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

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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 story can provide insight into. The story of La Réunion, the utopian community established in Dallas in 1855, which would collapse after just over a year, is particularly instructive.

That one of the earliest settlements in extremely conservative Dallas was an experimental socialist community of immigrants largely from – from all places – France, seems absurd, although it is a fact. That the company collapsed has generally been taken as evidence of its own folly.

Conventional wisdom tells us that settlers who arrived on the Texas prairie with utopian dreams faced a frontier life for which they were utterly unprepared; that they were naive radical intellectuals who could neither farm nor ranch and who suffered defeat because of their hubris.

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

A compulsively searching new book rewrites that story, turning it upside down. According to Sabotaged: 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 leadership – by “sabotage.”

The author of the book is the late architect James Pratt, and it’s a story he was supernaturally adept at telling; his mother was the founder of the local history and genealogy department at the Dallas Public Library. In 1962 Pratt himself co-wrote the first architectural guide to Dallas, Grassland yield, and was an influential and visionary urban planner until his death in 2018.

The impresario behind La Réunion, 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 having visited the United States, Considerant published In Texas (To Texas), a pamphlet advocating a new Fourierist settlement on the prairie, an Eden where he promised free land and a new egalitarian society.

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

A “magnificent spectacle”

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

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

Considerant hoped to establish his colony at the permanent military encampment of Fort Worth, which he believed to be abandoned, but the emissary he sent ahead to claim this property, François Cantagrel, found it already occupied. Worse still, there didn’t seem to be any good open land around.

With hundreds of settlers already on their way to northern Texas, Cantagrel was forced to purchase land: three sections south of Dallas, with the townsite adjacent to a creek in the highlands overlooking the Trinity Valley. Using hired labor and a few firstcomers, 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 on all sides. The only piece of furniture was the dining table.

Meanwhile, settlers began to arrive in the United States in waves, sailing from European ports to New Orleans, then by paddle steamer to Galveston, where they mustered for the journey north by sea. earthly.

Provisions for this month-long journey of 70 settlers included 10 half barrels of beer brought not for fun but because it was considered therapeutic. (Alas, I was unable to 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 colonists’ loot weighed 7,000 pounds, largely the mills, tools, forges, and agricultural implements they would need upon their arrival. The stock of plants they had brought from Europe, nearing expiration, had to be left to recover on land purchased outside of Houston, for later recovery.

This was a time before decent roads where travel was difficult, and Pratt is most lyrical in describing the landscape the settlers traveled and the challenges it presented. The wake up call was at 2:30 a.m., after which they would round up their fledgling herd and walk for 5-6 hours. “Streams were a new problem for Europeans accustomed to bridges,” writes Pratt. In the evening, they searched for firewood and pitched tents surrounded by trenches to ward off snakes.

When the group arrived, they were both frustrated and thrilled; 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 prairie from the new town, one of the settlers wrote: “I don’t know what to compare it to because I have never seen such nature”.

Juggernauts in the prairie

There is a man who was certainly not inspired by what he found in Reunion: Victor Considerant. His reaction to the community he had inspired was “contempt”. He had dreamed of tree-lined avenues and a square with formal gardens, a sort of Versailles for everyone. What he found was a fledgling border outpost. He derided the buildings Cantagrel had brought out of the desert (impressing even the inhabitants) as “mastodons”, and behaved as if the encampment and its inhabitants were below his dignity.

Dissatisfied, he decamped to Austin, secretly acquiring an alternate site outside San Antonio. When he spent time in Reunion, he was petty 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 labor for the construction. Dallas residents, business-oriented from the start, assumed the colony would be a boon to the fledgling 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 mood in the state was not so friendly. The recently formed and increasingly popular nativist Know Nothing party opposed immigration on principle, and the fact that the settlers were openly abolitionists made them pariahs in a slave state.

the Official Texas State Gazette described them as “anarchic and unprincipled”, which was hardly true. “If we had not believed that their wild theories would not long stand the test of experiment and would soon be abandoned, we could press our objections more seriously.”

Through it all, despite the hostility of 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 built a herd of 600 cattle. There was a kitchen, bakery, tannery, grocery store, smokehouse, and community office, all under separate roofs. There were frame houses for all, although much of it was shared.

If there’s a hero in Pratt’s story, it’s Auguste Savardan, an aristocratic country doctor who turned his castle into an orphanage before 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 fell largely to him to manage the collective in the face of its leader’s ostensible undermining behavior.

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

After returning to France, Savardan wrote a story of his experience in La Réunion, Castaway in Texas. In it, he recalled how all the progress of the colony was “unrecognized, hindered, unrecognized or destroyed” by Considerant. The end, Savardan knew, was near when a frustrated Recital proclaimed. “I, I alone, am everything.”

Soon there was nothing at all.

The House of the Century in 1973 before being ravaged by flood waters in 1985.
A jogger (far left) passes through Martyrs Park (left) Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 in Dallas.  To the right is the Triple Underpass and behind Dealey Plaza.
Artwork by Michael Hogue/staff artist
Michael York and Jenny Agutter in
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