Excerpt: Sabotaged

Sabotaged: Dreams of Utopia in Texas (March 2020) is the remarkable account of French, Swiss, and Belgian intellectuals who followed Victor Considerant to Texas in 1855 in a quixotic attempt to fulfill their dreams of a new life in a utopia. James Pratt (1927–2018) practiced architecture under various firm names, including James Pratt Architecture and Urban Design. Son of a genealogist librarian and a frontier banker, Pratt was fascinated by the nearly forgotten nineteenth-century La Réunion immigrants who introduced their culture to Dallas, Texas. As founder of the La Réunion research project at the Dallas Historical Society, Pratt traveled extensively to ferret out the story of this failed experiment. Below is his preface.

Who would have thought that early settlers of the Three Forks of the Trinity River included European intellectuals bent on establishing a socialist utopia near the hamlet of Dallas, Texas? Surprisingly, I found La Réunion, an 1855 Fourierist colony on the banks of the Trinity River three miles west of this hamlet. The colony was peopled by immigrant French, Swiss, and Belgians, and they left many records. Thus, by accident I was lured into a hunt for scattered materials that had never been listed in established library resources. As I accumulated writings, they revealed links to mid- nineteenth-century social history between the Southwest and the world.

My quest has been arduous and exhilarating. I found living descendants of the nineteenth- century colonists. I came to see Dr. Auguste Savardan, one of the French leaders of La Réunion, as the hero of the La Réunion venture. I discovered the Countess O. de Lesseps, his descendant, who invited me to visit Savardan’s family château in Sarthe, France, which overlooked the village where he had served as mayor. My research came alive before me. Savardan’s materials were conserved in his library just as he left them. At the bottom of a Louis XII stairway hung his portrait. On the wall of the main salon hung the large painting of his wife and daughter that played its part in our story. Neatly shelved in his library were his bound books and images of Fourierist dreams of a new society. The countess served lunch on his still-intact china. The cedars of Lebanon that he planted still grow as giants framing the parterre of his garden.

I found in the Hôtel de Soubise and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris the papers of La Réunion leader Victor Considerant and the European American Society of Colonization in Texas (Société de colonisation européo-américaine au Texas), the parent stock company that raised funds for La Réunion. A French great-great-granddaughter of another major leader of the movement had written a thesis on her ancestor. A Texan granddaughter had translated materials from her immigrant forebear. A member of the defunct Familistère de Guise (Social Palace at Guise) kindly gave me records from that related organization, the brainchild of La Réunion’s chief investor. In the Franche-Comté (now the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté), a librarian in Salins and a grandson of Fourierist leader Clarisse Vigoureux in Besançon supplied data. As a child one leader had seen his father, a commandant of the National Guard during the first revolution, lead in the town square revolutionary ceremonies that replaced religion. Others had been in Napoleon’s army. The French Sûreté Nationale had records of these Republicans who had fled to Texas or been placed under house arrest for opposing Napoleon III as he carried out his 1851 coup d’état.

Fourierists from other failed communities came to La Réunion for a second try at utopian living. After the demise in 1847 of Brook Farm, West Roxbury, Massachusetts, letters in various New England libraries showed attempts to continue that social experiment with ties to the Texas colony. I found other connections across France, Switzerland, and Belgium.

The utopians’ story gradually emerged as the complex tale of a diverse group of Europeans who sought a new society but were forced to interact with the nineteenth-century Anglo and Native American frontier. They experienced life on ships under sail with Spanish gunboats sniffing in their Caribbean wake. They plied Buffalo Bayou between Galveston Bay and Houston—so narrow a channel that two ships could not pass as they brushed blooming magnolias. They walked for three weeks across empty Texas, were frustrated and baffled by the Texas legislature in session, and had to buy their stolen horses back from Chief Ned, a famous Delaware Indian living in Texas. They were buffeted by the rising political winds of abolition, by the Know-Nothing Party’s suspicion of foreigners, and by the rabid southern editor of an Austin newspaper who would rather have seen Texas “a howling desert” than peopled with the likes of one of these Fourierists, who was a Universalist minister and an alumnus of Brook Farm.

La Réunion colonists’ lives inspired my research into and my recording of the facts of this last major American attempt by adepts of Charles Fourier to reconstruct the whole of society as a utopia. The entire cast is listed in the appendix. I warn readers that a lot of people and places appear in the story, and each is real. There are no composite characters.

Scenes written to heighten the reader’s interest are grounded in contemporary accounts. For example, in chapter 1 I have created the dialogue between Savardan and his cook and the story of Savardan finding the abandoned babies; as mayor, he was directly responsible for foundlings abandoned at city hall. Finally, some “dialogue” that makes the story more readable lacks direct citations but is written in the style of the times. Thus, consider me as your trusted narrator, bringing to you the story embedded in reams of material gathered over years of research. The appendix is a compilation of individuals and places connected to the La Réunion venture either directly or peripherally.

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