Patterson Block, Corner J. & Tulare Sts., Fresno, Cal.

Surveying Utopias: A Critical Explorationis a digital exhibition curated by students in the “Utopias: Literature, Technology, Archives” Graduate Seminar, taught by Dr. J. Ashley Foster, in the Department of English at California State University, Fresno.  This exhibition comes out of an extensive collaboration with the team of the Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno, and accompanies a physical exhibition in the Special Collections Research Center (February 22-July 26, 2019) which addresses themes of Utopian Studies and what it takes to create a more hopeful world. Here, we use the holdings of the Special Collections Research Center, particularly the Topolobampo Collection, to enter into the discourse of Utopian Studies.

The Topolobampo Collection tells the story of a failed colony that was based on principles many consider utopian at Topolobampo Bay in Sinaloa, Mexico. Fresno State holds the largest collection of the colony, 44.75 linear square feet of archives, photographs, and special collections materials.  A large portion of the collection was donated by descendants of the Kneeland family, dedicated colony members who truly believed in Albert Owen’s mission. Ira Kneeland went to Mexico in 1889 as the official photographer to the Credit Foncier, moved back to the United States for a bit, and then brought the rest of his family, including his sister Clarissa to Topolobampo in 1894.  Ira and Clarissa stayed in Mexico even after the colony fell, and left with their mother in August of 1913.  According to Ray Reynolds, author of Cat’s Paw Utopia, the siblings relocated to Black Mountain in the Fresno area, where “they died of exposure one day apart in January 1950.” As the donor files tell us, Viola Gabriel, niece of Clarissa Kneeland, had been a student at Fresno State, donated her aunt’s papers, which contained Mrs. Owen’s papers, to Fresno State in 1951.  Then, Ray Reynolds, who was also a Fresno State faculty member, donated a collection of papers in 1972 to add to the already extensive holdings on the subject. 

The colony, which ran from about 1886 to 1904, was the result of Albert K. Owen’s idealistic desire to create a new society that provided housing and eradicated poverty for all.  Owen’s dreams were ambitious, and his colony involved the hope of building a transcontinental, international railroad through the United States and Mexico, while also resettling hundreds of families in what came to be called “Pacific City,” the site of an ideal society that would act as a port to Asia at the terminus of the railway.

This exhibition offers the visitor an opportunity to peruse the collections and the graduate student analysis of the documents and items.  The visitor can view different exhibit pages, created by each student, displaying items and critical perspectives on the Topolobampo Collection; can access our Exhibition Catalogue, published by The Press at California State University, Fresno; can explore maps of where the colonists lived in the Topolobampo area; and can engage the collections.