- 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
A year later Azilum had become a town of some thirty houses, with farms scattered around its periphery. Its first charter identified it as a land-purchasing company headed by Robert Morris, with Noailles as one of its managers and Talon and Hoops as agents, and a capital of a million acres of land, offering five thousand shares of two hundred acres each. The Terror in France was at its height, and floods of refugees were expected to pour in to populate the whole countryside, so many Americans were also buying shares and expecting mighty profits. Arrivals in Azilum had not yet formed precisely a flood, but there were manynew faces.
Aristide noted with particular pleasure the female ones. There was Madame Sibert, with elegant clothes and a number of black slaves. She was an eligible widow, but Aristide was not tempted, because she was a slave owner and parsimonious with the workmen on her extensive establishment. Her sister, Mademoiselle Bercy, had accompanied her and was already being wooed by a former infantry officer, Casimir de la Roue. The Marquis de Blacons—now plain Lucretius Blacons —had found a beautiful and tragic girl. Félicité de Maulde, in Philadelphia, newly arrived from Santo Domingo, where she had seen her father die and his plantation burn; they had fallen in love. The Blacons-de Maulde wedding was Azilum’s first, performed without benefit of a church but solemnized by the bride’s devoted confessor, Abbé Colin, who had accompanied her in her flight.
Aristide was charmed by Madame d’Autremont, the widow with three sons who had been fetched from Chemung by Durham boat in the same party that brought her brother-in-law Louis Lefèvre, his daughters, and John Brevost, all wealthy bourgeois Parisians. “She is a very pretty woman of 5o years old,” said Aristide, “who has the most charming face I have seen on a woman of that age.” Madame d’Autremont had taken a three-hundred-acre farm property outside the town, and Aristide found it a pleasure sometimes to drive her cows safely back to the barn for her. But it was a Mademoiselle Marin who troubled his peace of mind; she sang ravishingly, and she had the daintiest waist. “Yesterday I found her far too pretty,” he wrote, and later: “she is very good, very tender,” but, alas, she was also “scatter-brained, flirtatious and vain of her conquest of the one who plays top role here” (Talon). Aristide was relieved to be able to make a quick trip to Seneca Lake with Blacons—“but of course it is not because of her I went. …”
With the arrival of the ladies the makeshift life was over. The town lots, laid out in a gridiron pattern, had five streets sixty feet wide running north and south, crossed by nine streets of the same width, while through the middle ran a main avenue a hundred feet wide leading to the landing stage. At the heart, as in any proper French town, was a marketplace. As houses became habitable, gardens were started. Two stores opened; one near the wharf was run by an ex-canon, Bec de Lièvre, in partnership with Peter Régnier and the two de la Roue brothers (Casimir, who was courting Mademoiselle Bercy, and François, who had been in the gendarmerie). The second store in the marketplace dealt chiefly in fine French fabrics and was run by the new firm of Blacons and Colin, the marquis and the abbé, helped of course by the bride. Theirs was a pleasant meeting place where people liked to come to gossip, attracted by the big, blond, cheerful man and his pretty wife whose romance had delighted Azilum.
Everyone pitched in to do a little of everything—”cutting down trees is the big sport here,” said Aristide. Superintendent of clearings was the Baron de Montulé, Madame Sibert’s cousin, an ex-cavalry officer. He and his French friends caused much laughter among local workers by not knowing at first that if you hacked a tree all around its trunk, it might topple in any direction while the work party fled for their lives.
The land was plowed by teams of oxen. Grain was planted, maples were tapped for sugar, flax was raised, a gristmill was built (a lady gave her skirt for the first piece of bolting cloth), and icehouses, barns, and sheds sprang up. In all this activity there was a pride in accomplishment and an astonished joyin discovering a new skill. No aristocrat, priest, or officer in France of the ancien régime had soiled his hands either with trade or with manual labor. Ladies had always known how to do charming embroidery, but they had never made their own clothes. The will to overcome old prejudices and master the art of survival shone bravely in these early days of Azilum.