Adams, in southwest Iowa, is the state’s least populous county. It’s also home to an exceptional piece of history: Iowa’s Icarian Colony, the longest-lived non-religious communal experiment in American history. The community, near Corning, was perhaps the most successful piece of a complex effort to build a society of “one for all and all for one.”
Icaria’s 50-year journey began in France and made stops in five states before its slow dissolution in the 1890s. Although there are few physical reminders of the movement, its impact is still felt in Adams County and every other place it touched.
Origins of Icarianism
Étienne Cabet (1788-1856) was a French lawyer, patriot, activist, and revolutionary known as a champion of the working class. He assisted the Marquis de Lafayette and was involved in more than one French Revolution. At 55, he was exiled to England and began a new course of study: the ideal society. His inspiration was Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and a friendship with Richard Owen (who founded the short-lived utopia of New Harmony, Indiana), plus the work of other thinkers on history and theories of commonwealth. In time, Cabet developed his own ideas, and followed in More’s footsteps to write a novel promoting them.
Voyage en Icarie (Voyage to Icaria) was published in 1839. It describes an English lord visiting the egalitarian island nation of Icaria, a place with no crime, money, private property, or formal religion, where everyone has an equal opportunity for quality education and recreation. Every citizen’s needs were met through a system of scientific agriculture and “mechanized workshops.” Icarian women had an equal right to education and a voice in debate, but lacked the right to vote in the otherwise complete political democracy.
The Icarian movement soon grew up around Cabet and efforts began to develop the tenets of a real Icaria, based in the ideas of the French Revolution. As the French Icarian Colony Foundation describes it:
- “Fraternity. As a rule of conduct, three principles summarize all: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Do to others the good that you wish for yourself. All must be as brothers, living each for all and all of each.
- “Equality. It is not nature, but society that has made men unequal in intelligence and education. The remedy for existing social problems is the universal application of the principle of social equality. Social equality can be achieved by a system of communal sharing of goods and services. The community has an obligation to provide free equal educational opportunities to all. And all individuals must be treated equally before the law.
- “Liberty. All religious opinion must be accorded tolerance and respect. Freedom of speech is basic and all people may participate in the communal assembly meetings, the principal means of setting community policy.”
These ideals were to supplant formal religion and were viewed as a more pure, primitive form of Christianity. Ultimately, the Icarian precept was “to each following his needs, and from each following his strengths.” Every member’s needs would be met through the hard work of the whole.
Although Icarians called themselves communists, they had little to do with later authoritative styles of communism. Voyage en Icarie predates The Communist Manifesto by almost a decade, and Cabet was one of the first to use the term.
The Cabet Colonies (1848-1864)
As the movement grew, Cabet believed it was time to establish Icaria in reality. The young United States provided fertile ground – or so he thought.
Denton County, Texas (1848)
On February 3, 1848, the Premiere Avant-garde (First Advance Guard) of 69 men left France for New Orleans, with plans to settle on land Cabet had acquired near present-day Justin, Texas. As the group struggled to make its way to the promised land, the members discovered that it wasn’t what they’d been promised.
They had been sold “a million acres along the Red River.” While that was technically true, they hadn’t been told that the Red River wasn’t navigable – forcing them to trek 250 miles across nearly empty territory. They also hadn’t realized the million acres were in a checkerboard of half-sections spread over 4 million acres. Finally, the homesteading period they relied on to acquire this land ended on July 1, meaning they would need to build a structure on each 320-acre half-section by then or pay prices of $1 an acre.
The original 69, and the small groups that followed, struggled prodigiously to establish a colony but the conditions were unworkable for the largely artisanal Icarians. Several died of malaria and a handful of others abandoned the cause. Some of these, such as architect Alfred H. Piquenard, would rejoin the movement later. The Texas venture was abandoned by September and the dispirited Icarians returned to New Orleans to meet their leader.
Nauvoo, Illinois (1849-1859)
Cabet arrived in New Orleans in January 1849, and quickly convinced the Icarian General Assembly (made up of all men over 20 in the group) to continue the experiment elsewhere. At this point, Cabet was almost a mythical figure to his followers – at least one described him as “our venerable Messiah.”
