- 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
No time was taken for rest. Aristide had orders to work at once on building a landing stage and ferryboats and above all to get some part of the Big House ready—the one that would perhaps be the queen’s house. The settlers slept in hastily rigged shelters—once Aristide came to bed to find a shelf had crashed down onto the very place where his head would have lain. He was more handicapped than the others in wielding a spade, an axe, a hammer, or a saw, as part of his left hand had been shot away when a fowling piece exploded during a duck-hunting trip a few years before in Boston. Nevertheless he worked as hard as anyone. “I have not written you a word,” he told Félicité. “I have become a machine.” The teams of American laborers recruited by Boulogne (he asked a thousand dollars from Hollenbeck for their payment, so at about fifty cents a day they must have been numerous) worked for Aristide better than for others because they admired his will and liked him. He could laugh, too, he spoke reasonable English, and he knew how to handle men.
On November 9 Noailles arrived, and the pioneers could proudly show the progress they had made. His presence gave courage and confidence. He told them that the subscription list was filling in a promising manner—a rich lady with many relatives, Madame Sibert from Santo Domingo, wanted substantial quarters and a choice spot through which a small stream flowed; the d’Autremonts, Lefevres (in-laws), and a M. Brcvost all wished to transfer from the Chemung district, dissatisfied with the place there that Boulogne had originally found for them; numerous ex-officers and ex-priests were willing to come to work at once and were already on their way with the Marquis de Blacons; and by December they could expect Omer Talon to move in permanently as official leader.
Noailles only stayed a week, but he left them all a precious gift: a name for their new home. The place was a refuge in time of trouble, so no matter how great and prosperous a city it might become, it must never forget its origins. “Asylum” was suggested, but this English word sounded awkward to the French; and its French translation, “Asile,” suggested a shelter for the destitute or lunatic. A compromise was found by Noailles—“Azilum,” with a slightly classical sound that slid pleasantly over the tongue. Local people, now that they saw the French were here to stay, dropped “Schufelt Flats,” but few got further than calling the place “French Town.”
Talon arrived ten days before the winter weather closed in, bringing with him a man he called his steward, Bartholomé Laporte, to whom in fact he owed his life. Laporte had been a wine merchant in Cadiz; but fear in Spain of France’s revolutionary ideas had made Frenchmen unwelcome, so he went to Marseille in 1792 and was awaiting passage to England with a consignment of wine when friends came to beg his help in getting Talon, in mortal danger after the fall of the king, out of France. Laporte agreed to put Talon’s portly form into an empty wine cask, and so the two men got safely to England and from thereto America. Laporte, a humorous, easygoing man, accepted Talon’s imperious manners with good grace. Talon and Laporte moved into the part of the Big House already habitable. Aristide and his two shipmates followed later, and it did not take Talon long to learn that Valois was a superb cook and to annex him for his kitchen. The arrangement for Aristide was not ideal—it did not bear much resemblance to an idyllic cabin in the woods—but it would do for the moment. When the snow fell and the river iced over just before Christmas, some of the hierarchical elements he had already seen developing with dismay in this supposedly egalitarian project were forgotten. Together he, Talon, and Norès went skating—with, shouts of laughter and a good many falls—and on Christmas Day Talon gave a party for everyone. They sang, they told stories, they ate and drank, sometimes pausing to listen to the lonely howl of a wolf outside; but a Franklin stove burned cheerfully, the wine circulated again, and they drowned out the melancholy sound. “I got a little drunk,” confessed Aristide.
The river remained closed, and snow covered the few houses for many weeks into the new year. Little work could be done. Delighted with the chance to try out Indian snowshoes, Aristide and d’Andelot, a new arrival who was an ex-infantry officer from the FrancheComté, ventured into the wild back country over the top of the westerlyshelf of rocks. They found the Loyal Sock creek and a little lake. “We had a kind of childish joy … we called the little captive ocean ‘Lac de la Chandeleur’ [Candlemas, so they must have found it on February a], what a place to dream about for a little hermitage.” Their reports to Talon probably made him pinpoint this place (later New Era) as a still more remote hideaway for the queen when she came.
The ice melted at last, and boats arrived with letters and the gazettes from Philadelphia. There was bad news: the queen was dead. She had been guillotined months ago, on October 16, before any of them except Boulogne had even arrived in Azilum. A great sadness fell. But Talon rallied them. The little dauphin still lived, and he was the legitimate king of France, Louis XVII. They must go on working and perhaps make a shelter for him.