The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, , at sacred-texts.com
p. 340 p. 341
p. 342 p. 343
I HAVE determined to give a brief account of the Swedish colony at Bishop Hill, in Henry County, Illinois, because, though it has now ceased to exist as a communistic society, its story yields some instructive lessons in the creation and maintenance of such associations. These Swedes began in abject poverty, and in the course of a few years built up a prosperous town and settlement. They rashly went into debt: debt brought lawsuits and disputes into the society, and all three broke it up.
The people of Bishop Hill came from the region of Helsingland, in Sweden. In their own country they were Pietists, and Separatists from the State Church, mostly farmers, scattered over a considerable district, but united by their peculiar doctrines, and by the efforts of their preachers. I am told that they came into existence as a sect about 1830; in 1843 their chief preacher was a man of some energy, Eric Janson by name; and he taught them the duty of living after the manner of the Primitive Christian Church, inculcating humble and prayerful lives, equality of conditions, and community of property.
Their refusal to attend church, and to submit themselves to its ordinances, excited the attention of the government, which, probably also alarmed at the phrase "community of goods," began to persecute them with fines and imprisonment. Police officers were sent to break up their congregations; they imagined themselves threatened with confiscation; and in 1845 they sent one of their number, Olaf Olson, to the United States,
to see if they could not here find land on which to live in peace and freedom. Olson's inquiries led him to Illinois; he selected Henry County as a favorable situation; and in 1846, on his report, the people determined to emigrate in a body, the few wealthy agreeing to pay the expenses of the poor. They say that when they were ready to embark, they were refused permission to leave their country, and Jonas Olson, one of their leaders, had to go to the king, who, on his prayer, finally allowed them to depart.
The first ship-load left Galfa in the summer of 1846, and arrived at Bishop Hill in October of that year. Others followed, until by the summer of 1848 they had eight hundred people on this spot—which they named from an eminence in their own country.
They appear to have spent most of their means in the emigration, for they were able during the first year to buy only forty acres of land, and for eighteen months they lived in extreme poverty—in holes in the ground, and under sheds built against hillsides; and ground their corn for bread in hand-mills, often laboring at this task by turns all night, to provide meal for the next day. A tent made of linen cloth was their church during this time; and they worked the land of neighboring farmers on shares to gain a subsistence. Living on the prairie, fever and ague attacked them and added to their wretchedness.
By 1848 they had acquired two hundred acres of land, but were $1800 in debt, which they had borrowed to keep them from starving; but in this year they built a brick church, and they now worked a good deal of land on shares. In 1849 they began to build a very long brick house, still standing, which served them as kitchen and dining-hall. In the same year Jonas Olson, a preacher, took eight young men, and with the consent of the society went to California to dig gold for the common interest. He returned after a year, unsuccessful.
In 1850 Eric Janson, their leader, was shot in the Henry County court-house, while attending a trial in which a young man, not a member of the community, claimed his wife, a girl who was a member, and whom he wished to take away. I do not know the merits of the case, nor is it important here. During this year Olaf Janson returned from Sweden with several thousand dollars which he had been sent to collect—being debts due some of the members; and this money, which enabled them to buy land, appears to have given them their first fair start.
At this time, though they were still poor, they had built a number of brick dwellings, had set up shops for carpentry, blacksmithing, wagon-making, etc.; were raising flax, selling the seed, and making the fiber into linen, some of which they sold; and they had a few cattle, and a worn-out saw-mill. They had set up a school, even while they lived "in the caves," and now hired an American teacher.
In 1853 they got an act of incorporation from the Illinois Legislature, which enabled them to hold land and transact business as an association, and in the name of trustees; until that time all they owned was held in the name of individual members. In the same year they made a contract to raise, during two years, seven hundred acres of broom-corn, for which they received in cash on delivery fifty dollars a ton. As yet they had no railroad, and had to haul their corn fifty miles. At this time, too, they began to improve their breeds of cattle; paid high prices for one or two short-horn bulls, and were soon famous in their region for the excellence of their stock. They also made wagons for the neighboring farmers, and established a grist-mill.
In 1854-5 they took a contract to grade a part of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad line, and to build some bridges; and as they were able to put a considerable body of their young men upon this work, it brought them in a good deal of money. They now began to erect brick dwellings, a
town-hall, and a large hotel, where they for a while did a good business. They made excellent brick, and all their houses are very solidly built, plain, but of pleasing exteriors. The most remarkable one is the long dining-hall and kitchen, with a bakery and brewery adjoining. In the upper story of this building a considerable number of families lived; in the lower story all the people—to the number of a thousand at one time—ate three times a day.
They were now prospering. In 1859 they owned ten thousand acres of land, and had it all neatly fenced and in excellent order. They had the finest cattle in the state; and their shops and mills earned money from the neighboring farmers.
