Madness Monday: Edward B. Payne, Utopia, and Altruria


McMurray Family (Click for Family Tree)

Star Trek on a family history blog?

Madness? No- it really does make sense, and it is good to connect our current world with that of the past. Studies have shown that children who have a sense of family and their family history have more resilience- and that is always good in this crazy world.

“Altruism” is a fairly recent word in our language- it comes from a French word in the 1850s. Most know that this word means an unselfish, caring devotion concerning the welfare of others. It is even used in a biological sense with animals, when their behavior does not contribute to their reproduction or longevity, but does help genes from a close relative get passed on. In popular culture, of course, the 1982 film, The Wrath of Khan (see 3:15 in clip), has Spock and Capt. Kirk finishing each other’s sentences: “It was logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” This epitomizes altruism.

“Cooperation” rather than “competition” is a way that altruism is put into practice. Edward B. Payne believed strongly in cooperation over the rampant competition of the late 19th century, with railroad magnates and big business making men rich while the middle classes and poor struggled. In 1893, the year that started a mostly-forgotten serious depression in America, William Dean Howells published A Traveller from Altruria. The book was a Utopian science fiction/fantasy, in which a traveller described his own home, where altruism flourished. The novel was a huge hit, and small societies of “Altrurians” sprang up, including in the San Francisco and Berkeley, California area. Edward B. Payne was a charter member of one of these groups in Berkeley. The groups discussed social reform, but the Berkeley group took it a step further- they wanted to put their altruistic ideals into practice by forming a colony in the Santa Rosa, California area. Rev. Edward B. Payne wrote and published a newsletter, The Altrurian, funds began coming in, land was purchased, and members of the group began to move to “Altruria” in October of 1894.

There were some management problems, and definitely financial problems- after all, the venture was started during an economic depression that would stun the nation for years. The project was abandoned in 1896, but Payne called it a “glorious failure.” The small cooperatives that had been selling produce from Altruria out in the community continued, and similar cooperatives continue today.

“Altruria” in Santa Rosa has been mentioned in many books, articles, and even dissertations in the years since. (See notes.) A 2009 book, The Utopian Novel in America, 1886-1896: The Politics of Form, by Jean Pfaelzer, discusses Howell’s two Utopian novels and states:

A Traveller from Altruria and Through the Eye of the Needle launched no programs, newspapers, imitators, or clubs, although they did inspire a certain Edward B. Payne to found a short-lived community named Altruria.”

Madness? A wild idea? A lone voice acting on a hopeless idea? Maybe, and some of the newspapers at the time also suggested that the formation of the Altruria colony was madness and would not survive. But Payne was not a lone voice- there were many who wanted to follow an altruistic lifestyle then, and many continue to do that today, although most do not live in colonies devoted to cooperation.

Even though the above book quote is not entirely true- there actually were Altrurian clubs and newspapers across the United States- Edward B. Payne would most likely be very pleased that his own cooperative efforts are still noticed, and still a part of the conversation in our society.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1.  Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 was likely also inspiration for the Altruria colony.
  2. McMurray, Pamela M. To the friends of cooperation…” The Quest for Cooperation and Edward B. Payne.” Russian River Recorder, Issue 124, Spring 2014, pp. 4-7. Healdsburg, California: Healdsburg Museum & Historical Society.
  3. Pfaelzer, Jean. The Utopian Novel in America, 1886-1896: The Politics of Form. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009, 75.
  4. Hine, Robert V. (1953). California’s Utopian Colonies. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library. pp. 101–113
  5. O’Connor, Peter Shaun (2001). On the Road to Utopia: The Social History and Spirituality of Altruria, and Intentional Religious Community in Sonoma County, California, 1894-1896. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services.
  6. LeBaron, Gaye, Dee Blackman, Joann Mitchell, and Harvey Hansen. Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town. Santa Rosa, CA: Historia, Ltd, 1985, 113.
  7. Lewis, James R. The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.
  8. Goal, Iain, Janferie StoneMichael WattsCal Winslow. West of Eden-communes and utopia in northern California. PM Press2012, pp. 4-5.
  9. “Altruria” article on Wikipedia-,_California


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