The 19th-Century Novel That Inspired a Communist Utopia on the American Frontier

The Icarians thought they could build a paradise, but their project was marked by failure almost from the start

A historic photograph of Icarian colonists
Icaria was guided by a single principle: “to each following his needs, from each following his strengths,” as Cabet put it. Courtesy of Cathy Riley / French Icarian Colony Foundation

Icaria was supposed to be the perfect city. On broad, tree-lined boulevards organized with geometric precision, its citizens would live and work in a state of perfect equality. The community would have no prisons, no private carriages, no aristocratic mansions—just houses, schools and hospitals, as grand as the royal palaces of old.

This was the utopian vision of Étienne Cabet, a French socialist thinker whose fictional 1840 travelogue, Voyage en Icarie (Travels in Icaria), spawned one of the world’s first communist movements. Cabet’s book was so popular and affecting that it led hundreds of French citizens to leave their homes and journey to the United States to realize the egalitarian paradise he had described.

But in 1874, when journalist Charles Nordhoff visited the real-life Icaria in the wilds of Iowa, what he saw was something quite different from Cabet’s utopia. “Wandering through the muddy lanes,” he wrote, “… [I felt] a keen sense of pain at the contrast between the comfort and elegance [Cabet] so glowingly described and the dreary poverty of the life which a few determined men and women have there chosen to follow.”

Étienne Cabet, author of Voyage en Icarie
Étienne Cabet, author of Voyage en Icarie Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

How did it all go so wrong?

The story of Icaria begins in France during the July Monarchy of 1830 to 1848, when the radical spirit of the French Revolution gave way to a bourgeois government of conservative and reactionary officials.

“The promise of this free, reformist society was betrayed,” says Julian Strube, a historian of religion at the University of Vienna. “The revolution had been stolen away.”

Originally a newspaper editor, Cabet wrote Voyage en Icarie while exiled in England for his vocal criticisms of the French government. In his fictional city of Icaria, citizens shared all things in common as absolute equals. “It was a society that was built really on the principles of the French Revolution: fraternity, liberty, equality,” says Jeffrey Hancks, a scholar of utopian movements at Western Illinois University.

Icaria was guided by a single principle: “to each following his needs, from each following his strengths,” as Cabet put it. (Karl Marx would later popularize this mantra as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”) To describe his society, Cabet coined a new term: communisme. “The rule invariably and constantly followed in all matters is: first the necessary, then the useful and last the pleasing,” Voyage en Icarie states.

Title page of the 1848 edition of Voyage en Icarie​​​​​​​
Title page of the 1848 edition of Voyage en Icarie Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Cabet had meant his book to be a critique of French society—but when it met with instant and resounding success, he soon found himself the leader of a growing movement to create a real Icaria.

With the censorious French regime growing increasingly hostile to socialist movements, Cabet saw his opportunity in the vast open lands of the United States. He secured land for a settlement in the frontier state of Texas, and in early 1848, an advance group of 69 colonists set out from Le Havre to begin the work of founding a perfect society. Lacking knowledge of what awaited them in America, however, they were quickly out of their depth.

The people who found Cabet’s message most appealing weren’t hardened colonists, but rather urban artisans—masons, shoemakers, bakers and the like. “They were desperately unprepared for life in the wilds of Texas,” Hancks says.

Worse, they soon learned that what Cabet had described as millions of acres of pristine farmland was in fact just 3,000 acres of unconnected, uncleared 160-acre plots, totally unworkable as the site for a self-sufficient commune.

The Icarian colonists found themselves forced to settle unconnected parcels of land (represented by dark squares in this graphic).
The Icarian colonists found themselves forced to settle unconnected parcels of land (represented by dark squares in this graphic). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Plagued by illnesses and ill-equipped for frontier life, the group soon gave up and retreated to New Orleans. By the time Cabet arrived with a second wave of colonists in 1849, it seemed like the Icarian experiment had failed before it could even begin. But by chance, things soon improved.

While regrouping in New Orleans, Cabet ran into representatives for the nascent Mormon movement, which had recently been forced by an angry mob from the community its followers built in Nauvoo, Illinois. For “pennies on the dollar,” Hancks says, Cabet secured a “turnkey city” built by the Mormons’ hard labor, ready and waiting for a new utopian society to set up shop.

The Nauvoo colony truly represented the glory days for the Icarians. At its peak, 500 people lived there. Every night, they would dine together in a common hall, feasting on crops they collectively managed. Those who didn’t work the fields labored in workshops, sewing clothes, forging tools, making shoes and baking bread. Living in a state of such reputed Christian virtue, they felt no need for religious observances, only common education in Icarian values.

But even while the colony prospered, tough times weren’t far off. Saddled with debt from their Texas misadventure and in desperate need of tools and machines, the Icarians were constantly pressed for cash. “Money issues were always at the forefront,” says Steve Wiegenstein, an author who has written extensively on the Icarians. “That’s not conducive to harmony.”

A daguerreotype of Nauvoo as it appeared at the time of the Mormon exodus
A daguerreotype of Nauvoo as it appeared at the time of the Mormon exodus Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As utopian vision clashed with reality, Cabet began to develop “a dictatorial spirit,” according to Nordhoff. He banned dissent and ordered strict silence in the workshops. He outlawed tobacco, spirits and complaints about the food. At one point, Cabet even developed a special dish to divide butter at the dinner table into equal portions, heading off fights between colonists over their precious supply.

