early believers in Women’s rights and self determination they also became successful businesswomen.

The Sanctificationists started in 1866 when its founder Martha White McWhirter had a vision from God that she should form a group to promulgate the idea of ‘Sanctification’. This included the belief that the Lord speaks through dreams and visions and that Sanctified women should take control of their own destiny and (among other things) not be forced to live with abusive or violent husbands-a radical proposition in the late 18th century Texas frontier.

McWhirter’s group went even further by removing the prohibition against women owning property or the need to petition husbands for money to run their households. McWhirter’s beliefs led her to start, in effect, a refuge for battered and abused women.

To make money to support the movement they marketed their ‘household skills’ sold dairy products and hired themselves out as domestic servants. In due course, they became known as the ‘Belton women’, named after the small town in which they were based-and subsequently the ‘Belton Woman’s Commonwealth’. In 1896 they opened the Central Hotel in Belton, which proved an extremely successful venture allowing them to expand further afield. They purchased  properties in Michigan and New York. Then tired of their headquarters being in parochial Belton they build a new HQ in Washington DC .

In 1903 they purchased a 120 Acre Farm in Maryland. Before her death on their communal farm in 1904, Martha McWhirter explained why the group had remained exclusively female through the years. “Oh, yes, we have had men among us, but they never stay very long. You see, it is in the nature of men to want to be boss, and they find they can’t”.

The number of members in the organization eventually dropped to just nine. The last surviving member died at the age of 101 in 1984, making the Belton Woman’s Commonwealth one of the longest-standing organizations of its type.

Pullman Town

Ruthless industrialist who created a ‘Utopian’ community for his workers that came perilously close to a version of the book 1984.

This was a ‘utopian community’ with a difference: started by a rich, successful businessman who wanted to attract, retain and control his workers-and keep the trade unions at bay. George Pullman had made his fortune building luxurious rail cars for the rapidly growing railroad industry after the American Civil War. In 1880, Pullman purchased 4,000 acres of land south of Chicago for expansion of his production facilities and commenced the building of the Pullman town. He decided to develop a model community, a total environment, superior to that available to the working class elsewhere. By so doing, he hoped to avoid strikes, attract the most skilled workers and attain greater productivity as a result of the better health, environment and spirit of his employees. By 1892,15,000 people lived and worked there.

On the surface the carefully laid out rows of brick-built houses (which residents could never buy, just rent) complemented a lake, shops, schools, kindergarten, post office, bank and all the services one would expect in a small town. All were conveniently on hand for workers and their families.

Each dwelling was provided with gas and water, access to complete sanitary facilities, abundant quantities of sunlight and fresh air. He even built on the aptly named ‘Athletic Island’ one of the best equipped sports facilities in the country. The main workshops and factories were close to the town center making for a short commute for the workers.

Once there residents were subjected to considerable control… no bars or drinking, even no sitting shirtless on your front porch and a host of other restrictions combined with heavy-handed surveillance, arbitrary dismissal (leading to loss of your home), and excessive management interference led to workers joining unions-a process strictly forbidden by Pullman.

Between 1886 and 1893 discontent increased and when almost 25% of the workforce was fired, wages cut by 28% and rents increased at the same time, it proved too much for the near starving workforce and in 1894 they went on strike for two months along with many other workers. It all turned ugly with the government sending in troops, workers being wounded and killed, but the damage was also done to Pullman’s reputation and his authoritarian approach to his workers .

The Icarians

One of the first communities to try and create a Utopian ‘communist’ society.

1848 The Icarian ‘Utopia’ was created based on a French socialist movement led by Etienne Cabet.  He was a French lawyer and writer who had written a best-selling Utopian book called: Voyage to Icara in 1840. In it the Utopian creation was called Communism -the first time this word made appearance. As a result of the success of his book he had built a following of nearly 400,000 readers. Many of them asked Cabet to put his ideas into practice. So in May 1847 he announced that he planned to build communist cities and villages in America that could accommodate up to 20,000 people. Robert Owen from the New Harmony Community (see above) suggested that Cabot buy 1,000,000 acres of land on the Red River in Texas.

