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Genealogy of Communities: The Utopias

Utopias differ from faith-based communities in that they don't form around a religious belief. Instead, some other concept or life brings the residents together. While they are not traditional communities, their residents still call them home. Don't overlook them as genealogical sources.


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The Usual Utopias

Mention utopias and just about anyone will rattle off names like New Harmony, Walden, Oneida, or Findhorn. There have been numerous utopians on a wide variety of scales since ancient times. Utopians may include children. But new residents are almost always of age, and they join because of the community's philosophy.

People from all walks of life have joined utopias throughout history. Utopias typically publish their philosophies in books, newspapers, and pamphlets. Search any utopia online and you're likely to come across lists or photographs of residents. Most often, they are archived at universities rather than at genealogical or historical societies. The exception is when a utopia maintains its own historical society.

The Oneida community's history is archived at Syracuse University. Extensive records, including names of residents, are digitally archived at Syracuse's Oneida Community Collection. Brook Farm is now a National Historic Place, renamed Brook Farm Historic Site. A good research source, available on Google books, is Brook farm: its members scholars and visitors," by Lindsay Swift, which is just what the title says it is.

The Lesser-Known Utopias

We often forget the number of utopias that have and do continue to exist. I discovered the Topolobampo, Mexico, colony while researching Shelby County, Illinois, residents. Some of the residents of Topolobampo utopia hailed from the tiny town of Shelbyville, Illinois. This was not a utopia based on a religious belief. An historical collection of this utopia is online, compliments of Cal State Fresno. Among the photographs are members of the Hogeland family who moved there from Shelby County, Illinois.

Biographical and historical information provided by a utopian community is more complete than traditional sources. Utopians come and go, as do utopias. Chances are, a utopia sprang up and dissipated before a census enumeration occurred. Utopias tend to focus heavily on procedure. There are charters and written records that survive. Utopias may have membership forms or books that members sign, preserving their names as part of the utopia's history.

The Intentional Community

The modern term for a utopia, or any other sort of community based on any given belief system, is "intentional community." While there may be families and other artifacts of the typical neighborhood, an intentional community consists of residents who move to a given location in order to follow a lifestyle, as much as a belief system.

Most often, intentional communities require some sort of work-sharing. Others, involve sharing of personal possessions, both those residents owned before and after joining the community. Residents rarely join an intentional community without the community's consent. Often, new residents are advised or required to visit temporarily before becoming accepted as a resident. Just about anyone can live on most streets in the United States without ever contributing to the greater community. Intentional community residents are expected to make some personal contribution to the greater good. They donate work hours or skills as at least part of their right to remain in the community.

The City of Pullman, in Illinois (later annexed to Chicago), is an example. According to "The town of Pullman: its growth with brief accounts of its industries," by Mrs. Duane Doty, managers gave preference to employees who lived in Pullman, over those who lived elsewhere. If you know that a relative worked for Pullman, look first for them in Pullman, Illinois. At the time of the great 1894 strike, Pullman owned even the workers' homes in Pullman. In that era, there would be no property taxes paid by local residents in Pullman, since the company owned their homes.

But, chances are that around 1894 your ancestor's name could appear on a labor union roster. While that is not a residential community, it is community that, in this case, was created because of the residential community conditions. It was unlikely that anyone striking against Pullman did not work for Pullman.

Was it Utopia? The quality of life, especially in the very early years, was probably utopian compared to circumstances of many who were grateful to find jobs there. Pullman put great effort into creating a beautiful city with modern utilities, churches, schools, and public services like a fire department. By 1894, the thrill of Pullman's vision of the utopian was tarnished in the eyes of the hard-working Pullman employees. Like many utopias, it fell short of the original dream.

The strike did leave behind a large body of literature about the company. Search Google Books for "Pullman" AND "Strikers" to find the names of many who were involved on one side or the other.

Two features of work-based "utopias" were the "company house" and the "company store." These were employers who created communities of homes and stores where only their employees could live or shop. The flip side was that, if you lost your job, you also lost your home. Plus, if employees who shopped at the company store could not afford to shop anyplace else because they literally owed their paycheck to cover items they purchased "on account."

Historically, the company house and store were attractive to new immigrants -- and to their employers. Newcomers knew where to live and shop. They didn't need to venture far from work and abode. Employers felt that making employees reliant on them for housing and drygoods would make them more loyal. Living nearby would reduce the need for reliable transportation. Employees who thought the offer sounded like utopia when they applied for work there, later thought otherwise. But, by then, they were trapped. They could not afford to move on.

If you are searching for new immigrants during the time of the company house or store, search near the large mills and other companies offering this so-called convenience. You may find your ancestor living in a utopia that only made life more difficult for them, in the long-run.


The more aware we are of the various types of communities, the more fruitful our searches. Not everyone is born, lives, and dies on the same city block. People migrate and participate in new lifestyles for an endless number of reasons. Always ask why an ancestor was living in an unexpected location. It could have more to do with community than with family.

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Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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