In 1848 French immigrants established the Icarian colony at a Texas location that is as yet unverified, although some sources place it near the site of present-day Justin and fifteen miles north of Fort Worth. The first cabin and sheds may have been constructed near the confluence of Denton and Oliver creeks. The colonists held claim to 10,240 acres platted in checkerboard fashion. Little information is available on the community itself. Icaria never became a viable, permanent settlement, and no more than seventy inhabitants participated in the communal experiment at any given time. The colony survived less than a year. From beginning to end, the project was characterized by poor planning, opposition within the Icarian movement, inadequate financing, deception at several levels, debilitating physical hardships, and human tragedy.
The French socialist Étienne Cabet organized the Icarian experiment in Texas. In 1839 he published a novel, Voyage en Icarie, which set forth his concepts of utopian communalism. A centralized state that provided complete freedom and material wealth characterized Cabet's fictional paradise. In Icaria everyone would share abundant wealth on an equal basis, and all private property and capital would be abolished. Cabet's ideas became so popular that he soon found himself at the head of one of the most influential socialist movements in France in the tumultuous decade of the 1840s. From May 1847 until February 1848, Cabet concentrated his efforts on establishing a communal experiment in Texas. Deviating from his fictional utopia of Icarie, he organized the commune as an investment adventure that required an original contribution of 600 francs for each participant and gave Cabet dictatorial powers. He called for 10,000 to 20,000 immigrants and predicted that the venture would ultimately attract a million participants. Subsequently, he negotiated a contract with the Peters Land Company for what was announced to the public as a million acres of land in Texas.
Much opposition developed within the Icarian movement, however, and few people agreed to participate. In February 1848 only sixty-nine immigrants made their way from France, by way of New Orleans, to the site in Texas. Cabet's land agreement with Peters was not what the settlers had been led to believe; and it contained impossible, almost farcical, restrictions that Cabet had inexplicably kept to himself. For example, the colonists were led to believe that the lands were located along the river and thus easily accessible. They also were not told that the lands were not contiguous and that the total acreage was far less than the million acres expected. The contract made only 100,000 acres available to the Icarians, and the land was not in a continuous plat but divided into unconnected half-mile squares. The settlers could lay claim to the alternate squares only if they had erected individual cabins by July 1, 1848.
Despite the impossibility of their situation, the handful of tenacious Icarians set out to build as many cabins and claim as much land as possible. They were sustained by an often repeated promise from Cabet that a "second advanced party" of 1,500 immigrants was on its way. They had no success. The rocky land was unsuited for cultivation, and they did not have enough equipment or horses to produce a crop. Within a few months twelve colonists died, most from malaria; five left the project; and malaria afflicted everyone to the point of incapacitation. The reinforcement arrived in midsummer-ten sick and disillusioned immigrants instead of the expected 1,500. Realizing that adequate support was not forthcoming from France and that the present situation was untenable, the colonists abandoned the Texas site and returned to New Orleans in the winter of 1849.
When the beleaguered Icarians straggled into New Orleans, they were greeted by Cabet himself. He had just arrived from France with about 450 new immigrants. During the fiasco in Texas, he had been caught up in the February Revolution and the effort to establish the Second French Republic. By the summer of 1848, however, he had been discredited in France and had decided to come to America and join the colony. He had arrived in New Orleans in January 1849. A dispute erupted among the Icarians as to what course they should now pursue, and about 200 returned to France in disgust. In March 1849, after deciding against a renewed effort in Texas, some 280 Icarians followed Cabet to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they established a colony on land owned by the Mormons. The Icarian colony at Nauvoo attained modest success. By 1860 the colony had left Nauvoo and relocated in Iowa.