All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1965

The Icarian Community Nauvoo

Etienne Cabet, born at Dijon, France, in 1788, was one of many men of his time who were inspired by visions of a better world than that in which they lived.

Etienne Cabet, born at Dijon, France, in 1788, was one of many men of his time who was inspired by visions of a better world than that in which they lived. Soon after the French Revolution of 1830, Cabet’s attacks on the gov­ernment of Louis Philippe sent him into exile in England. There he fell under the influence of Thomas More’s Utopia and the personal magnetism of Robert Owen, the English humanitarian who had founded a short-lived communal settlement at New Har­mony, Indiana, in the 1820′s.In Icaria there was no money, no salaries, and no taxes.

In England, Cabet wrote his chart of the ideal society: Voyage et Aventure de Lord William Car­istal en Icarie, more commonly known as Voyage en Icarie. Cabet depicted an imaginary state in which a leader, Icar, had set up a regime based on the denial of private property. In Icaria there was no money, no salaries, no taxes. Everyone ate the same food, lived in identical quarters, dressed in the same clothes. Even the chil­dren were taken from their par­ents at an early age and reared and taught by designated mem­bers of the community. Published in 1840, the book was translated into German, Spanish, and Eng­lish in the next eight years.

Re-admitted to France, Cabet made plans to move his ideal so­ciety from the printed page to reality. In December, 1847, he an­nounced that Icaria would be founded on the banks of the Red River in Texas. There he bought several thousand acres of unim­proved land. Eager recruits jumped at the chance to exchange poverty and frustration for the good life in the New World. The conditions were hard: each col­onist must contribute 300 francs to the common fund, bring his own tools and clothing sufficient for two years. Nevertheless, 69 persons, all citizens of the perfect state, embarked at Le Havre for New Orleans on February 3, 1848.

The voyage took nearly two months. They had been told that there was easy access to their land: they discovered that they had to hack their way to it. At their destination, they learned that their purchase had been en­cumbered by impossible condi­tions. Illness decimated them. After several months they gave up and made their laborious way to Shreveport on the Red River, most of them hoping only to re­turn to France.

At this point, Cabet, who had not accompanied the advance guard, arrived. Soon afterward, three Icarians who had been sent north on an exploring expedition returned to report that on the Mississippi River, in the state of Illinois, stood the town of Nauvoo which the Mormons had aban­doned two years earlier. Land and buildings could either be rented or purchased. Cabet quickly de­cided that Nauvoo would be the site of Icaria.

On March 1, 1849, 142 men, 74 women, and 64 children left New Orleans and headed upriver. (The advance guard had been augment­ed by several later accessions.) On the trip, twenty died of cholera. When they arrived at Nauvoo two weeks later, the colonists had 46,000 francs, but after buying land and houses (and renting more), and buying furniture, horses, animals, and implements, only 5,000 francs remained.

The State of Material Affairs

Now we turn to Cabet for an account of the Icarian community five years later—that part of his book covered by the “situation materielle” of his title.

On July 1, 1855, the Icarians numbered 526, of whom 57 lived in a subsidiary group which had been established in Iowa. This number had been attained in spite of defections. Most of the de­fectors were Germans who could not speak French and did not share Icarian principles. Even so, several of those who had left had signified the desire to return. Cabet quoted a letter from one:

“If there are those in the com­munity who wish to leave, I tell them that they are mad; that they will never find what they will leave: Fraternity, Liberty, a life tranquil and without worry; for, while I have found good and gen­erous hearts in the family of my wife, the community was still better.”

Lodging, the founder admitted, was still far from perfect, in part because of the shortage of ma­sons. The colony needed stoves and lamps, candles and oil, and a horse and wagon to deliver coal and wood to each dwelling.

Various workshops were in operation: a sewing room for making dresses and men’s cloth­ing, a machine shop, forge, black­smith’s shop, tin shop, carpenter shop, and quarters for butchers, painters, coopers, printers, shoe­makers, weavers, bakers, and var­ious other trades. The list sounds impressive until one comes to Cabet’s admission: “All these workshops are in their infancy, but the colony will develop and perfect them.” The great need, it turns out, was for machines, and for storerooms for raw ma­terials, tools, and finished prod­ucts. This meant money, and mon­ey, in Icaria, was in short supply.

The inventory showed 14 horses, 25 oxen, between 400 and 500 hogs, and 20 cows which gave from 80 to 140 liters of milk a day. Fowls were scarce: so few that eggs were limited to the sick.

Misfortunes had taken a heavy toll. A fire had destroyed the grain elevator, malt house, and laundry, all new buildings. Two valuable horses, three colts, and several cows and hogs had died. On the credit side, the colony had built one dormitory on the temple square. It had purchased a service of faience and glass for the refec­tory and had ordered another, of wrought iron, from Paris. The temple square had been planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers, and there, every Sunday after supper, 20 school children “made music in the open air.”

Living Conditions

Cabet described living condi­tions in detail. Board—all ate in the common dining room—was nourishing and as varied as pos­sible. In the morning, before go­ing to work, the men were served a dram of whiskey with bread.

