- 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
Keating was a far more soothing manager of affairs in Talon’s absences and did his best to preserve good will in a community of mixed nationality, and for that matter of mixed class, which was where the real friction lay, at least with the American workers. By no means the best type of American had come to work in Azilum; most were loafers and drunks who had hoped to be able to cheat the foreigners. After some bad experiences many of the French began to think everyone was cheating, so they became suspicious and withdrawn. Talon would lose his temper and shout in French, which did not help; but if Keating was present, he could usually stave off trouble, as could Blacons, Bec de Lièvre, and above all Aristide, who was paid the compliment of being given nicknames. He was “Petty Toe” or “The Little Admiral.” The flare-ups happened more often in the town proper. The French and Americans who actively farmed the fields together usually understood each other.
The French were on edge anyway because the place was not paying its way. They managed to sell and transport their surplus grain by river to Wilkes-Barre, and they sold their molasses, flax, potash, and tar; but those vast fortunes they had expected to make so easily were not forthcoming, and Azilum had to import a great deal more than it produced. It came as a shattering blow when Robert Morris went bankrupt. A new charter had to be made and the land refinanced, with everyone taking a loss. Disenchantment began to set in. Was it worth the struggle? Even those who seemed the least hard-pressed, slave owners such as Madame Sibert, found their lives shaken up when their slaves learned that Pennsylvania did not recognize their servitude and ran away.
Spirits could be raised by the arrival of distinguished visitors. Talleyrand, arriving in the fall of 1794, caused a flurry of excitement. His conversation was fascinating; it was like the old days of society as they had known it. Women’s wardrobes were made over; all jewels that had been brought were worn. Many in Azilum might not approve of Talleyrand for political, religious, or moral reasons, but he brought a breath of the outside world, and two young men followed him when he left, Louis-Paul d’Autrement and Francois de la Roue, to be his temporary secretaries.
Talleyrand was followed in the spring by the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, a fresh cause for excitement, but he proved a disappointment, refusing to be ducal in disgracefully patched and shabby clothes and lecturing them on his pet theories of experimental agriculture.
Aristide had become restless. He had failed to create his private paradise but instead worked for a master who fostered the selfsame animosities of that civilized world Aristide had hoped to leave behind, the bickerings, snobberies, pride of money, and political divisions that had crossed the Atlantic with each émigré. Then suddenly Talon’s old promises were fulfilled. The Azilum Company awarded Aristide three hundred acres in the “wild lands” twenty miles from Azilum near the Loyal Sock creek. Joyously, in midwinter he set to work to build a cabin twelve feet square and cleared the land surrounding it, taking special pride in the big elm he left standing by his door. Norès, d’Andelot, and the younger d’Autremont, Alexandre-Hubert, lent a hand from time to time, but often he labored alone. “It is perhaps the only one of my castles in Spain that I have ever realized,” Aristide declared. A workman built him a table, and he built himself a stool and sat filling his diary with day-to-day events: “the house is all finished except the chimney”—“I have not, as Robinson Crusoe did, taken the precaution of making nicks in the trees to mark off Sundays”—“d’Andelot saw a panther 10 feet away from him”—“we built the bunks today.” He put up pictures of his sisters Perpétue and Félicité and an engraving of Charlotte Corday he had picked up at the Philadelphia Museum; and he arranged his precious books, his Vicar of Wakefield , his “cher Robinson [Crusoe],” his Voltaire, his Rousseau, his Burke’s essays.
Every week or ten days it became necessary to walk through the woods to Azilum for supplies. Sometimes Aristide stopped at the d’Autremonts’ and found a game of cards an exciting break in his solitary life. Sometimes he called on a newly arrived family sent by Talon to the hidden spot (New Era) that might still house the dauphin. These were the Hornets, who had been in New Jersey for a year but had nowjoined Azilum’s population of some 250 souls. Charles Hornet had been a steward at Versailles, so Talon considered him particularly suitable as founder of the royal hideaway. Hornet had fled France when every servant of the king was in danger and had been awaiting the departure of a ship from the Biscay coast when one morning, to his horror, he saw his vessel a good five miles away at anchor in the roadstead. So he set out to swim to it. He was hauled aboard at last and met Thérèse Schillinger of Strasbourg, also once part of the enormous household of Versailles. They married when they arrived in America. This hardworking and happy couple, soon to start a family, were welcome friends for Aristide, but he was becoming aware that his dream cabin would remain painfully empty if his brothers and sisters failed to join him.