In the spring of 1855, a group of French, Swiss and Belgian settlers arrived on a piece of land west of the Trinity River in Dallas. These European immigrants had escaped the political revolutions of their country of origin and led by the writer Victor Considerant, intended to create a utopian socialist commune. This colony, called Reunion Island, lasted less than two years, but it had a lasting impact on the history and growth of Dallas.
Considering was a follower of the Socialist Democrat Charles Fourier, who advocated for cooperative industry and the social economy to restructure society and was exiled to Belgium after the French Revolution of 1848.
“The public mood falls into a drowsiness, a helplessness and a torpor which smoothes the way for the domination of wealth and the invasion of corruption”, wrote Considerant in 1847.
When Considerant visited Texas in 1852 and 1853, he was struck by its beauty and its endless acres of land that resembled a French wine region. Soon after, hundreds of Europeans contributed money to buy the land in the hope of political freedom and economic prosperity.
The Réunionese were made up of skilled craftsmen, including bakers, ceramists, masons, bricklayers, blacksmiths and shoemakers. They were also professionals like doctors, architects, engineers, botanists and poets. But they were not farmers. The land brought many challenges that they were not equipped to face.
First, the rocky terrain was not fertile ground for crops. The settlers arrived in May after the end of the growing season. Droughts and insect invasions have accentuated their growing difficulties. The area was a hotbed of political tension with Confederates in Texas disliking free-thinker Europeans who opposed slavery.
The biggest challenge turned out to be internal dissension among members over leadership and the future of Reunion Island. In the summer of 1856, Considerant fled and abandoned the colony. Soon after, many of the remaining members returned to their home countries. Reunion had failed.
Despite Reunion’s failure, he helped spur Dallas’ development from a border trade post to a city of entrepreneurs. Although some settlers left the area, others stayed and established some of the first institutions in Dallas. Born in Switzerland, Benjamin Long was mayor and Julien Reverchon became one of the first botanists of his generation.
The people of Reunion may have contributed to the first building designed in the community. Intern architect Josse Vydragh designed a new hotel with Greek Revival style details. A Belgian settler trained in fine cabinetmaking became an entrepreneur and later served on Dallas’ first school board. Various settlers have opened their own craft shops in the area.
Today, there are some vestiges of Reunion in Dallas. Many people have forgotten the history of the community, but the Tour de la Réunion and the Parc Reverchon keep their memory alive.