For lunch, the men had soup, po­tatoes or beans, or meat left over from the night before. The wo­men, apparently, had to be satis­fied with café au lait. The dinner menu bears out Cabet’s assertion that the Icarians were better fed than the mass of working people elsewhere. “Several times a week we have thick soup and butcher’s meat, sometimes mutton; in the winter fresh pork with sauer­kraut, ham and other smoked pork; excellent fish once or twice a week depending on the season; various pastries, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, rice, butter, cheese, fresh vegetables of all kinds, radishes, cabbage, peas, carrots, turnips, onions, leeks, spinach; sometimes poultry; often, during the season, melons and watermelons. This year we will have an abundance of peaches, enough to eat three times a day for a month, either fresh or stewed. Next year we will have apples and other fruit, for we have planted fruit trees of all kinds, and we will even have all kinds of preserves. We do not yet have grapes but we will soon, for we are cultivating the vine.”

“Icarian dress,” Cabet declared, “must be suitable for cold and heat, in winter and summer, com­fortable, economical, and conse­quently simple, easy to make and repair, utilitarian, without luxury and adornment. All which tends toward luxury and coquetry is as contrary to our economic neces­sity as to our principles of reason and morality.” The colony had to make a large number of straw hats, and winter caps of cloth, leather, and fur. Boots had to be made for all outdoor workers, which meant practically everyone. This meant great expense, which could be diminished if money for a tannery could be obtained. In the meantime, some of the work­men were turning out sabots, cheaper than boots and warmer in the winter.

The colony had three schools; one for boys from six to sixteen, one for girls of the same age, and a third, a kind of nursery school, for children between three and six. The children had to eat and sleep at the older schools, which occupied a large double house. On Sunday, their parents could take them away between dinner and supper and could see them at school any day of the week during recreation periods. The girls were taught women’s work and the boys various trades, including farming. Cabet looked forward to the time when the schools could accommodate some American boarders who would receive in­struction in the French language and Icarian principles.

The town had a library of 4,000 volumes which received a number of French and American news­papers. There was also a theater where every Sunday, in the pres­ence of the entire community—the men, women, and children occupy­ing separate sections—talented Icarians presented plays, sang, or recited. The choir—so the founder claimed—was much in demand for public fetes, and on one occasion had received $100 for singing at the dedication of a railroad.

The colonists were fortunate enough to have a physician who was also a surgeon. He made daily visits to the infirmary and the schools and to those who were ill at home. The hospital, however, was so small it could care for men only. A midwife presided at all deliveries. Women and the girls of the school bathed in a large pond, the men and boys in the Mississippi. (What, one won­ders, did they do in the winter?)

Signs of Discord

So far, from Cabet’s recital, one could conclude that affairs were going quite well in Icaria. Yet he was careful to point out that the settlement at Nauvoo was not intended to be permanent. Much of the surrounding land was occupied and held at prices too high for the colony’s means. The tracts that could be rented were so small that permanent im­provements were impractical. A location where the community could buy large holdings of land was indispensable. But where to go? Oregon, Texas, Kansas, Ne­braska? All were too far away, and some places were already too thickly settled. In 1852 they had decided upon Adams County, Iowa, 200 miles to the west. They pos­sessed 4,000 acres there but did not have the resources really to develop their holdings.When Cabet turned to a discussion of the colony’s morale, the true state of the venture came out.

It would be necessary, there­fore, to keep Nauvoo for some years as a place of apprenticeship, a school for the children, and a propaganda center. It would also be a place of reception for the many new arrivals expected from France.

When Cabet turned to a dis­cussion of the colony’s morale, the true state of the venture came out.

“I am not satisfied,” the founder asserted bluntly. “We do not un­derstand our principles sufficiently and do not apply them fully; we do not have enough of unity and fraternity, order and economy, discipline in work, or fidelity to the conditions of admission.”

Cabet had a long list of specific complaints. Too many colonists tried to obtain special privileges, thus violating the principle of equality. Too many indulged in slanders and calumnies. Some were lazy; some had violated the principle of communal property by secretly selling clothing and furniture which belonged to the community. Many were careless and profligate; others regularly disregarded the rule which pro­hibited hunting and fishing for pleasure.


Cabet discussed certain delin­quencies at length. One of the rules of the colony enjoined tem­perance, frugality, and simplicity. “But some, too many… can be called free livers or sensualists. I have seen no one suffer from hunger, but I have seen much of indigestion—a mother kills her children by too much to eat, and an old man kills himself by indulg­ing to excess, against the advice of his friends, in melons during a cholera epidemic.” Coquetry was a vice of the Old World capable of disrupting the family, yet wom­en who called themselves Icari­ans were bringing Paris styles to Nauvoo, while Icarian women in Paris were sacrificing their jewels for the advancement of the order.

