Back In The Day is an ongoing contribution from Shaun Treat. Treat is an assistant professor in Communication Studies at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. He has written about numerous local places of note and various large personalities on the Denton Haunts blog. In addition, Treat says he is forever indebted to the work of the fine folks of the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history such as Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.
Facebook Francophiles may have mentioned that Bastille Day is upon us, but most of us are more likely to regard the Spanish and German influences as more distinctly Texas than the French. However, that wasn’t always the case and, if things had worked out a little differently in 1848, today’s Denton might’ve ended up eating a lot more escargot than barbeque if the French colony of New Icaria had lived up to its utopian promise.
Before we jump into the French Icarians, first a bit of trivia to pull outta your hat for pals. Didja know that the territory comprising Denton County has been under six different national flags?! Yep, our favorite stomping grounds have at different times been part of Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, the Confederate States, and of course the United States (twice). How’s that for political diversity? The French connection goes even deeper, since France was the first country to recognize the independent Republic of Texas between 1836-45 with an 1839 international Franco-Texan treaty and an official diplomatic attaché, Mounsieur Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, stationed in Austin. Not only that, but Texas had an embassy in Paris from 1842-1845 (as well as London), which you can still visit today at the Hôtel de Vendôme. Yeah, this lil’ tidbit blew our minds on our recent walkabout of Paris.
Word has it, however, that the French ambassador to Texas didn’t hang around that much after a particularly close encounter with a Comanche arrow during one of the regular conflicts with disgruntled indigenous locals, but not every Frenchman was deterred. As teased by beloved Denton historian Mike Cochran, an 1848 settlement of French utopians briefly colonized an area near present-day Justin in Denton County until things badly broke sideways for our croissant-eating cousins. The French journalist, author, and visionary Communist rabble-rouser Etienne Cabet had amassed a huge following after publishing an 1839 novel, Voyage en Icarie, which set forth his concepts of utopian communalism in the years following the bloody French Revolution. With a fan base in the tens of thousands, Cabet aimed to make an actual go of such a utopian society of political and economic equality in the wild Texas frontier - at a decidedly non-Socialist pricetag of 600 francs per settler.
Negotiating a contract with the Peter Land Company for 10,240 acres near Denton and Oliver creeks, a group of around 69 colonists traveled to establish their utopia christened New Icaria, a far cry from the 20,000 solicited and million predicted by beloved leader Cabet from the comfort of his French chalet. These grumbling Icarians who arrived in February of 1848 must’ve smelled the snake oil once they showed up to find a checkerboard of unconnected smaller lots, difficult water access, and an unrealistic five-month timetable through summer to actually build the required living cabins to maintain the land agreement. Still, these plucky idealists rolled up their sleeves to bravely make a go of it as Cabet repeatedly promised 1,500 reinforcements to be imminent, and while Murphy’s Law then kicked-in like a vengeful ex-girlfriend. Not only was the rocky terrain completely unsuitable for cultivation, and they lacked the necessary equipment and livestock to harvest enough food, but within only a few months 12 colonists were dead and the rest incapacitated by malaria. Five then left the New Icaria colony before mid-summer reinforcements arrived, ten sick and immediately disillusioned Icarians, far short of the promised 1,500 so by the winter of 1848 the ragtag group of sickly utopians straggled out of Texas to rethink things in New Orleans over mint julips. When their fearless leader Cabet rolled into the Big Easy with 450 fresh recruits in January 1849, having high-tailed it from France after being thoroughly discredited and with more than a few folks maybe wanting to burn his house down in the second revolution, there was a rowdy squabble undoubtably laced with French profanity before 200 dystopians threw up their hands and returned to home soil. We hear tell some of Cabet’s remaining Icarian faithful ended up in Illinois or Iowa, which let’s be honest is its own punishment.
So what does this little tale tell us about those frontier pioneers and settlers of Denton who stuck it out to forge enduring communities in the Texas wilderness, despite constant challenges of crop-withering drought or fire, constant warfare with angry Native American raiding parties, and sparse resources that required more’n a little generous hospitality from neighbors? Well, aside from Texans being tougher’n bootleather and harder to kill than a bee-stung rattlesnake, maybe the lesson is that Denton’s cooperative “creative class” is no new development but instead a characteristic built into our community DNA. Still, a nice French restaurant wouldn’t be a bad idea.