François Jean Cantagrel, first director of the colony La Réunion, was born in Amboise, France, on June 27, 1810. He went to Paris as a young man to study engineering and architecture but soon found that socialist theory interested him more. He wrote numerous articles on the subject and, as a result, became the friend and colleague of Victor Considérant, chief disciple of the socialist theorist Charles Fourier and architect of the plan to found a community on Fourierist principles in Texas. Due to his socialist activities while a member of the National Assembly, Cantagrel ran afoul of government authorities. He demonstrated against Louis Napoleon's illegal force in Italy and joined Considérant and others in seizing the Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. To avoid exile to a penal colony in Algeria, he fled the country in 1849; then, sentenced to exile, he stopped in Belgium and England before settling in the United States in 1854.
Cantagrel arrived in the United States as an employee of the European American Society of Colonization (Considérant's company for the establishment of La Réunion) and served as its main agent in America, with the responsibility of choosing the site in Texas for the future utopian community. He bought land at the site of present-day Dallas and hired Americans to help put up the first buildings and plant the first crops in order to be ready to receive the new colonists. Once this preliminary work had been accomplished, Considérant named Cantagrel as director of the colony and charged him with overseeing its day-to-day operation.
From the very start La Réunion was plagued with problems, including a serious lack of skilled farmers. Cantagrel is claimed to have complained, "I am sent here to direct an agricultural colony and have no agriculturalists to direct." The problems eventually wore out his enthusiasm, and he resigned from the directorship in 1856; he remained with the colony until 1857. Then he went to Belgium and, after being granted amnesty in 1859, to France.
There he became deeply involved in radical politics. He spent many years as vice mayor of Paris and served, at various times, as representative of the Government of National Defense for the department of Loir-et-Cher and municipal counselor in Paris. He also edited the short-lived newspaper L'Union Démocratique in 1871 and later played an important role in drawing up labor regulations that helped protect the health and safety of French workers. Cantagrel married and had two children. He died on February 27, 1887, in Paris.