By March, Cabet found the movement a new home among the remains of another group’s trek across the nation. The 280 remaining Icarians moved into the recently abandoned Mormon home of Nauvoo, Illinois. Here, they found an almost perfect ready-made community, with homes and farms empty and waiting. Despite high turnover, Nauvoo would be the largest Icarian colony, at one point numbering more than 500 members. The community had an orchestra, theatrical productions, and a variety of industries.
In 1852, Cabet announced plans to establish another colony to the west, claiming he had never intended Nauvoo to be a permanent home. Icaria needed more room to grow – and Iowa had just been opened for sale by the federal government. He sent work parties to Adams County to build a community. Before the group could complete the move, however, the Illinois Icarians had a schism to resolve.
Some community members had begun to challenge Cabet’s authority in the movement. In 1855, he attempted a blatant power grab, proposing to replace the elected Icarian governing board with a single, powerful president. The proposal failed, but the split grew. Cabet and his followers, now in the minority, began striking. Eventually they withdrew from the colony and the majority formally expelled Cabet for incompetence. He and his loyalists retreated to Missouri.
The 219 Nauvoo Icarians were left to deal with a colony in which work had all but stopped and where Cabet still had claims on their land, including that in Iowa. Cabet’s death (see next section) only worsened the later problem, as his widow and daughter attempted to collect their inheritance. The land eventually was transferred to the commune after a protracted legal battle, but it faced continuing financial struggles and trouble with Cabet’s followers in Missouri. Ultimately, the Nauvoo Icarians declared Iowa the community’s new permanent home and began moving there
Cheltenham, Missouri (1858-1864)
Cabet and his nearly 200 loyalists traveled to St. Louis after ouster in 1856. His former followers may have ousted the 68-year-old revolutionary leader, but he still had plans. He had controlled the narrative sent to Iowa during the schism, and may have followed to take charge of the Adams County colony himself if tragedy hadn’t struck first. A little over a week after leaving Nauvoo, Cabet was dead following a stroke.
His followers remained committed to the cause. In 1858, they purchased 30 acres in Cheltenham, now a neighborhood in St. Louis. Here they struggled to maintain the Icarian spirit for another six years, but further divisions and the loss of members to service in the Union army during the Civil War left the colony bankrupt by 1864. Some members made their way to the Iowa colony and later played a role in its fate.
The Cheltenham colony did make a notable contribution to the Icarian tradition: Cours Icarien, a Sunday afternoon assembly to lecture on and discuss matters of intellect and morality. These lectures made their way to Iowa and continued until the last gasps of Icaria in 1895.
Icaria, Iowa (1852-1876)
The first Icarians arrived in Adams County in winter 1852-53 – a year before the county itself was organized. They had followed the Mormon Trail across much of the state, passing the sites of many communities to be covered later in this series. The Icarians bought around 3,000 acres along the Nodaway River at about $1.25 per acre (about $42 an acre today). According to the county assessor, the land is valued at $1,000 per acre today. Slowly, they built the community, including log cabins and a common dining hall. In one of the few urban planning aspects of Icarian thought, Cabet believed that the community’s housing “must not be with the four cardinal points of the globe as they normally are but in the diagonal of the northeast or northwest.” It appears the early Iowa colony followed these guidelines.
Étienne Cabet visited the Iowa Colony only once, in 1854. He also had asked Congress to grant him more than 42,000 acres to build a series of communes throughout Adams County. This dramatic request, unsurprisingly, fell on deaf ears.
As the Nauvoo Icarians began moving to Iowa in 1860, they chartered the colony as the state’s first agricultural corporation – a move that would later spell trouble for the group. This decade was defined by the efforts of Armel Marchand, a member of the original 1848 avant-garde (and later the last present at the colony’s dissolution). Marchand managed the colony with a delicate mix of doctrine and practicality, balancing the Icarian communist ideals with the needs of the community and its individual members. Communal dining, common funds, and bulk purchasing still held sway.
Meanwhile, many colonists had their own small gardens around their homes. Despite Cabet’s strictures against vice, tobacco growing and wine making were common. This flexibility would eventually cause friction in the community.