Throughout these early years, Cabet’s skill as a leader was frequently in doubt. He was often away from the colony altogether, forced to return to France to face charges of fraud brought by former Icarians embittered over the Texas experiment. His commitment to equality meant workers were regularly cycled between jobs, and few were able to specialize in any one skill. Their lack of experience as farmers was also abundantly clear. “The cultivation methods are barbaric,” observed one visitor. “Manure is thrown into the stream, and the same crops are grown on the same ground for an indefinite period of time.”

As historian Diana M. Garno notes, Cabet soon alienated the colony’s women, whom he repeatedly blamed for its many problems. Though his book had promised a society where women could be physicians and even priestesses, in the U.S., he denied them the right to vote and demanded their children be boarded in a common school. Cabet then barred parents from visiting the school for most of the week.

“They weren’t living the book, that’s for sure,” says Hancks. “And when utopia is busted, it’s really, really hard to repair.”

View of a 19th-century Icarian colony
View of a 19th-century Icarian colony Courtesy of Cathy Riley / French Icarian Colony Foundation

These tensions came to a head in 1856, when conflict broke out between Cabet’s supporters and his critics in the colony. “They wouldn’t even sit with each other,” Hancks says. In a climactic vote, Cabet was replaced as leader. Unable to bear the idea of entrusting his utopia to someone else, Cabet departed with a band of loyal followers to establish a new colony outside of St. Louis, only to die the next month after suffering a stroke.

The rest of the Nauvoo Icarians soon set out for a burgeoning new colony in Corning, Iowa, which had been founded by an advance group just a few years earlier. There, they could finally build their utopia from scratch—if they could just find the means to do it. Still saddled with debt, they lived at first in rough mud hovels, scraping a desperate living from the land. But soon, they built a proper community featuring a dozen timber houses, workshops, sawmills and a dining hall.

Over the decade that followed, the community became known as a welcoming stop on the Mormon Trail west, where one could find respite from the road in exchange for simple labor. “Visitors were quite frequent in Icaria,” wrote Marie Marchand Ross, a child of the colony, in her 1938 memoir. “They were of all kinds—cranks, students of French or students of economics, … reporters from neighboring towns or cities, and even persons from abroad.”

But the tensions of the old colony were never really resolved. In 1879, a bitter split divided the group again, this time along generational lines. While older members wanted to allow for some private ownership, younger, more radical communists wanted to open up the community to more members and grant women the right to vote.

View of the rebuilt Icarian community in Corning, Iowa
View of the rebuilt Icarian community in Corning, Iowa Courtesy of Cathy Riley / French Icarian Colony Foundation

Ultimately, the younger group left the Iowa colony for California, founding a town called Icaria-Speranza. But neither they nor the Iowa commune found it easy to attract new members. The bar for joining was high—a financial commitment and a near-unanimous vote in the applicant’s favor—while leaving meant a payout of $20 for every year committed, plus the return of two-thirds of any financial contributions made to the colony.

“The appeal of private property and individual achievement was so visible and so strong that as … people would grow up, they would just find themselves drawn away,” says Wiegenstein.

Within a few years of their split, both the California and Iowa colonies failed. After half a century of trying, there was no longer an Icaria in America. Such was the end of Cabet’s grand experiment.

More than 100 years later, the memory of the Icarians is almost entirely erased. One of the only remnants of the Iowa colony is its old dining hall, which today houses a small French Icarian Village museum run by descendants of the community’s original inhabitants.

“It’s one of those things that we struggle with—getting the descendants to latch on to trying to maintain it,” says Cathy Riley, whose great-grandmother was an Icarian. In a county of just a few thousand people and a state once home to many different utopian movements, she adds, it’s hard to generate the interest needed to preserve what remains.

Event at the Icarian museum in Iowa
The dining hall of the Iowa Icarian colony now houses a small museum run by descendants of the community’s original inhabitants. Courtesy of Cathy Riley / French Icarian Colony Foundation

Today, even among the radical left, Icaria’s legacy is often forgotten, not least because modern communism soon after rejected its utopian vision. Published in 1848, the same year the first Texas Icarian colony was founded, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto ultimately denounced movements like Cabet’s as idealistic, reactionary nonsense, serving the interest of conservative bourgeoisie who would rather romanticize revolution than face the reality of class conflict. The version of communism that would ultimately come to dominate would rely more on economic science than moral arguments for egalitarianism made by thinkers like Cabet.

But while the utopian vision of Icaria was soon forgotten, historians say it’s wrong to cast the movement as a failure. “They made it way longer than expected,” says Hancks. “They had a 50-, 60-year run. Most [utopian movements] don’t survive for more than five.”

Almost by definition, Wiegenstein says, “utopian communities are always cast in terms of failure.” But it’s worth recognizing that for half a century, Icarians sacrificed a great deal to build a community based on the ideals of equality. If, in the end, they failed, they did so with the conviction that, in the words of one of the last Icarian members, their vision would “one day be recognized as the only right social order.”

“To me, it’s not really a story of failure,” Wiegenstein says, “but a story of dogged determination.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.