Utopian Communities in Sonoma County

3 sections, the first is a large group of people, the seocnd is a picnic and the third is a row of bicycler riders.
Residents of Morning Star Ranch gather (left),1892 picnic at Preston (bottom), A group of bicycle riders from Fountaingrove, 1899 (right). 
The word ‘Utopian’ comes from a 16th century novel by Thomas More about a perfect world. Meaning, literally, ‘nowhere,’ the term was used in 19th century America to describe a movement creating intentional communities, primarily Christian and/or socialist, in the years before the Civil War. Some have made significant contributions to the broader society.

— LeBaron, Gaye. “Remembering Sonoma County’s Utopian Communities.Santa Rosa Press Democrat, January 26, 2019.

Many 18th and 19th century American utopian communities were founded by European immigrants who wanted to build a more perfect society by offering communal living as an alternative to capitalism. The promise of religious freedom, paired with affordable and plentiful land with limited government regulations, fostered an ideal environment for these oftentimes short-lived social experiments. The Shakers, one of the most well known and enduring religious utopian communities, settled in New York state in 1776 and believe in communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, gender equality, and social isolation.

Increasing urban development and industrialization in the late 19th century made the utopian ideal of social revolution increasingly unlikely. However, these experiments have persisted in many forms throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. California has been home to several of these communities seeking religious, political, and social freedoms, offering agricultural opportunities and isolation amidst a beautiful landscape. Sonoma County, in particular, has drawn and continues to draw these groups, including the winemaking members of the Brotherhood of the New Life founded by Thomas Lake Harris; the health-oriented religious colony centered around Madam Emily Preston; and Morning Star Ranch, which was a part of the Free Land Movement.

It seems that Luther Burbank’s famous letter to his mother describing Sonoma County as the ‘chosen spot of all the earth,’ was taken to heart from the earliest years as a destination for Utopian experiments.

— LeBaron, Gaye. “Remembering Sonoma County’s Utopian Communities.” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, January 26, 2019.

Further Reading

Boal, Iain A., et al. West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California. Oakland, California, PM Press, 2012.

The Digger Archives. The Diggers, Oct. 2020.

Guarneri, Carl J. “Utopian and Communitarian Movements.” The Oxford Companion to United States History, Oxford University Press, 2004. 

Hoods, Holly. Preston: History of a Late 19th-century Religious Colony in Sonoma County, California. Rohnert Park, California, Sonoma State University, 2000.

The Utopians.” Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California.

Utopias in America.” National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior, 19 May 2021.