International Journal of Historical Archaeology

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 283–289 | Cite as

The Icarians and Their Neighbors


This chapter examines the relationships between the mostly French Icarian communists of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa, and the Midwest communities among which they settled. It gives a thumbnail sketch of the Icarian history in America and then focuses on how the French-speaking, communist Icarians interacted with the English-speaking individualist societies around them in their different localities.


Icarian Utopia French 


Of the various French groups who settled in the upper Mississippi valley during the earlier centuries of American history, the Icarians are undoubtedly among the lesser known. Yet their story is fascinating, their struggles intense, and their fate instructive for the student of American social movements.

The Icarian movement has its origins in the tangled politics of France in the 1830s. The replacement of the autocratic Charles X by the constitutional monarch Louis Philippe, duc d’Orleans, in 1830 had given rise to hopes among the middle and working classes for a more progressive government. But as the decade progressed, it became evident that the 1830 revolution had merely replaced an aristocratic oppressor with an oligarchic one. Workers’ protests were brutally suppressed, press freedom was curtailed, and social unrest grew.

Out of this setting arose a number of republican movements of varying degrees of radicalism. An attorney from Dijon, Étienne Cabet, had gained fame in the 1820s for his spirited defense of Bonapartist officials who had been prosecuted for sedition during an earlier conservative reaction, and in the new decade attained more prominence as a political leader. At first, Cabet hoped that the government of Louis Philippe would restore some of the popular rights that had been at the heart of the original French Revolution, and he accepted a position in the new government as attorney general for Corsica. By 1831, though, he had despaired of the Orleanist government and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as an opposition member.

Cabet's criticism of the government sharpened through the 1830s as he became a public voice for opposition to the government. He edited a newspaper, Le Populaire, and wrote books and essays calling for governmental reforms and universal suffrage. Roger Magraw estimates that Le Populaire “may have reached an audience of 200,000,” making him “the most popular of utopian socialist writers” (Magraw, 1986, p. 101). As one might expect, his high profile brought him the attention of the monarchy, and in 1834 he was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to either two years in prison or five years in exile. Cabet chose exile and spent the next five years in London.

During this period, Cabet read widely in socialist and utopian literature and was especially influenced by Thomas More's Utopia, Louis Sebastian Mercier's L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante, and Robert Owen's New World Order. He wrote two books, a four-volume Histoire populaire de la revolution française and a novel, Voyage en Icarie; both were essentially efforts at expounding his ideas about the ideal social order and were aimed at the contemporary French political situation. In the novel, an imaginary land of Icaria is visited by European travelers, who are intrigued by its communist structure and recount with delight the happiness and leisure if its citizens, who by the simple act of adopting a communist form of government have made their land a virtual paradise.

Although Voyage en Icarie was intended more as a propaganda vehicle for Cabet's social ideas, aimed at reform in France, than a serious proposal to create a community such as the one described in the book, the novel's effect after its initial publication in 1839 was unexpected. Thousands of copies were sold, Icarian societies were formed, and Cabet found himself at the center of a movement to create a real-life Icaria. His own view of himself changed from that of a participant in French politics to that of a leader of an independent social movement; as Robert P. Sutton observes, Cabet “changed from propagandist to messiah” (Sutton, 1994, p. 41). Cabet also found himself the subject of more government scrutiny as the radicalism of Le Populaire once again attracted the repressive attention of the authorities, and now in his late 50s, Cabet felt himself less able to withstand prison or exile. Accordingly, in early 1848 an advance group of 69 colonists set out from Le Havre for Texas, where Cabet had contracted with a land developer for what he represented to his followers as a million acres of prime farmland. Sutton (1994, pp. 46–48) points out, however, that the terms of the settlement plan Cabet had approved clearly identified the land as only three thousand acres in noncontiguous 160-acre tracts, attributing the discrepancy to Cabet's immense capacity for self delusion.

The advance guard soon discovered that the Texas site was far more inhospitable than they had imagined, however, and by the end of that year the survivors of the advance guard had returned in disarray to New Orleans, where two additional Icarian groups, including Cabet himself, had arrived. Serendipitously, the group came into contact with agents for the Mormon leadership, which had only recently been forced to abandon the town of Nauvoo, Illinois. Eager seller met willing buyer, and by early 1849 the Icarians had taken possession of many of the Mormon properties in Nauvoo, including the original temple, which had largely been destroyed by fire. (See Gauthier, 1992; Sutton, 1994 for historical overviews.)

Life in Nauvoo was conducted in an attempt to remain close to the principles expressed by the novel. All property was held in common; decisions were made by a process that was at least nominally democratic (although the franchise was not extended to women); meals were taken communally in a large dining hall, built from stones recovered from the temple; children boarded at the schoolhouse and received an education in Icarian principles in addition to traditional subjects, returning to their families on Sundays. In 1855, the peak year for the community, nearly 500 Icarians were living at Nauvoo (Van Loo, 1970, p. 146).

