- Historic Sites
Asylum In Azilum
Refugees from the French Revolution, many of them of noble birth, built a unique community in the backwoods of Pennsylvania—and hoped their queen would join them
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Noailles had indeed had dreams similar to Aristide’s, fostered by conversation and correspondence with the Robinson family of” Newport, Quakers he had known when he was with Rochambeau’s army in 1780. He wanted his scheme to have an idealistic and benevolent aspect as well as one that would bring in hard cash. His first associate, Talon, added another idea—to make a distant, discreet settlement far from the capital as a refuge for the French royal family if it could be rescued. The king was guillotined in January, i 793, just as their plans began to take shape, but the queen, the dauphin, the little princess, and the king’s sister Madame Elisabeth might still be saved. Talon, conspiratorial by nature, said he knew of many plans afoot.
Already thousands of French people were waiting for just such an opportunity to settle in America, honorably, paying their way by working the land. They had been pouring into Philadelphia and other parts of America from the earliest signs of turbulence in France but now in ever greater numbers; and since Santo Domingo had also exploded in revolutionary fire they were coming from there by the boatload. Many Americans were generously helping, but many others hated the émigrés as counterrevolutionaries. The capital was agitated by factions from both sides of the French Revolution and further stirred by the inflammatory statements of the Jacobin ambassador from France, Citizen Genêt, who incidentally had made formal protest to George Washington for receiving the “traitor” Omer Talon. To make matters worse, the outbreak of yellow fever was blamed on the ships coming from Santo Domingo. Noailles was horrified that the government of his adored and revered Washington should he embarrassed; the French who were crowding Philadelphia must be got out.
Through the advice of Robert Morris, Noailles, Talon, and Blacons decided to negotiate for land in northern Pennsylvania, through which flowed the easterly branch of the Susquehanna. The region was sparsely settled, it had been freed from Indian troubles, and though some confusion still existed between Pennsylvania and Connecticut land grants, it seemed these had passed beyond an earlier period of bloodshed and were now legally accepted as being under Pennsylvania’s jurisdiction. Morris, who owned enormous tracts of adjacent land, was eager to have a French settlement add to the value of the district and was backed by John Nicholson, comptroller general of Pennsylvania. Twenty-four hundred acres of land were acquired, with Morris and Nicholson as guarantors, and the subscription list opened, offering lots of four hundred acres or smaller at prices ranging from two to three dollars an acre. Requests rolled in from the French in Philadelphia and other parts of the country, from Santo Domingo, from England. The plan grew; there were two hundred thousand acres of “wild lands” that might also be acquired, and it was decided that a real town would be created on a flat area of three hundred acres by the river’s edge. The self-taught artist and engraver Saint-Mémin was employed to design it.
On the October day when Aristide sat listening to the account of these sweeping developments, he still had no clear hope of joining his compatriots. How could he buy even one acre? The little money he had would temporarily support himself and three loyal shipmates who had followed him to America, but investment capital had sunk with his ship. To his astonishment, however, Aristide learned he was precisely the man the others needed, a man capable of taking a boatload of settlers from the Delaware to the Susquehanna by the quickest possible route, and they were ready to pay him and his three men for their services. Aristide, before his South Seas expedition started, had studied how to use portage across land on wheels if necessary; he had experimented with canoes on the Loire and had adapted the hulls and rigging of all manner of small craft to navigate the Loire’s tributaries. “These gentlemen seemed … enchanted,” hewrote.
In a daze of joy Aristide left The Mansion that evening for a lodging house recommended by his new friends. “Here has happened one of the greatest changes in my fortune that I have ever known—God of Perpétue and Félicité [his sisters] help me to show my gratitude …”
Meanwhile an important recruit to the plan, Captain John Keating, a Franco-Irishman, had fulfilled his part of the project by hammering out the business details with Morris and Nicholson. Keating had come from Santo Domingo, where he had been both an officer and a landowner, arriving in Philadelphia with only $280 in his pocket but also a warm letter of introduction to Morris from Rochambeau. He was, as the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt later described him, “a man of uncommon merit, distinguished abilities, extraordinary virtue, invincible disinterestedness.” Keating was now entitled to use the impressive names of Morris and Nicholson in negotiations for the land and proceeded up the Susquehanna to make contacts with traders and to assure a friendly reception for the French by local legislators.