France commune

New revelations explain why a failed socialist commune in Dallas. (Hint: it wasn’t socialism)

Why do communities fail? As we find ourselves in quarantine and our civic institutions under attack, this is an issue worth considering and one that our history can provide insight into. The history of Reunion, the utopian community established in Dallas in 1855, only to collapse after a little over a year, is particularly instructive.

The fact that one of the first highly conservative Dallas colonies was an experimental socialist community of immigrants largely from – all over – France, seems absurd, although it is a fact. That the company is collapsing has generally been taken as proof of its own folly.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the settlers who arrived on the Texas prairie with utopian dreams faced a frontier life for which they were totally unprepared; that they were naive radical intellectuals who could not farm or ranch, and suffered defeat for their pride.

It has also been understood as prima facie evidence of the futility of socialist politics.

A compulsively researching new book rewrites that story, overturning it. According to Saboté: Dreams of Utopia in Texas (Nebraska, $ 34.95), Reunion was brought down neither by its utopian vision nor by the practical incapacity of its settlers, but by a complete failure of the leadership – by “sabotage”.

The author of the book is the late architect James Pratt, and it’s a story he was supernaturally fit to tell; her mother was the founder of the Department of Local History and Genealogy at the Dallas Public Library. In 1962, Pratt himself co-wrote the first architectural guide to Dallas, The yield of the meadow, and was an influential and visionary urban planner until his death in 2018.

The impresario behind Reunion Island, and the man who is Pratt’s main villain, was Victor Prosper Considerant, a charismatic interpreter of the ideas of Charles Fourier, the French philosopher who spawned a movement of utopian cooperative communities. In 1853, after visiting the United States, Considerant publishes In Texas (In Texas), a pamphlet advocating a new Fourierist settlement in the prairie, an Eden where he promised free lands and a new egalitarian society.

According to “The Handbook of Texas Online”, the colony known as Reunion Island was located on the south bank of the Trinity River in central Dallas County, just north of Interstate 30 and in the current city limits of Dallas.

A “magnificent spectacle”

The Recital’s appeal found wide appeal. The rise of Napoleon III in France marked a broader political overthrow across Western Europe, with the revolutionary ideals of 1789 replaced by centralized state power. Considering, like many of his Republican supporters, was hunted down by state security forces and forced into exile in Belgium. Investors, including many future settlers, contributed some $ 400,000 to a stock company to support the business.

In Reunion, the settlers would work together on the community’s land. There would be rotating responsibilities, but also the necessary professionals – an arrangement comparable to the Israeli kibbutz. There were also, of course, hypocrisies: the wages of women were set at 40% of that of men. And then there was the irony of establishing an equality-based colony in a slave state on land that had been forcibly cleared of the natives.

Considering hoped to establish his colony at the permanent military camp of Fort Worth, which he believed had been abandoned, but the envoy whom he sent to claim this property, François Cantagrel, found it already occupied. Worse, there didn’t seem to be any good free land around.

With hundreds of settlers already en route to north Texas, Cantagrel was forced to purchase land: three sections south of Dallas, with the town adjacent to a creek in the heights overlooking the Trinity Valley. Using hired labor and a few early arrivals, he began building in March 1855. The first structure was unusual enough to become a local attraction: a large square house with a central hall and verandahs of all sizes. sides. The only furniture was the dining table.

During this time, settlers began arriving in the United States in waves, sailing from European ports to New Orleans, then by paddle steamer to Galveston, where they gathered for the journey north. by land.

The provisions for this month-long trip of 70 settlers included 10 half-barrels of beer brought not for fun but because it was considered therapeutic. (Alas, I couldn’t convince my own doctor of this belief.) Being French, the supplies also included 100 pounds of coffee, 50 pounds of chocolate, and 130 pounds of Gruyere. In total, the settlers’ transport weighed 7,000 pounds, much of the mills, tools, forges, and farm equipment they would need upon their arrival. The stock of plants they had brought from Europe, close to expiration, had to be recovered from land purchased outside of Houston, for later recovery.