Unfortunately, Cabet's leadership proved inadequate to the task of maintaining the community. He grew increasingly autocratic, and in 1856 a majority of the Icarian community elected a challenger to its presidency. Unable to accept the fact that his brainchild would be led by someone else, Cabet led a minority group of about 200 people to a new site on the western edge of St. Louis. The majority continued a plan already set in motion by relocating from Nauvoo, which was proving to be an uneconomical location, to southwest Iowa, where 3,000 acres had been purchased. The minority group, though devastated by Cabet's death very shortly after its relocation, managed to stay intact for eight more years, finally disbanding in 1864.

The majority group established the Icarian community in Iowa with some success until the late 1870s, when another dispute divided the community. This time the cause was partly personal and partly ideological; one group, mainly composed of younger and more radical communists, sought to maintain a strict communal structure, while the other group allowed for the ownership of a few individual items, such as wine for personal consumption, trade tools, and garden produce. This dispute ended in a lawsuit that split the community in 1879. The younger group continued in Iowa a few years, then relocated to California, where an Icarian commune was maintained until 1885, when lack of members finally forced it to vote to dissolve. Final dissolution took place in 1898.

Thus for about 50 years, there was an Icarian presence in the American Midwest, and often two competing Icarias. What I would like to turn to now is the question of the “Frenchness” of these groups, and the question of its identity in the midst of an ethnically and ideologically foreign country.

From its inception, Icaria was a largely French creation. Its leader was French, it was conceived and created in response to political conditions in France, and most of its members were French. The area of Nauvoo where some of the Icarians lived was known until recently as “Frenchtown” (Posadas and Covey, 1985, p. 7). Similarly, residents of the surrounding community, both in Iowa and in California, referred to the Icarian settlement as “French Colony” (Gauthier, 1992, p. 57; Hine, 1966, p. 58).

Linguistically, the group retained French identity long after one might have expected some creeping Americanization. At the Nauvoo colony, as one might expect, French was used almost exclusively; Émile Vallet, who was brought to the colony as a child, recalls that all school exercises were conducted in French and that few of the colonists seemed especially interested in learning to deal with the surrounding Americans: “We had been in the United States six years and could not talk the language,” he writes, “having been among French and German people continualy [sic] and having had no intercourse with the inhabitants of the place” (Vallet, 1971, p. 61). But even among the second and third generations, the French language was still the norm; the articles of agreement that established the California colony specified that all members had to speak and write French (Gauthier, 1992, p. 93). Similarly, third-generation Iowa colonist Marie Marchand Ross recalls that non-French families joined the community from time to time, but “[t]heir being Americans and not knowing any French made it difficult, to say the least, for them to stay” (Ross, 1986, p. 58).

French cultural traditions also remained strong throughout the life of the community. New Year's was celebrated according to French traditions, as was an annual Fête du Mais in the fall. A newspaper writer who visited the Iowa colony in 1870 remarked, “Their dress and diet are simple and mostly after the French manner, and in their ideas they observe throughout French distinctions rather than American” (New York Tribune, 1870, p. 1). The few remaining buildings of the Icarian settlements generally employ French vernacular building features (Posadas and Covey, 1985, pp. 7, 14). And in her doctoral dissertation, Diana Garno has pointed out that even the concept of Communauté that is so central to Icarian thinking has deep roots in earlier French traditions of common property ownership (Garno, 1998).

This French identification, unlike many other ethnic labels of the 1840s and 1850s, seems to have created few, if any, problems of prejudice among the surrounding community. A traveler who passed through the Iowa colony remarked, “Their industry and enterprise … are in strange contrast … with their American neighbors” (Gauthier, 1992, p. 57). Émile Vallet remembers that in Nauvoo, “Their neighbors were friendly, well disposed to them. They treated them as the countrymen of Lafayette” (Vallet, 1971, p. 19). Cabet himself drew on this favorable Revolutionary War association when in 1854, he petitioned Congress for a grant of 50 to 150 sections of land to establish a permanent location for the colony. He wrote, “[W]e are perhaps that portion of the French nation which best represents our Fathers who fought with you or because of your example, for Independence and Liberty” (Gauthier, 1992, p. 53). This patriotic association may have been influential, but it is also probable that the Icarians were treated well by their neighbors for other reasons. These would include their small numbers, their lack of interest in proselytizing among their immediate community, and their conformity to the social mores of the times; unlike other communal groups that did undergo ostracism or overt prejudice, the Icarians did not deviate from the norm in their family structure or sexual behavior. And their rejection of Catholicism—the Icarians referred to their beliefs as “true Christianity,” but held no religious services–shielded them from the widespread anti-Catholic sentiment of the era, which plagued other ethnic immigrant groups, such as the Irish, the Germans, and others.