Marchand made another significant contribution to Icaria: his daughter. Marie Marchand Ross was the first child born at the Adams County Colony in 1864. She went on to write the memoir Child of Icaria.
The colony’s early years were overshadowed by debts from Iowa, Nauvoo, and Cabet himself. In 1863, the group was forced to sell 2,000 acres to pay off debts. While the Civil War had cleaned out the Cheltenham colony, it proved a fortunate boon to Iowa’s Icarians. They sold wool and other goods to the Union Army and were ultimately able to buy back around half of their lost land. (It’s worth noting that there is no record of the Icarians’ stance on abolition or any role they might have played in the active Underground Railroad in the area. This doesn’t mean they weren’t involved, however, and Icarians certainly favored the Union in the war.) By 1870, Icaria was debt-free and thriving.
The inhabitants of the last remaining Icarian colony lived simply. They were governed under a constitution, written by Cabet, that required common holdings, abolished servitude, commanded marriage (under penalties), prohibited luxuries, provided for education, and required majority rule. Decisions were made in Saturday evening assemblies, in which all adults were involved in discussion, although only men over 20 could vote.
The assembly elected a limited president each year along with directors of agriculture, clothing, industry, and building. A three-quarters majority was required to admit new members, who also were required to supply $100 to the communal coffers. This requirement often was waived in later years, another move that would become a thorn in the colony’s side. The colony made wholesale purchases twice a year that included the expressed needs of all community members. All money was kept in common, including personal salaries such as those paid by the state to schoolteachers.
The Icarians believed that the community was obligated to provide both formal and informal educational opportunities, free of charge. Everyone attended school until age 16. Classes were first held for a short time in the refectory until the Icarians built a one-room school in the new colony. Following a fire that destroyed their school, the Adams County supervisors provided an unoccupied one-room school building located in another area of the county. The Icarians moved it to the colony and it would continue to hold classes until 1948. The Icarian curriculum included physical exercises, singing, the sciences, literature, grammar, history, health, mathematics, and moral education – originally in French but later also in German and English. The community had a significant library of around 2,000 books brought from Nauvoo.
All-ages education took place in the Sunday afternoon Cours Icarien lectures – the closest Icaria came to organized religion. The community professed no particular religion, but Saundra Clem Leininger, executive director of the French Icarian Colony Foundation, notes that many residents were Catholic and took their children to the nearest church for baptism. The community professed the sanctity of marriage and encouraged quick remarriage after divorce. Icarians believed their model, centered on the Golden Rule, was simply “the religion of Christianity in its primitive purity.”
Entertainment was viewed as a valuable source of moral instruction, and music, theater, and dancing were common in all the Icarian colonies. They were the first to bring meaningful entertainment to Adams County. Generally, Cabet’s teaching valued group participation over the individualistic creative process.
Icarians took care to connect with the local community. They joined in Fourth of July celebrations in Corning and celebrated Christmas with dances, inviting many of their neighbors. Icaria had its own holidays, including Founder’s Day on February 3 to remember the original Icarian departure (yearly elections also were held on this day), and Fête du Maïs (Festival of Corn) at the end of each harvest.
The Icarian scientific agricultural operation introduced rhubarb, asparagus, grapes, lilacs, and irises to the area. The community also ran a saw- and gristmill on the Nodaway River and small carpentry, blacksmith, wagon- and shoemaking shops allowed them to produce most of what they needed.
In later years, especially after the colony dissolved, the outside world promoted negative stereotypes of the insular Icarians. “They were self-contained,” Leininger says. After they closed, a lot of descendants, even up until 10 years ago, would not admit they were Icarian descendants, because that was communism. But it was a democratic form of government… Even though it was self-contained… they weren’t cloistered. They were known for their hospitality.”
An 1875 book titled The Communistic Societies of the United States describes life at the colony as “the narrowest way,” with “comfort… unknown among them for years.” Other reports, however, quote Icarians as saying “I am convinced that many in the world outside can have reason to envy us our privileges.” Marie Marchand Ross recalls her time at Icaria fondly throughout Child of Icaria.
