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A French Communist Utopia in Texas

How one group's search for the promised land in 1848 became a complete disaster

Herrmann J. Meyer/Wikimedia Commons

On November 14, 1847, the front page of Le Populaire, a communist weekly printed in Paris, bore a peculiar headline: c’est au texas! (it’s in texas!). Ten weeks later, before dawn at the piers of Le Havre, sixty-nine Frenchmen filed aboard the Rome, an American-built steamer with three masts of large, square-rigged sails. As the ship pulled away, thousands waved from the shore, cheering au revoir.

These solemn pilgrims were the handpicked avant-garde of an immense exodus of French communists to the New World. Icaria, as they called the “holy community” they were going to establish on American shores, was to be modeled on a make-believe place, the happy island nation described in Voyage en Icarie (Travels in Icaria), a bestselling utopian romance published in 1840 by Étienne Cabet, a communist parliamentarian and the publisher of Le Populaire.

After a seven-week crossing, the Rome docked in the Port of New Orleans. From there, the communists traveled upriver by steamboat to Shreveport, where they set out on foot toward the Trinity River valley. It was there, not far from the village of Dallas, that they intended to build their utopia. Tens of thousands of self-styled “Icarians” remained behind in France, poised to make the crossing once ground had been broken. At least that was the plan.

Voyage en Icarie, describes life in the fictional land of Icaria. If the novel had not had such a powerful influence on so many lives, it would be easy to dismiss. Cabet uses the loose, ambling structure of a travelogue. But Voyage is a slog—humorless, dense with cliché, and very long. The book purports to be the diary of an Englishman named Lord William Carisdall, “one of the wealthiest lords” and “handsomest men” to ever grace the British Isles with his “noble character.” Carisdall travels to a remote island off the western coast of Africa, where he discovers Icaria, a techno-communist paradise with the combined population of France and England.

In Icaria, there is no private property or money. Food, shelter, clothing, and all of life’s comforts are produced and distributed by the state. Men and women are considered equal and receive the same comprehensive public education, although women do not vote. When an Icarian family runs low on food, they place a specially designed container into a specially designed niche outside of their specially designed apartment. When they return home after a day working in collective workshops, they find their bin topped off with healthful victuals. The sources of Icarian abundance are technological innovation and the fact that everyone works for the wealth of the republic. There are no idle rich or landed aristocracy to draw off the wealth of the nation. As a result of these reforms, many old occupations have been rendered obsolete. In Icaria there are no domestic servants, cops, informants, middlemen, soldiers, gunsmiths, or bankers.

For six hundred pages, the novel follows Carisdall as he travels around the island, wondering blandly at Icaria’s wondrous wonders. In Icaria, “all the children are charming, the men vigorous and handsome, the women enchanting and divine . . . all the social and political institutions bear the hallmark of reason, justice, and wisdom. Crime is unknown there. Everyone lives in peace, pleasure, joy and happiness. In a word, Icaria is truly a second promised land, an Eden, and Elysium, a new earthly paradise.” Whatever is not “wondrous” is “splendid” or “awe-striking.” One early critic noted that “there is such a debauch of virtue in Icaria that a two-fisted encounter between a pair of rascals would bring a reader the desired sigh of relief.”

The Icarian movement spread rapidly throughout France during the 1840s, especially in smaller provincial cities where a lagging economy and reactionary police raids galvanized left-leaning artisans. In 1843, reporting for British socialist Robert Owen’s newspaper in Manchester, Engels wrote, “The French Icarian Communists are estimated at about half a million, women and children not taken into account.” This estimate is certainly high. Christopher H. Johnson, whose methods are considerably more scientific than those of Engels, approximates that by 1846, there were one hundred thousand active Icarians in seventy-eight of France’s one hundred departments. Either way, there were enough of them for the French police to crown Cabet the chef des communistes.

As his popularity rose, Cabet’s rhetoric, became increasingly messianic. In the minds of his followers, the idea of Icaria was woven into the ancient narrative of millennial anticipation: the end of suffering, the righting of wrongs, the coming of New Jerusalem. The movement took on religious overtones. Cabet was heralded as “the successor to the works of Christ.” The Icarians called him “dear and venerated father” or, simply, “Papa.” Cabet, who always had an inflated sense of his own genius, did not discourage them.