French identity is not the entire story here, however. Even in the early years of the colony, Icarians took steps to identify themselves as American. In 1850, Cabet persuaded a reluctant Illinois legislature to grant the Nauvoo community a charter by including language from the Declaration of Independence into his proposal; and in 1854, he led a mass naturalization ceremony in which all the Nauvoo colonists were sworn in as American citizens, including some who did not actually meet the residency requirement. Cabet wrote at that time: “You see me now an American, an American citizen, adopting the republic of the United States of America for my new country, protected by its power and its laws, personally interested in its prosperity, its honor, its glory, vividly desiring that it can attain perfection and serve as a model to other nations” (Prudhommeux, 1907, p. 287). Even earlier, Cabet had used the rhetoric of Americanism to describe the community. When the first colonists arrived in Nauvoo in 1849, a town meeting had been held to learn about the new arrivals. Remember, this is a community that only a few years earlier had engaged in a protracted and bloody campaign of expulsion against the Mormons. Cabet reassured the citizens: “If any man should say that our Community or Association, is contrary to the laws of this country, he would be in error; for we have chosen America to establish us there, precisely on account of its being the land of the free and the home of the brave, and we have a firm resolution to submit, respectfully, to the laws of our adopted country, whom we look upon as our mother, and who we hope will be so kind as to receive us as her children.” Cabet's words appear to have served their purpose, for the local newspaper reported that the meeting passed a resolution of welcome and “dismissed with six cheers, for the success and prosperity of the Icarian Society” (Warsaw [Ill.] Signal, 1849, p. 1).

The composition of the group, while largely French, was never exclusively so. In 1854 the Icarian newspaper counted 405 inhabitants of the colony, of whom 325, or 80 percent, were French. Germans made up the bulk of the other Icarians, although other countries represented in the colony included Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, England, and the United States (Snyder, 1983, p. 83). And the 1855 census, which counted 463 Icarians, identified some 30 of them as belonging to the local militia (Van Loo, 1970, p. 146). This is a significant contrast to the Mormons, whose formation of their own militia was one of the group's primary irritants to their neighbors. The Icarian community newspaper published much of its material in parallel columns of French, German, and English.

Some of this Americanism may have been more for external consumption than inwardly felt. A later president of the colony recalls Cabet expressing this private sentiment: “American laws … cannot be called upon by Icarians. For these People, between them, there are no other laws than Icarian laws, no other Courts and no other Juges [sic] than their General Assembly, their Sovereign to all” (Hine, 1966, p. 73). Similarly, while Cabet was absent from the colony for a time in 1851, his appointed replacement expressed his reservations about their adopted country in a private letter. He wrote to a fellow Icarian that the New World attracts “all those irresolute men who only consider the realization of communism from a single standpoint, that of their future. Such men are constantly swayed by uncertainty; their diseased imagination is always looking for a refuge against misery, and as a result, they clutch at any straws, now one, now another…. America lends itself wonderfully to this deceptive illusion—like the wolf which leaves its prey for a shadow—until the day when the sad reality awakens you more despairing than ever. And so you resume your worker's chains and consider yourself fortunate” (Rancière, 1987, pp. 12–13).

For the most part, though, the Icarians and their neighbors seem to have coexisted with mutual respect, minimal contact, and little cultural exchange. The only occasion in which the Icarians regularly invited other members of their community into the colony was, with fitting irony, the Fourth of July, which was celebrated with festivities that began in mid-morning and lasted well into the night. Both Icarian and non-Icarian orators gave addresses. The evening began with the performance of dramas, always in French. For the English-speaking Illinoisans and Iowans who were invited, the reward for sitting through the French-language theatricals was the dance that followed; as an Icarian newspaper in Iowa reported after one such celebration, “It was only the dawn of the following day that made the last dancers decide to return to their homes” (La Jeune Icarie, 1879, p. 2). This type of social interchange was rare, though, and an Icarian of that era remembered the trips to St. Joseph, Missouri, to buy supplies as the “equivalent of a voyage to a foreign country” (Gauthier, 1992, p. 51).

Ultimately, the story of the Icarians generally resembles that of other immigrant groups, although their powerful commitment to their communist ideal helped the Icarians resist the typical forces of assimilation felt by all immigrant groups. Marie Ross recalls that it was not until the late 1880s and early 1890s that young Icarians were permitted to go to dances at neighboring farms; eventually, the young people began “even staying with friends over week-ends without troubling to ask the assembly's permission” (Ross, 1986, p. 122). Seen from the opposite perspective, one might say that the group's “Frenchness,” its sense of separation from the surrounding community, helped it become one of the longest-lasting secular utopian experiments of the nineteenth century, homegrown communities such as Brook Farm, New Harmony, and Communia had far shorter life spans. The Icarians remain a very interesting chapter in the history of the French in North America. Their numbers may have been small, but their story is large.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of CommunicationCulver-Stockton CollegeCantonUSA

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