Icaria Divided (1876-1898)
By 1876, the Icarian colony had reached its peak of 80 members. It controlled 2,142 acres and 44 buildings.
The community, however, was fracturing. Older Icarians like Marchand had moved to a more practical model that allowed a degree of individual power and property. They had done little to promote and spread Icarian communism. Idealistic younger members, including Marchand’s son, Alexis, saw this as a betrayal of Cabet’s ideals.
Leininger credits it, in part, to a few new residents from the declining communal Oneida Community. “A group of three or four people that came out of Oneida, New York… started nitpicking… ‘It says in your constitution that you have to share everything alike.’” The Iowa group, she says, “had a couple of original Icarians that were widows that had their cabins and had asked permission to have their own small gardens.” These gardens became a linchpin in the younger group’s arguments.
While the older “Conservative” majority regularly capitulated to demands and tried to maintain the peace, the younger “Progressives” only became more outspoken, causing work stoppages, vandalism, and theft. Neither side was innocent and Marie Marchand Ross recounts many acts of violence from both factions.
Both sides, in varying degrees of bad faith, raised proposals for separation and arbitration. All failed, and the groups began to live in a state of near war, separate in the same space.
In December 1877, the Progressives brought suit against the Conservatives, on the unusual and somewhat ironic grounds that the colony had violated its charter as an agricultural corporation. Their formal charges included that Icaria had “failed to supply 46 of the stockholders with food or clothing actually needed by them, thus drifting from the object of mutual aid.” (This was the result of various bad faith requests by the group.) At the same time, they claimed that the elders had prioritized the establishment of communism over their agricultural pursuits as a corporation – a reversal from their previous stance, but one likely to appeal to American courts. Other court cases and further acts of aggression followed, notably the Conservatives’ secret sale of the colony’s sheep.
When the original case – State of Iowa v. Icarian Community – went to court in August 1878, the trial lasted nine days. It is still one of the most extensive files in the Adams County Clerk of Court’s office. When the dust settled, the Progressives had successfully dissolved Icaria, with the understanding that each faction would form its own new community. The finding largely revolved around technicalities of Icaria’s charter – the mill, for instance, fell outside the activities of an agricultural corporation, as did artistic and business operations of some members. In reality, it meant the court did not believe the two sides could ever live together in peace.
The slow process of dividing the commune followed. Land and common goods were split, although the court respected the ownership of some individual property, such as self-made wine. Around 1,000 acres went to each faction, with the Progressives maintaining the original colony land. The Conservatives received $1,500 to transport eight frame houses to new sites. The schoolhouse was moved to the midpoint between the two, and children from both sides continued attending together.
The Progressives reorganized as Young Icaria (Jeune Icarie) in 1879. One of their first acts was to give women the right to vote, 40 years before the state of Iowa. This wasn’t enough to save the colony, which soon faced its own turmoil and divisions. In 1881, some members made their way to Sonoma County, California, where they established a new colony called Icaria-Speranza. As more members moved west or abandoned the cause altogether, Young Icaria was left with a skeletal government and finally dissolved in 1886. Few of its members or resources ever made it to California, and Icaria-Speranza dissolved the same year.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives settled on their new land and made the best of their situation. The group of mostly semi-retired farmers established itself as New Icaria, comprised of the eight homes brought from the original site and a new communal dining hall. They were generally financially stable, but had little desire to expand, possibly due to caution around the admission of new followers. Membership hovered between 25 and 30 for the community’s remaining life. Many of those left were over 60, including a few of the original Icarians from the failed Texas expedition. In 1884, the community followed Young Icaria in opening voting to women.
New Icaria was forced to hire outsiders to keep the colony running, but these helpers brought with them the culture of American democracy and capitalism. Among them was Will Ross, who would marry Marie Marchand in 1888, a joyous occasion in the otherwise slow-moving community.
On February 3, 1895, the 47th anniversary of the original Icarians’ departure from France, the three possible candidates for president each declined the role. Two weeks later, the proposition to dissolve passed unanimously. The closing of the colony took three years, and in 1898 the 50-year history of Icaria was closed.
