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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Those Desolate Icarians

by Clay Coppedge

In the 1840s, a French idealist by the name of Etienne Cabet wrote a book called "Voyage en Icaria" about a Utopian society where everybody was equally happy—very happy—and equally wealthy. The book made Cabet famous—very famous—and the de facto leader of a group of similar idealists who called themselves the Icarians.

When Cabet found out the Peters Emmigration and Land Co. of Texas was offering many acres of free land to anyone who would help settle it he sent a man named Charles Sully to check out this new frontier of opportunity. Sully sallied forth to Texas and promptly brokered one of the worst land deals in the history of Texas real estate.

William Smalling Peters, owner of the land company, worked a deal that gave Cabet and his followers access to a tract of land the state had granted to Peters on the condition that he secure immigrants. The New Icarians, as they called themselves, fit the bill.

Cabet issued a call for 10,000 French citiziens to migrate to Texas and be happy and rich. Sixty-nine actually did so. Two newly minted Icarians died during the seven-week voyage to New Orleans. Others defected as soon as the ship docked. The survivors took a steamboat to Shreveport and a wagon to Texas, arriving in Sulphur Springs in April of 1848.

From there they labored to their new home, where the New Icarians learned many things. Thery learned that the deal Sully and Cabet made with William Smalling Peters, owner of the land company, stipulated that the Icarians could only acquire half of each of section, meaning the lots were configured in a checkerboard pattern and were not contiguous.

There was supposed to be a river, but the Icarians found only a pair of creeks and thick swarms of mosquitoes. Most accounts place the Icarian site at Justin, in Denton County, at the confluence of Denton and Oliver Creeks, neither of which will ever be confused with a river.

The Icarians also learned that they had to have a house built on their land by July 1, or else the land would cost them $1 an acre and they wouldn't be able to lay claim to the land that bordered it. Due to the paltry turnout of Icarians in Texas—they were down to 27 sick and disillusioned souls—the number of acres at their disposal dropped from what Cabet advertisied as a million acres to about 10,000. Each single man received 320 acres, and each family could claim up to 640 acres.

Cabet, by now discredited as a fraud in his home country, assured the New Icarians that some 1,500 more immigrants were on their way, but only 10 suffering souls showed up to a colony where four people had already died from malaria or cholera and everybody else was sick. It got worse. The only medical doctor in the group went insane and departed the colony, never to return.

Some of the survivors, having enjoyed all of Texas they could ever stand, went back to New Orleans. Cabet greeted them there with 450 fresh Icarians. The two groups swapped notes for a few days, then about half of all the New Icarians negotiated passage back to France. The rest followed their bliss to Nauvoo, Illinois and settled there on some Mormon-owned land.

Cabet, who had become increasingly dictatorial as the setbacks and dissension mounted, tried to have the constitution rewritten to make him president for life. His fellow Icarians responded by removing him from the presidency. Cabet died of a stroke in 1856 in St. Louis, where he had hoped to start another colony with what remained of his followers.

The last of the Icarians, who settled outside of Corning Iowa in 1852, disbanded voluntarily in 1898, making it one of the longest lasting non-religious communal living experiments in U.S. history. But the Texas colony lasted just one very unhappy year.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" July 8, 2022 column



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