The use of tobacco, all Icarians knew, was strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, several members of the delegation sent to Keokuk to receive the last group to come from France greeted the new­comers with a pipe in mouth. Others, notably the Germans, had taken to their pipes only days after foreswearing them; still, others could be seen smoking before their doors in the sight of the whole colony. “These abuses are grave,” Cabet warned, “infinitely grave in my eyes, and I am convinced that it is absolutely necessary to stop them.”

The objections to tobacco could be applied equally to strong drink, but with the difference that whis­key was useful to workers when distributed regularly and with caution. Thus it was that in the morning, during summer, when the Icarians went to work at an early hour, they received a dram of whiskey with bread and that between meals, in the hot weather, they were rationed whiskey di­luted with water. In the winter outdoor workers, and the women assigned to the laundry received a regular allowance.Community would have complete control of their children

But there had been abuses, par­ticularly in the shops on the out­skirts of the town. Here workers had taken whiskey after each meal and oftener, and more of the critter than the rules allowed. Women had requisitioned whis­key to make preserves for their own use, and there had been thefts of liquor from the storehouse. “We even see, I say with regret and I blush for you, some drunk­enness in a society pledged to temperance. I can cite only one case, but one case in Icaria is too many, much too many.”

The thirty-ninth condition of admission to the colony required the applicant to adopt, for reli­gion, “the true Christianity, and for a creed, the practice of fra­ternity.” “In Icaria,” Cabet ex­plained, “we have neither super­stitions nor ceremonies, and those who believe that it is absolutely necessary to deceive, to brutify, and to fanaticize the people in order to govern them [religion is the opiate of the masses?] must find very difficult the Icarian undertaking which has no other weapons than reason and truth. But, Icarians, how can you hesi­tate to adopt for your religion the evangelical doctrine of fraternity, and for your creed the practice of that same fraternity?”

The forty-fifth and final, con­dition stipulated that the com­munity would have complete con­trol of the children. But almost all families had forgotten this commitment: they wished to re­tain control of their children and to participate in all that con­cerned them. Many seemed to think that they could prove their affection by encouraging the chil­dren to develop a taste for fine clothing and choice foods; some even permitted them to hear talk which excited them to insubordi­nation. “This,” Cabet warned, “is one of the gravest impediments to the progress of the community.”

The Greatest Problem: Organized Opposition

“Well, in summary, what is our morale situation?” the foun­der asked in conclusion. “Isn’t it evident that almost none of the conditions of admission is being fully complied with, that a certain number of us lack the Icarian qualities, that they neither know nor understand Icarian principles, and live in individual selfishness?”

The principal evil in the colony, Cabet charged, was a party hostile to communism, to the president, and to the faithful Icarians—a party which indulged in frequent, unsparing dissidence and a sys­tematic opposition. The members of this group were not numerous—eight, ten, perhaps a few more—but they were very bold. They scorned education and Icarian propaganda; they justified the use of tobacco and whiskey and Bunting fur pleasure; they en­couraged insubordination in work. They spread the notion that the Icarians were slaves because they did not enjoy absolute liberty, and asserted that they had not trav­eled 3,000 leagues to live in bondage. To them, the faithful were only flatterers moved by am­bition, or informers and spies.

Cabet ended with a pitiful per­sonal confession.

“I am old, overburdened by work, fatigue, and care, and I need rest.

“In consequence of all these fatigues and agitations, at the end of a long discourse on my part in the General Assembly last December, I was struck, you will remember, by a paralytic stroke which, thanks to the care of our physician, did not keep me from going out the next morning. Since then, my eyes are no longer strong enough for me to read, nor is my hand steady enough for writ­ing. I am, to a degree, ill and in pain.

“And if the systematic opposi­tion to which I am subjected does not cease completely, if the party which has been formed does not disband absolutely, if the major­ity does not resolve to practice vigorously Icarian principles and obey Icarian laws, without con­doning any violation, I will retire next February, and leave the safe­ty of the colony up to you.”

The opponents of Cabet proved to be far more numerous and far stronger than he thought. In De­cember, 1855, the faithful and the dissidents came to an open break over constitutional changes which the president demanded. Wran­gling kept the community in tur­moil for months, with Cabet losing ground steadily. Finally, he de­cided to lead his own followers to St. Louis. In the month of Octo­ber, 1856, seventy-five men, forty-seven women, and fifteen children left Nauvoo. The last contingent reached St. Louis on November 6. The next morning Cabet suf­fered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at 5:00 a.m. on November 8.

The Icarians who had followed Cabet to St. Louis established a colony at nearby Cheltenham, which lasted until 1864. Those who had remained at Nauvoo stayed there until 1860 when they joined forces with the small group in Iowa. One group would break up only to be succeeded by another until 1895 when the common prop­erty was turned over to a receiver for distribution among the few surviving members.


  • Paul M. Angle, editor of Chicago History, in the Spring 1965 issue of that journal of the Chicago Historical Society, tells the story as taken from The Icarian Colony in the United States of America: Its Constitution, Its Laws, Its Situation Material and as to Morale at the End of the First Six Months of 1855 by Etienne Cabet.