La Reunion: Utopia on the Trinity
by Paula Bosse
Eight of the original settlers, 1906
by Paula Bosse
I’ve put off writing about the socialist utopian settlement of La Reunion, which sprang up just across the Trinity from Dallas in the mid 1850s, because it’s such a big topic. Luckily, though, the fabulous Julia Barton has put together an entertaining and informative radio presentation on this very topic (see below for details). So I’ll just present a couple of interesting tidbits and leave the heavy lifting to Julia.
But for a totally inadequate one-paragraph summary of La Reunion, it was a colony of generally well-educated (and adventurous) French, Swiss, and Belgian immigrants, some of whom were political refugees from the unrest then spreading across Europe. They were led by Frenchman Victor Prosper Considerant (a follower of the democratic socialist Charles Fourier) — who began his settlement in 1854/1855 on land he had purchased just west of the Trinity River. A socialist commune … in Texas! But it was rough going for the European immigrants, and by 1859 the community had been deemed a failure: too many scholars, not enough farmers, as one colonist put it. Many of the colonists left the area, but several of these immigrants stayed, many becoming successful businessmen and community leaders (one of them, Swiss-born Benjamin Long, even became a two-term mayor of Dallas in the years following the Civil War). They are also credited with bringing a cultural sophistication and world-view to a dusty little town on the Texas frontier which had precious little of either before their arrival. Without the influence of these failed utopians, Dallas would be a much different city than the one we know today.
So here are a few random La Reunion bits and pieces.
According to an interesting Legacies article by James Pratt, those settlers — while still back in their homelands — might have gotten the idea that this is what their new home in Texas might look like (click for larger image):
See left side REALLY big here; right side here (Dallas Historical Society)
Here’s one of the first mentions of the impending arrival of Considerant’s group (the size of which was almost always exaggerated in early reports). (Click for larger image.)
Texas State Times (Austin), Feb. 10, 1855
It was news even in Virginia:
Richmond Dispatch, May 5, 1855
1,200 Swiss watchmakers?!!
Texas State Times (Austin), June 2, 1855
One of the things I learned from Julia Barton’s piece of La Reunion was that some of the settlers brought plants native to their European homes with them — this included grapevines for making wine.
Houston Weekly Telegraph, Oct. 12, 1859
(Read about the surprise M. Boulay left his widow when he died in 1875, here, in an article from The Dallas Weekly Herald, July 24, 1875)
On May 30, 1906, a 50th anniversary party was held by a group of the original La Reunion colonists. In the Dallas Morning News story about this event (which you can read here), these men and women were interviewed. My favorite factoid was that these fresh-off-the boat immigrants traveled to Dallas from Galveston or Houston ON FOOT. One woman said she and her fellow group of travelers walked from Houston to Dallas, leaving in late May and arriving on July 4th. Imagine their disappointment after having walked for weeks and weeks in heat they had never before experienced, only to find that their new home was nothing like what they had expected. Several stuck around for the rest of their lives, though. The eight colonists pictured in the photograph above are identified in the caption (click to read):
Finally, a photo of Victor Considerant, who left La Reunion when the going got tough, lived in a nice place in San Antonio for awhile, then returned to France, where he lived as a teacher and “socialist sage” until his death in 1893 at the age of 85.
UTSA Libraries, Digital Collections
I HIGHLY encourage you to listen to the aforementioned radio essay Julia Barton did for Public Radio International: “The Failed Socialist Utopian Dream That Helped Dallas Become a Major City” is here. It is a segment of the PRI podcast The World in Words — it begins at about the 5:30 mark and runs about twenty minutes. I learned stuff!
The highly idealized rendering of a Fourier-inspired phalanstère is from the collection of the Dallas Historical Society and appeared on the front and back covers of the Fall, 1989 issue of Legacies. No other information on the drawing was given. I’m not sure if prospective La Reunion colonists were led to believe this was a depiction of the heaven-on-earth that awaited them in Texas. If so, I bet they were very, very disappointed.
