Throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s through today, adventurous Amish have pioneered new communities in places hitherto unknown to their people.
One such group set its sights on California in 1913–the first and only attempt to settle in America’s ‘foremost farm state’. With its vast farmlands, you’d think the location would make a good match for the agrarian Amish.
But apparently not–a year later, the settlement had gone extinct.
The Amish community at Salinas in Monterey County was largely comprised of families from an Oregon Amish settlement that had experienced disunity. The congregation divided, seven families chose to follow their bishop and set up shop in California.
Like many others, the settlement had a good start, but quickly fell apart, as settlers began moving away, the first of which, a deacon, left inexplicably just two months after arriving.
A poison pen
Over the settlement’s short existence, disparaging letters appeared in The Budget newspaper, an Amish-and-Mennonite gazette originating in Sugarcreek, Ohio. The comments likely came from one or more vindictive acquaintances from the original Oregon group.
In the letters, the writer portrays the area as one needing lots of hard work to provide irrigation, which was in fact not the case. The California settlers apparently enjoyed the warm winter climate and generally seemed to be doing well.
Thus the end of the settlement remains something of a mystery.
A grandchild claims her grandfather, Jake K. Miller, father of the settlement’s bishop, had a weakness for land speculation. She claimed that he took off hunting the next big land opportunity.
David Luthy, the Amish historian responsible for this account, finds this unlikely. He explains why: first, it would have been a purely selfish act, and more importantly, Miller actually was one of the last to leave.
Another possible cause?
Superstitious Spanish-American Catholics.
It turns out that an extremely rare, and frightening, thunderstorm struck Salinas one day in the summer of 1914. Fearful natives placed blame squarely on the Amish.
Whether thunder-and-lightning, dreams of real estate riches, or bone-dry turf did this settlement in, no one will likely ever know. In any case, it’s very possible there may be other reasons for the break-up.
Over the course of a year, all but one of the California Amish left for other settlements (with the sole remaining member joining a Mormon group), bringing a swift end to the Amish ‘California experiment’. Today, there are no Amish in California, though there presence is felt in the state via, among other things, numerous California Amish furniture dealers.
(Source: David Luthy’s The Amish in America: Settlements That Failed, 1840-1960.)Looking for more good reading on the Amish? Check out our list of best Amish books.