The families lived separately, but all ate together. They received their clothing supplies at a common storehouse as they needed them, and labored under the direction of foremen. Their business organization was always loose. They had no president or single head. A body of trustees transacted business, and made reports to the society, not regularly, but at irregular intervals. There seems, too, to have been a speculative spirit among them, for while in 1859 they owned ten thousand acres of land and a town, which must have been worth at least three hundred thousand dollars, as the land was all fenced and improved, and the town was uncommonly well built, * they owed at that time, or in 1860, between eighty and one hundred thousand dollars.
Their religions life was very simple. They had no paid preacher, but expected their leaders to labor during the week with the rest. On Sunday they had two services in the church—at ten in the morning, and between six and seven in the evening. At these, after singing and prayer, the preacher read the Bible, and commented on what he read. On every week-day
evening, unless the weather was bad, they held a similar meeting, which lasted an hour and a half. They had no library, and encouraged no reading except in the Bible, teaching that the most important matter for every man was to get a thorough understanding of the commandments of God. They had for a little while a newspaper, and they printed at the neighboring town of Galva, which was their business centre, an edition of their hymn-book. * They discouraged amusements, as tending to worldliness; and though they appear to have lived happily and without disputes, about 1859 they discovered that their young people, who had grown up in the society, were discontented, found the community life dull, did not care for the religious views of the society, and were ready to break up the organization.
When this discontent arose, the looseness of the organization was fatal. With a more compact and energetic administration, either the dissatisfied elements would have been eliminated quietly, or the causes of dissatisfaction, mainly, as far as I could understand, the dullness of the life and the lack of amusements, would have been removed. But with a loose organization there appears to have been, what is not unnatural, rigidity of discipline. There was no power any where to make changes. "The discontented ones wanted a change, but no change was possible: it was often discussed." The young people persuaded some of the older ones to be of their mind, and thus two parties were formed; and after many meetings, in which I imagine there were sometimes bitter words, it was determined in the spring of 1860 to divide the property, the Olson party, as it was called, including two thirds of the membership, determining with their share to continue the community, while the Janson party determined on individual effort.
Hereupon two thirds of the real and personal property was
set apart for the Olson party, but for a whole year the two parties lived together at Bishop Hill. In 1861 the Janson party divided their share among the families composing it; and in the same year the disorganization proceeded another step. The Olson party fell into three divisions. In 1862, finally, all the property was divided, and the commune ceased to exist.
In 1860 a receiver had been appointed. In 1861 Olaf Janson was appointed attorney in fact. This became necessary, because, besides the property, there were debts; and when the trustees were removed and a receiver was appointed, the question necessarily came up how the debts should be met. The division of the property was made by a committee of the society, who took a complete inventory, including even the smallest household articles; and at the time there seems to have been no complaint of unfairness. The whole was divided into shares, of which each man received one, and women and children fractional shares. A part of the property was set off, sufficient, as it was then believed, to pay off the indebtedness; but it proved insufficient, and finally each farm given to a member in the partition was saddled with a share of indebtedness; and as there was poor management after the disorganization began, and as the debt constantly increased by the non-payment of interest, there are now, thirteen years after the final partition, heavy lawsuits still pending in the courts against the colony and its trustees.
In 1861 the community raised a company of soldiers for the Union army, furnishing both privates and officers. These fought through the war, and one of the younger members after the war was, for meritorious conduct and promising intellect, taken as a scholar at West Point, where he was graduated with honor.
At present Bishop Hill is slowly falling into decay. The houses are still mostly inhabited; there are several shops and stores; but the larger buildings are out of repair; and business
has centred at Galva, five or six miles distant. Most of the former communists live happily on their small farms. A Methodist church has been built in the village, and has some attendants, but a good many of the older members have adopted the Adventist or Millerite faith, which appears to revive after every failure of prediction, especially in the West, where people seem to look forward with a quite singular pleasure to the fiery end of all things.
On the whole, it is a melancholy story. It shows both what can be achieved by combined industry, and what trifles can destroy such an organization as a communistic society. It shows the extreme importance of a central authority, wisely administered but also implicitly obeyed; able therefore to yield, as well as to act, promptly. The history of these Bishop Hill Communists also shows the necessity of great caution in all financial affairs in a commune, which ought to avoid debt like the plague, and to live financially as though it might break up at any moment.
Not only were debt and the speculative spirit out of which debt arose the causes of the colony's failure, but they have brought great trouble on the people since. Had there been no debt, the commune could have divided its property among the members at any time, without loss or trouble; and I suspect that the possibility of such an immediate division might have induced the people to keep together.
At any rate, the story of Bishop Hill shows how important it would be to a community agreeing to labor and produce in common for a limited time to keep free from debt.
346:* Between four and five hundred thousand dollars was their own valuation; and in 1860 a report given in one of the briefs of a lawsuit gives their assets at $864,000, and their debts at less than $100,000.
347:* "Några Sånger, samt Böner. Förfatade af Erik Janson. Förenade Staterna, Galva, Ills. S. Cronsioe, 1857."