The first contingent of community members arrived in 1848. They quickly discovered that they had been deceived and that the actual lands designated for colonization were fully 25 miles away from the Red River. Instead of the promised 1 million acres, actual contractual terms of the land distribution provided for the distribution of 320 acres of land to 3,125 individuals or families who each had to construct a log cabin and occupy their allotment by the deadline date of July 1, 1848. With only 69 hands available for the construction, there was little hope for construction of more than about 30 cabins by the deadline. The promised one million acres eventually became 10,000.  But  a combination of disease and bad weather meant the initial efforts  to start the community failed. By 1849, only 281 Icarians stayed loyal to Cabet and remained to rebuild, the rest went back to France. 

The Icarians lived in communal dwellings of dormitories that shared central living and dining areas. All families lived in two equal rooms in an apartment building and had the same kind of furniture. Children were raised in a communal creche, not just by their own parents. Tasks were divided among the group; one might be a seamstress and never need to cook.

In 1856 with Cabot fatally ill and the finances of the community in disarray the group decided to liquidate their assets and call it a day.  In fact other Icarian groups lasted until 1898 by which time some five other colonies had been formed and constituted one of the longest-lived non-religious communal experiences in America

The Rajneeshes.

Founded by an Indian ‘mystic’ who bought a huge swathe of Oregon for his followers-and 70 Rolls Royce’s for himself.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian ‘mystic’ started a religious sect in the 1960’s but eventually fell out of favor with the Indian government and began searching for a new country to host his increasingly popular ‘religion’.

In 1981, Rajneesh brought his teachings of free sex and materialism to a 64,229-acre Central Oregon property known as the Big Muddy Ranch, near Antelope, Oregon which was purchased for $5.75 million, ($16.2 million in todays’ dollars)..

Followers were told to sell all of their belongings before moving there. With some of this money Rajneesh bought the land and funded its development, and somewhat lavishly, a fleet of over 70 Rolls Royce’s which he would use each day to drive through the commune.

Within three years, they had developed a community, turning the ranch from an empty rural property into a city of up to 7,000 people, complete with typical urban infrastructure such as a fire department, police, restaurants, malls, townhouses, a 4,200-foot  airstrip, a public transport system using buses, a sewage reclamation plant, and a reservoir.

Soon, trouble began to arise. Friction between the commune and the small local city of Antelope became a focal point of the conflict.  With a population of under 60, the city then denied a business permit for the cult’s mail-order operation, and more followers  moved into the town to take control of the city’s administration. Apart from the control of Antelope and the land-use question, there were other disputes.  In 1984, Sheela Silverman one of the commune’s leaders  coordinated an attack to infect the salad bars of at least ten restaurants in the county seat of Wasco County with salmonella, in an attempt to incapacitate the voting population of the city so that their own candidates would win the 1984 Wasco County elections. While 751 people, including several Wasco County public officials, were infected, and 45 people were hospitalized, there were no fatalities. This incident is still regarded as the single largest biological warfare attack in United States history. Ultimately their plan failed, but it was the beginning of the end.

During the next few years the movement also came under investigation for multiple other felonies including: Arson: Attempted Murder: Immigration Fraud: Voting Fraud: and Drug Smuggling.

Rajneesh himself was accused of immigration violations, as part of his plea bargain, he agreed to leave the United States and eventually returned to Poona, India. His followers left Oregon shortly afterwards. The land was put up for sale for over $28 million in 1985, but sold at a sheriff’s auction for $4.5 million in late 1988. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, died in 1990 at age 58.


Sources: Books:

Utopian Communities 1680-1880. By Mark Holloway

American Community: By Mark S Ferrara.

American Messiahs by Adam Morris

On Line:

Utopias in America, Nation Park Service: www.nps.gov

American Utopias: Britannica: www.britannica.com

Utopian Communities: wkipedia.com

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