June 12, 2012 - 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 -- very wealthy. The book made Cabet famous -- very famous -- and also made him the de facto leader of a group of similar idealists who called themselves the Icarians. Some writers get book clubs or a pub named in their honor but Cabet started a philosophical movement and a migration to, of all places, Texas.
Cabet decided that Texas should be the site of his first socialist Utopian society after word reached him that the Peters Emigration and Land Co. of Texas was offering a million acres of free land to anyone who would help settle it. Cabet sent Charles Scully to check out this land of opportunity. Details of the transaction are hazy but the Icarians can probably be credited with making one of the worst land deals in the history of Texas real estate.
William Smalling Peters, owner of the land company, worked a deal with Cabet that gave him 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 soon came to be called, filled the bill. However, the deal stipulated that the Icarians could only acquire half of each of its sections, meaning the lots were configured in a checkerboard pattern and were not contiguous. This was one of many things the New Icarians were not told when they signed up for a real life voyage to Utopia. The things they were told turned out to be mostly not true.
Cabet called for 10,000 to 20,000 Frenchmen to pay $100 a piece for the right to travel to Texas and be happy and rich. Sixty-nine actually did so, partly because of conflict among the (Old) Icarians in France. Most accounts place the site of the Texas Icarian Colony at the present-day site of Justin in Denton County, at the confluence of the Denton and Oliver Creeks. They were told there would be a river, but no river ran through it. Mosquitoes, however, were plentiful.
Two Icarians died during the seven week voyage to New Orleans. Several others defected when the ship finally landed. The survivors took a steamboat to Shreveport. From there they made an arduous trip by wagon train to Texas, arriving in Sulphur Springs in April of 1848. From there, they traveled to their new home where they were told, for the first time, that they had to have a house built on their land by July 1 or else the land would cost $1 per acre.
Cabet cheered them on from the safety of France, at the same time he was being widely discredited as a fraud in his home country. He assured the New Icarians that some 1,500 more immigrants were on their way but only 10 actually showed up and were a sick and disillusioned bunch. They fit right in at the Icarian Colony where a dozen people had already died, most from malaria.
Some of the survivors decided they had enjoyed all of Texas they could stand and went back to New Orleans. Cabet, who was essentially run out of France, greeted them there with 450 fellow Icarians. After a few days of swapping notes with each other, about half of them went back to France.
The rest followed what was left of their bliss to Nauvoo, Ill. and settled on some Mormon-owned land there, where they did okay. In 1860. they moved to Iowa, where another satellite colony was established. The Icarians made a go of it for several years in various colonies in the Midwest but debt and dissension plagued even the successful colonies. At none of these places could it be said that everybody was rich and happy all the time, as they had been led to believe they would be.
The New Icarians' time in Texas is more of a hell-on-earth than Utopia. It was a nice idea while it lasted, but it didn't last very long. That was a good thing.