It was a time before Decent Roads where travel was difficult, and Pratt is at his most lyrical when describing the landscape the settlers navigated through and the challenges it presented. The wake-up call was at 2:30 a.m., after which they gathered their fledgling herd and walked for 5-6 hours. “Streams were a new problem for Europeans accustomed to bridges,” writes Pratt. In the evenings, they hunted for firewood and pitched tents surrounded by trenches to ward off the snakes.

When the group arrived they were both frustrated and elated; disappointed that there were no homes waiting for them, as Considering had promised, but also inspired by the epic Texas landscape they had discovered. Faced with the “magnificent spectacle” of the meadow of the new town, one of the settlers wrote: “I do not know what to compare it to because I have never seen such nature.

Mastodons in the prairie

There was a man who was certainly not inspired by what he had found in Reunion: Victor Considerant. His reaction to the community he had inspired was “contempt.” He had dreamed of avenues lined with trees and a square with formal gardens, a sort of Versailles for everyone. What he found was a nascent border outpost. He mocked the buildings Cantagrel had referred to in the desert (even impressing the locals) as “behemoths” and behaved as if the encampment and its people were below his dignity.

Dissatisfied, he decamped to Austin, secretly acquiring another site outside of San Antonio. When he spent time in Reunion, he was mean and pompous, giving orders while smoking in bed – inappropriate behavior in a community based on equality. He refused requests to open a school, an infirmary or start a critical irrigation project. He sold at great expense milling equipment that the colony had imported from France.

Among the inhabitants, the settlers were received with relative goodwill; it helped that they were hiring construction labor. The people of Dallas, business-oriented from the start, believed the colony would be a boon to the burgeoning economy. The newcomers also found sympathy among a group of French immigrants who had preceded them, refugees from a former utopian settlement in Denton County that failed in 1848.

The political atmosphere in the state was not so friendly. The newly formed and increasingly popular Know Nothing Nativist Party was opposed on principle to immigration, and the settlers’ open abolitionist attitude made them outcasts in a slave state.

The Texas State Gazette described them as “lawless and unprincipled”, which was hardly true. “Did we not believe that their savage theories would not long stand the test of experience and would soon be abandoned, we might take our objections more seriously.” “

Through it all, despite hostility from the political class and their own founding leader, the settlers persevered. After their first winter, they had cleared 430 acres, fenced off most of it, and formed a herd of 600 cattle. There was a kitchen, bakery, tannery, grocery store, smoking room, and community office, all under separate roofs. There was wood-frame housing for all, although much of it was shared.

If there is a hero in Pratt’s story, it is Auguste Savardan, an aristocratic country doctor who turned his castle into an orphanage before the French authorities placed him under house arrest as a political subversive. Savardan possessed the combination of patience, empathy, and leadership that Considerant so lacked, and so it was largely incumbent on him to manage the collective in the face of the undermining behavior of his so-called leader.

It was an impossible task. The Reunion Island dream died not when its management company collapsed of its own weight, but when Considerant left town in the dead of night with community funds – the “sabotage” of Pratt’s title.

After his return to France, Savardan wrote a story of his experience in Reunion, Castaway in Texas. In it, he recalled how all the colony’s progress was “not appreciated, hampered, unrecognized or destroyed” by Considerant. The end, Savardan knew, was near when a frustrated Considerant proclaimed. “I, I alone, am everything. “

Soon there was nothing left at all.

La Maison du siècle in 1973 before being ravaged by flood waters in 1985.
A jogger (far left) walks past Martyrs Park (left) on Thursday, Jan.23, 2020 in Dallas.  To the right is the triple underpass, and behind it is Dealey Plaza.
Illustration by Michael Hogue / Staff Artist
Michael York and Jenny Agutter in