A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Better Life – Part Nine


The Icarians

Perhaps calling yourselves after the ill-fated aeronaut, Icarus, was a bit of a hostage to fortune but, nonetheless, the various communities that sprung up in the United States under this banner proved to be one of the longest-lived non-religious community experiments in American history.

The starting point was a novel published in 1834 written by the French anti-monarchist, Etienne Cabet, called Voyage en Icarie, which detailed in allegorical terms his economic and social theories. In essence, he envisaged a simpler, more primitive way of life where private property was abolished and where there were equal educational opportunities for both sexes. The book sold well and by 1843 Cabet was able to claim some 50,000 followers who saw him as some sort of messiah and urged him to put his ideas into practice.

In May 1847 Cabet published an article Allons en Icarie, seeking volunteers to cross the Atlantic to set up an Icarian community. He reckoned that ten to twenty thousand would answer the call but in reality only 69 set out to colonise a piece of land Cabet had bought sight unseen which was supposed to have been near the Red River in Texas. Cabet himself wasn’t in the group.

When the Icarians got to the land, they found that it was not only some 25 miles away from the river but consisted of a patchwork of non-contiguous plots. The land was unsuitable for cultivation and the Icarians were ravaged by cholera and malaria and the one medic went insane. By this time some 1,500 colonists had arrived in New Orleans and on hearing of the disaster in Texas held a meeting to decide what to do. By this time Cabet had arrived in America and some 280 souls agreed to accompany him to establish a new colony at a former Mormon settlement in Illinois called Nauvoo. Many of the original colonists, though, had had enough, returned home and sued Cabet for fraud.

The new community in Nauvoo was established in accordance with Cabet’s theories – money and private property was eschewed, meals were taken communally, all living accommodation was identical, every adult employed in workshops or on farms. They elected annually a president – Carnet (natch) – and heads of finance, farming, industry and education. Candidates were admitted to the community if they had lived there for four months and were approved by 75% of the male colonists, after pledging $80. Children upon reaching the age of four lived and were educated communally, living away from their parents. Music and plays were a regular form of entertainment.

In 1852 Cabet had to go back to France to defend himself against fraud charges and on his return 18 months later started to lay the law down, prohiting talking in the workshops and the use of alcohol and tobacco. This tyrannical behaviour didn’t go down well and the community split into two. The Dissenters gained the upper hand and forced Cabet and his loyalists to set up a new colony, this time in Cheltenham, Missouri. The problem for those left in Nauvoo was that with a diminished labour force and the loss of Cabet’s ability to drum up funds from France, they soon got into financial difficulties and the colony disbanded in 1860.

The colony in Cheltenham didn’t fare much better. The Civil War depleted it of fit young men and those who remained were ravaged by disease. This community disbanded in 1865. Other colonies lasted a bit longer – one in Corning, Iowa didn’t disband until 1898 and one in Cloverdale, California struggled on until 1886. Despite their struggles and frequent bouts of factionalism, one man summed up life as an Icarian perfectly to the visiting Charles Nardhoff in 1874, “it is very plain but we are independent – no man’s servants – and we are content”.


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