La Reunion links:
- Handbook of Texas (with details about the philosophical, political, and social aims of the colony)
- “La Reunion: Adventure in Utopia” from the WPA Guide to Dallas, here
- “La Reunion” by Ernestine Porcher Sewell, from The Folklore of Texan Cultures (1974), here
Watch Julia Barton’s presentation of “Port of Dallas” — about the misguided hopes to turn the Trinity River into a navigable waterway from Galveston to Dallas — here.
Other Flashback Dallas posts on La Reunion can be found here.
@ReunionTower on Twitter
Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.
I remember walking parts of the old settlement as a boy. There was an area that was planted in fruit trees as an orchard and some bore fruit at that time. This would have been an area neat Westmoreland and Remond. I wonder if any of those trees exist today?
I don’t know, but I hope so! I read an article about a fabulous peach grove that was grown and maintained by a member of the Reverchon family (perhaps Julien himself). In Julia Barton’s essay, she mentions that the grapevines are still there. (Remond was the name of one of the colonists.)
Smokey – Curious question on my part. Is there a way to tell how or what year a tree was planted?
It is funny that the caption identifying the colonists lists their nationality. IE, Mrs Frick, Swiss. Interesting that there is a Nussbaumer in that group, it is an unusual name also shared by the owner of Ceylon et Cie, the Design District shop, wonder if they are related?
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I believe the answer to this 4+ year-old question is yes http://www.texasescapes.com/CentralTexasTownsNorth/Nussbaumer-Texas.htm
I worked with Rob Tranchin on KERA’s Living With the Trinity, so I was familiar with Snag Boat Dallas. I landed here myself in ’73, when the navigable Trinity finally sank into obscurity. But I’d never seen the 2-page drawing of La Reunion! I’d have moved here from Switzerland for that! I particularly love the schooner sailing down the river.
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Such a great documentary, Mark! Rob was very generous in talking with me and sharing archival material.
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There was also another, lesser-known failed Utopian community in North Texas with a similar story of lasting impacts. It was east of present-day Justin on Denton Creek. “The New Icarians” who founded the settlement of New Icarie in 1848 were French. The community was based on the works of Etienne Cabet. Wettest year in forever. Lots of mosquitos. Malaria doomed them. It dissolved in 1849. Many survivors moved to Fort Worth and Dallas.
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The followers of Cabet figure a lot in the later story of La Reunion. According to Jonathan Beecher’s biography of Victor Considerant, he first visited Dallas in July 1852 and met with Adolphe Gouhenant, a survivor of the failed Icarian settlement who was unfairly blamed for its failure. He was running an “art-saloon” by then (combo art gallery/photography studio/bar/church/Masonic lodge, dance hall and court. Very Dallas!)
Gouhenant sat down with Considerant and gave him lots of advice, which in turn made VC feel more confident of his prospects for success. He thought he could learn from those mistakes and was also encouraged by Gouhenant’s resilience in bouncing back from total devastation. Gouhenant did later help the La Réunion settlers as much as he could, but in the end many of the same problems faced them as the previous colonists.
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I’ve read a bit about the interesting art saloon, but I didn’t realize the man behind it was part of a pre-La Reunion failed utopian community.
So an early Son’s of Herman Hall……
Very interesting Julia.
i tried to find it!!!
As a direct descendant of The Henri family, who came over to settle La Reunion with their relatives, The Reverchons, I am fascinated by all of this. A few years ago, The Dallas Morning News did a story on the colony, and interviewed a man who knew where the original colony is, but wouldn’t tell the location in the article. I emailed him, and he told it me it’s location, and swore me to secrecy. I went over there with a friend, and it is a very dense, overgrown piece of land (about 5 acres, I would guess) in the middle of a very economically struggling area. There is at least one encampment of homeless people on the land, and evidence of drug use. That said, there are old foundations about the land, which, again, is very dense. You would need to go in the winter when it is not as overgrown, and definitely do not go alone- if you can find it! I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there are still some old fruit trees and grape vines on the property.
Very interesting! Check out the link in the comment right above yours — the one that follows “I tried to find it!!!” Sounds similar.
Hello Elizabeth Susanne, I am direct descendant of the Girard’s of La Reunion. They too have connections to the families of Henri and Reverchon. We’re still in the Dallas area and alive and well.
Have a look at this page. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Girard-454
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