Intentional Communities in the USA

Wilbur Zelinsky, a prominent cultural geographer, states in his book, The Cultural Geography of the United States, that U.S. culture expresses four locally distinctive and geographically relevant themes:

1) intense, almost anarchistic individualism;

2) high valuation placed on mobility and change;

3) mechanistic vision of the world; and

4) messianic perfectionism.


Think how these themes are expressed in every day life and be sure to consider these themes as we discuss utopian communities.


Humans live for ideals, secular and religious. Intentional or utopian communities explicitly seek to establish ideals different from those of the society around them. In the USA, the dominant ideology has assumed that "salvation" and material prosperity could only be achieved by individuals. Yet dissident idealists have always existed in North America who looked upon the "New World" as a potential paradise for collective organization and ownership. [For a very different view of U.S. history -- the importance of prisoners -- see Scott Christianson.]

Several hundred groups (totaling at least 100,000 people) established alternative societies with various names in U.S. history:
 |  communistic societies  |  socialist communities   |  communitarian groups  |  utopian settlements  |  communes  | 

Although these societies are/were different from the dominant one, ironically they share(d) the national lore of earthy paradise, self-reliance, and moral superiority.

In this course, we stress particularly the cultural landscape and material manifestations of these intentional communities. If you are interested in more details about any aspect of their lives, consult the many books that have been written on each. Be sure to scroll down this page to important links to each of the intentional communities discussed in this course.

Characteristics of intentional or utopian communities:
1) experimental in social and economic structure and purpose 3) self-sufficient, based largely on agriculture and crafts
2) isolation: geographical, physical, cultural 4) work, often manual labor, leads to physical and mental health

Communal societies address six basic questions that all societies must answer:

human questions

basic issues

1) why are we here?

goals & objectives

2) who's running things?

power & authority

3) who does this belong to?

ownership & property

4) who's going to do that?

work & sustenance

5) where do I sleep and with whom?

sex, love, & family relations

6) why don't they agree with us?

dissent & deviance

U.S. history of alternative groups:
1) from the beginning of European settlements North America, e.g. Puritans in New England, Penn colonies
2) during the 1820-1890 economic depression; searching for a better life: political, economic, and religious

Before 1850
* more such colonies in NY and MA than in then the entire U.S. after 1850, e.g., Shakers, Fourierists, Owenites, Amish
* largest number of utopian groups were political and economic
* largest number of members were in religious communities
After 1850
* utopian colonies appeared in California
* declined noticeably elsewhere in the U.S.
* agricultural settlement was essentially completed by 1850s, although officially the frontier was not closed until 1890 in the arid West
Communal societies resulted from
1) separatists ideals (religious, secular, and materialist) and in response to
2) economic hardships in the U.S. (failure of the American Dream) or monotonous middle class lifestyle (1960s communes)

Now examine each of the groups listed below:
Extinct Groups: || Shakers  ||  Zoarist  ||  Oneida  ||
Current Groups: || Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites  ||  Hutterites  || Communes || 

After studying each of the groups, construct a comparative table of them.
Check your answer.
And then classify each of the communal societies into one of the four types shown below:

Communitarian settlements



  1) wholly communal   3) communal workplaces but individual houses
  2) predominantly communal with tenants or hired help   4) individual houses and workplaces but communal institutions

Types of communes (religious or secular) cooperation and longevity. Here are the results of three studies.
1) Based on a 19th century catalogue of U.S. utopian communities, Dr. Sosis picked 200: 88 were religious and 112 were secular. He found that secular communes were four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year.
2) A contemporary study of communes in Canada, 83 were selected: 30 religious, 53 secular. Again, the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted -- one religious communes has lasted 149 years; whereas the oldest secular one lasted only 40 years. The ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain cooperation; what is need in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.
3) Similar results have been found on kibbutzim in Israel: the religious kibbutzim men collaborated more about food, cars, and power than did women in religious kibbutzim (only men are expected to pray 3 times a day in groups of at least 10 men) and than both secular kibbutzim men and women.

Remember: Intentional groups struggle to create "prefect" communities that often provide role models and guidelines for future dominant societies. Acceptance, and indeed appreciation, of alternative lifestyles and communities recognizes the distinctive U.S. historical human experiences (shared by a handful of other neo-European countries) and provide richer models for human ideals and behavior in the present & future.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire granted me a sabbatical for the Spring Semester of 2003 to conduct library and field research on utopian communities in the USA, which resulted in the detailed web pages presented here.

Created by Ingolf Vogeler and last revised on 25 January 2011.