La Reunion: Utopia on the Trinity
by Paula Bosse
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):
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.)
It was news even in Virginia:
1,200 Swiss watchmakers?!!
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.
(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.
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.
Click pictures and clippings for larger images.
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Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.