A European Utopia on the Trinity River
Dreams of a agricultural socialist utopia began in Paris and spread to North Texas in the 1800s
A dream of a socialist utopia. . . It began in Paris in 1848, but who would have guessed it would soon spread to Texas to the limestone cliffs overlooking the Trinity River?
A wave of unsuccessful political revolutions swept across Europe in the mid 1800s. After the failed revolutions, Europe was no longer the place to try socialist theories. However, one socialist dreamer, Frenchman Francois (fr-ee-ay) Fourier was so inspiring with his utopian theories that America became dotted with experimental utopian communities.
A disciple of Fourier, Victor Considerant, became leader of the Fourier movement after Fourier’s death. Expelled from France in 1851, Considerant traveled to the US and on to Texas, motivated by a visit from the Peters Group which was promoting its land grant holdings in the state. Impressed by what he saw as a positive environment for starting a new utopian agricultural community on the Texas frontier near the tiny log-cabin village of Dallas, he returned to Europe and wrote a book, To Texas, in which he praised the potential of the state for settlement. “…The promised land is a reality,” he wrote. Within a year of the book, a company was formed with the purpose of setting up communities following Fourier’s communal principles. The company quickly raised $300,000 to support their first effort in Texas—a community named La Reunion.
On his first visit to the three forks of the Trinity River, Considerant had seen land which he thought would lend itself to vineyards. He was encouraged that his idea would work when he met a French photographer in Dallas who successfully made wine from the state’s native mustang grapes. He instructed his agents to buy 2000 acres of the land he had identified.
The initial group of 200 French and French-speaking Belgians and Swiss recruits left Antwerp and sailed for 60 days to reach New Orleans, sailed on to Galveston, then traveled to Houston. Believing they would then simply sail up the Trinity River to Dallas, they were shocked to learn that the river was not navigable due to the tangled knots of trees and brush which blocked clear passage. Instead the group rented oxcarts and drivers, loaded their possessions, and walked for 26 days from Houston to Dallas (About 270 miles), many wearing wooden shoes.It was a tedious, exhausting journey.
Upon arrival in Dallas in April of 1855, they discovered that the land Considerant had wished to purchase had not been available and the agents had bought 2000 acres on the limestone cliff overlooking the river, land that was not ideal for farming. A few buildings had been constructed in anticipation of their arrival, but they would have to build more as well as plant their crops. Five hundred cattle, some sheep and pigs had been purchased and needed caring for. It was a daunting challenge for the colonists, only two of whom had farming experience, The others included artists, an architect, musicians, tailors, shoemakers, weavers, jewelers, a pastry cook, a hat makers, a dance master watch maker, orchestra conductor, butcher, baker, a cabinet maker, and a stone mason—in short, they were mostly artists and craftsmen. Agricultural skills were sorely lacking.
To make matters worse, Considerant’s overbearing manner and mismanagement resulted in complaints from the new settlers and feelings that they had been misled.
Dallasites took an interest in the community of foreigners and and socials and Sunday dances were held both in Dallas and at La Reunion. But from the start, problems from bad weather, the fact that there was no transportation to take their crops to market, and poor management decisions plagued the colony. One of the first to leave was Considerant who deserted La Reunion, slipping away to San Antonio, and then returning to Europe. Although new recruits came in, the colony slowly crumbled. Some people returned to Europe. Others drifted into Dallas. About 160 families moved to Dallas and opened such businesses as bakeries, a brewery, a millinery shop, a brick and cement business, and a dance school.
When the Civil War started, a few men from La Reunion enlisted and served with distinction; however, others did not feel this was their war. An incident, reported in The Lusty Texans of Dallas by John William Rogers shows the colonists creativity and reluctance to join the battle. Confederate soldiers accosted an elderly Frenchman on the road between La Reunion and Dallas, ordering him to stop. Not understanding English, he didn’t obey and was shot in the hip. Citizens of La Reunion took this as a threat and prepared to defend themselves by turning one of their buildings into a fort. When Confederate soldiers appeared to press the men into military service, men and women of the colony soon had all of the building’s windows bristling with guns. Assuming that at least 100 armed men were inside, the soldiers left. When a larger group of soldiers returned to seize the weapons, none were found. The colonists had buried them. Later, the Governor of Texas exempted the colonists from military duty.
Following the war, during Reconstruction, La Reunion colonists who had not served the Confederacy, were eligible to hold city offices and other positions of authority, something from which Dallas benefited. Colonist Benjamin Long was appointed mayor during Reconstruction and was so popular that he was subsequently elected twice by the citizens.
Today, La Reunion is remembered by a small cemetery in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood and by Reunion Tower, a 561 foot observation tower with revolving restaurant which commands Dallas’ downtown skyline and overlooks the limestone cliff where La Reunion was established.
Although La Reunion went bankrupt and dissolved, it had a strong impact on Dallas. The European colony brought educated European citizens, culture, new trades, and an interest in things international to the small town. La Reunion helped lay the groundwork for Dallas’ to become a cultured, international city.
This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with Texas Brave and Strong—Tidbits of Texas History you didn’t learn in School. Ya’ll come back.