In the fall of 1847, Cabet sailed to London to meet with Owen and William Peters, an American socialist and land agent who had been hired by the recently annexed state of Texas to find settlers. Texas, which had joined the United States two years earlier, was eager for white pioneers. Peters proposed that the Icarians sign a deal entitling them to three thousand acres of highly discounted land in the Trinity River valley. There was a catch. Most homesteaders tended to favor regions where land was cheap but where some settlement had already occurred. So rather than offer the Icarians a single, contiguous tract, Peters proposed that they take their land in family-sized allotments of 320 acres, laid out in a checkerboard pattern. Each Icarian-owned plot would therefore be surrounded on four sides by land held back by the Republic of Texas to be sold to future immigrants at a premium. Peters’s proposal further stipulated that the Icarians had to begin building homes on half of their plots within a year. If they failed to reach that deadline, they would have to pay full price for the land.

Even if the Icarians had been experienced homesteaders, rather than urban cobblers and tailors, it would have been almost impossible for them to satisfy their contractual obligation to build so many homes in such a short span of time. And even if they somehow managed to get to Texas and build the required homesteads, it would still have been impossible for them to realize their collective vision of Icaria on land interspersed with non-Icarian settlers. Cabet, however, was undeterred. Like so many other European visionaries, he was enchanted by his impression of North America as an Edenic void—a place where history might be restarted. Drawn in by Peters’s descriptions of the lush Trinity River valley and eager to quit the hostile political scene in France, he signed the contract.

Brimming with enthusiasm, Cabet sailed back to Paris and announced— first things first!—contests to design an Icarian costume and write an Icarian anthem. In a specially printed pamphlet, he announced that he had purchased “a new Eden”—a million acres of lush countryside with the “salubrious” climate of Italy. In fact, he had conditional ownership of three thousand noncontiguous acres of scrubland.

At the end of March, as the Rome cruised into the Port of New Orleans, the Icarians standing on deck heard the blast of a cannon. It had been fired, they soon learned, by celebrating French Louisianans. Revolution had broken out in Paris after a group of parading workers had refused to disperse before a small detachment of soldiers. While a fixing a bayonet to his musket, one of the soldiers fired into the crowd. (It was probably an accident.) In the chaos that followed, other soldiers opened fire. When the racket was over, fifty-two people were dead. Enraged Parisians flooded the boulevards, overturning buses and cutting down trees to form barricades. When they surrounded the palace, Louis Philippe abdicated his throne and fled to the United Kingdom. The uprising in France helped trigger similar uprisings across the continent. It was the start of Europe’s “Spring of Nations.” News of Louis Philippe’s abdication had crossed the Atlantic by a faster ship. Having quit monarchist France with revolutionary dreams, the Icarians arrived in New Orleans to learn that an actual revolution had broken out while they were at sea. Some of the colonists immediately sailed back to France, eager to join the fray.

The rest remained in New Orleans, intent on Icaria. A small group set out for Texas. Adolphe Gouhenant, a handsome Icarian sign painter, led the expedition. The colonists had been led to believe that they could travel most of the way to the so-called Peters concession by riverboat. In fact, the river carried them only as far as Shreveport. From there they commenced a long overland journey through a roadless wilderness.

The trip was a disaster. The pilgrims got lost several times. The oxcart carrying their supplies broke down. They had to ford swollen rivers on improvised log rafts lashed together with their own belts. Provisions ran low. At one point, fourteen Icarians shared a single boiled pigeon for dinner. A few of them died from a combination of dysentery, starvation, and malaria. One man was killed by lightning. Their only doctor went mad. Amid all of this, documents were discovered in the luggage of Adolphe Gouhenant that exposed him as a paid spy for the recently deposed Louis Philippe and a Jesuit to boot. He was shorn of his beard and long blond hair and sent off into the wilderness.

The twenty-six Icarians who survived reached their allotment in early June and immediately began raising crude log cabins and planting wheat. They worked hard, but their inexperience showed. They sank their only plow too deep into the dense turf, snapping the blade. In August, they discovered that the Texas climate was anything but “salubrious.” By the end of the summer, they had framed thirty-two cabins. When the long-awaited second advance guard showed up—now just twenty-two men—they found their comrades malnourished, snakebit, and half-dead with dysentery. In total, eight Icarians died in Texas. The survivors, feverish with malaria and sunstroke, limped back to New Orleans to intercept the shiploads of Icarians that continued arriving from France. The Peters concession was abandoned for good.