Icaria is unique as a long-lasting non-religious communal experiment. It survived, and at times almost thrived, despite harsh conditions and repeated trials. There are numerous reasons that Icaria dissolved in the end: the surrounding pull of American capitalism, the repeated harm of internal strife, the declining zeal of its members, or the lack of a single powerful leader after Cabet’s ouster. Observers have speculated that the Icarians needed to exist in the frontier, untouched by outside ideas.
In 1878, former Nauvoo Icarian Carl Zwicker remembered his time positively: “I have never since lived a happier life.” He also describes “party strife,” including that in the Iowa colony, as one of the main issues leading to the philosophy’s decline.
Marchand Ross, believed in Icaria throughout her life: “We never thought that our failure was due to the impracticability of its principles, but to the ignorance of the masses and the greed of the few who are able to rule the world for their interests alone.”
Members received either money or land when the community dissolved. The New Icarian dining hall became a family home, and the surrounding buildings served as storage before they were razed. Today, little remains of any of the Icarian colonies besides the dining hall and schoolhouse. The Icarians are remembered in small ways, however, through their descendants and the people who tilled the land after they were gone.
Leininger describes the still-visible remnants of Icaria in nearby Corning. “Their influence and their architecture are on many Main Street buildings… (with) many fleur-de-lis.” Places and groups carrying Icarian names are not uncommon in Adams County.
Icarians brought a variety of plants to the area, as well as some of the earliest major elements of European culture. The colony was a key stop in the early east-west route across Iowa and for a time had one of the area’s earliest post offices. The group built the first circular silo in the county – possibly even in Iowa. Young Icaria also was home to Iowa’s first electric telephone, connecting the schoolhouse with the dining hall.
Although only loosely connected to the Iowa colony, architect Alfred H. Piquenard was part of the Premiere Avant-garde and spent time at the Texas and Nauvoo colonies. He went on to design the Iowa and Illinois state capitols, the Madison County Courthouse in Winterset, and several other notable historic buildings.
Icaria also was connected with other utopian experiments. Nauvoo drew recruits from the short-lived Communia, Iowa. The Iowa colony received visitors from Oneida, New York, and at least one member came from the Shakers. They bought dresses from Amana, one of the other notable Iowan utopias I’ll cover in this series. Their communal structure was similar to Amana’s, but with very different goals and motivations. One traveler, John Dye, spent time at Oneida, Amana, and with the Shakers, and would help the Conservatives print a newspaper to tell their side of the schism.
Today, the French Icarian Colony Foundation has begun developing Icaria as a living history museum. Although the foundation was unable to purchase the location of the original colony, it acquired 34 of the 3,000 acres the Icarians purchased in 1852, included their original cemetery, to develop the “French Icarian Village.”
The foundation moved and restored the 1878 New Icaria dining hall, the world’s last known Icarian-built structure. The village also includes the one-room 1860 schoolhouse, restored memorial markers in the graveyard, and community gardens. Some of the surrounding land has been returned to native prairie, as it would have been when the Icarians arrived. The village hosts Fête du Maïs and other event throughout the year. The foundation plans to build replicas of log cabins, two-story two-family family dwellings, barns, and other buildings.
Leininger says that the Federation needs volunteers to keep the museum running and development moving forward. Find more information at www.icaria.net.
Sources and Further Reading
- Quest for Utopia: The Icarians of Adams County by Paul S. Gauthier (Book, 1992)
- Child of Icaria by Marie Marchand Ross (Book, 1986)
- The French Icarians of Adams County, Iowa: Their Contributions to Iowa’s Agriculture, Culture, Education, Women’s Rights, Architecture, Inventions, and Transportation by Leah D. Rogers (Report, 2003)
- Remembering Icaria by Saundra Clem Leininger (Essay Series)
- French Icarian Colony Foundation
- German Memories of Icaria: Carl Zwicker’s “Four Years’ Experience of a Communistic Life” (1878) by Phillip Lockley (In Communal Societies, 2014)
- The Communistic Societies of the United States by Charles Nordhoff (Book, 1875)
Special thanks to Saundra Clem Leininger, Executive Director of the French Icarian Colony Foundation, for an interview on September 19th, 2020 and her help throughout the creation of this article.