A historical note from the UC Food Observer on Veterans Day

Connecting veterans to farming and ranching dates back to the earliest days of the United States. In the pre-Revolutionary War era, veterans of the French and Indian War – which was the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War being fought in Europe – received land grants for their military service. The land provided by the government was appropriated from Native American tribes. Between 1775 and 1855, the United States government provided what were called “bounty-land warrants” for some types of military service. Bounty-land warrants (land grants) were used to encourage enlistment. They were also used to reward veterans for service during a seemingly endless series of wars and military actions (including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, etc.) The U.S. government ended these programs in 1855.

But the need to connect veterans and others to farming didn’t go away.

California’s Land Settlement Colonies

In the early 1930s, the New Deal provided a number of resettlement and subsistence homestead programs through the Resettlement Administration. But the model for these programs came even earlier. One model was created in 1917, when the state of California passed a Land Settlement Act that ultimately created two land resettlement colonies. The Act provided funds to purchase more than 6,000 acres near Chico, in Butte County, where the Durham colony was started in 1918. A second colony – Delhi – was started in Merced County in 1919.

#168, Dr. Elwood Mead, Chairman State Land Settlement Board, conferring with visiting university professors on the Durham State Land Settlement. August, 1920. Contributing Institution: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

The legislation and the programs it created were strongly influenced by University of California professor Elwood Mead. Mead chaired the Rural Institutions division at Berkeley, and later was the driving force behind some of the West’s largest water projects. Mead helped structure the programs based on his experiences with land settlement colonies in other nations, including Australia.

Land settlement was the primary goal of the legislation. The state wanted to provide a means to assist “deserving and qualified persons to acquire small, improved farms, providing homes for farm laborers…to acquire, on behalf of the State, agricultural lands suitable for cultivation and colonization …”

The effort was an attempt to “improve” rural life and land development methods, by organizing land settlements, creating model (read: “efficient”) rural communities, using scientific agriculture and reducing tenant farming. Progressive Era impulses, such as reform, science, efficiency and social “organization” were reflected in the legislation…and also reflected in how the settlement colonies operated. Communal and cooperative models were stressed.

World War I veterans were an important audience for the land settlement colonies. A 1919 bulletin produced by the Land Settlement Board discussed “Plans for the Soldier Settlement in the Future.”

Another bulletin was issued in 1920. “How California Helps Men Own Farms and Rural Homes” included the following statements:


“It [land settlement] points a way to take care of such returned soldiers and sailors as have a true longing for the farm. Immediately after the armistice we were almost shell-shocked by the noise that rent the skies – to put the returned soldier on a grant of land…”


And with growing concern about how the Russian revolution might impact our nation, some thought that putting veterans on farms might strengthen the American enterprise.


“And don’t forget…it’s one of the ways to kill bolshevism!”*


UC Plays Key Role

The University of California was a primary partner in the land settlement project. The State Land Settlement Board, the agency tasked with this work, was for a time housed in the Agriculture Hall at UC Berkeley. Mead chaired the State Land Settlement Board; he played a key role in selecting “settlers” for the colonies. Applicants had to appear in person before the Board for questioning.

UC was involved in other important ways. The Agricultural Experiment Station at the Berkeley campus – then the headquarters for the newly launched Cooperative Extension Service – provided information and education about best practices in soil management, animal husbandry, etc. (Nearly 100 years later, UCCE continues to support veterans who want to farm.)

In those days, the “University of California” meant the historic flagship campus at Berkeley (Cal). In the WWI era, the current Davis campus was the Berkeley farm at Davisville; the current Riverside campus was the Citrus Experiment Station (it proved vital to the development of Southern California’s “citrus empire”); and a small Los Angeles outpost – it would later become UCLA – was referred to as “UC’s Southern Branch.”

Initially, the Durham settlement thrived. Allotments sold out. The settlement grew to include a community park and meeting center, as well as administrative buildings. Eventually, both colonies failed. Crop failures, poor land, high expenses and the difficult economic conditions of the time proved unfavorable to the model’s success.

Additional Information and Resources

For additional information about Durham and Delhi, read “How California Helps Men Own Farms and Rural Homes.” This primary source document (i.e., from the period) provides an incredibly fascinating view into a unique government-directed social and economic experiment. It is packed full of information about who participated in the land settlements, what crops were produced and how the social and cultural life of the communities developed and played out. The document also serves, in some ways, as a reminder of the darker aspects of that era, highlighting troubling social, cultural and racial issues.

The University of California’s Bancroft Library has digitized several hundred images of life on the state’s land settlement colonies. This gallery includes photographs, maps and more.

And for an old but wonderful read, check out California’s Utopian Colonies, by Robert Hine (1953).

* How California Helps Men Own Farms and Rural Homes, pg. 12.

Related Links:

Q&A: Joe Oliveira, Veteran and Beginning Farmer

Q&A: Michael O’Gorman, Farmer Veteran Coalition