- Historic Sites
Louis Philippe In America
The future French king asked Washington for directions and got an arduous tour of a new nation’s wilderness
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
The city of Rochester was no more than a deserted shanty in a swamp. Sometime in the 1840’s King Louis Philippe inspected in a Paris exhibition a giant plateglass window; he was told that it was ordered by a dry-goods store in Rochester. “What! Can it be that that mud-hole is calling for anything of the sort?”
Back in Canandaigua, the party met Captain Charles Williamson, the “Baron of the Backwoods,” agent for the vast Pulteney estate extending from the Genesee country to the Finger Lakes, and builder of wilderness cities complete with theatre and racecourse. At his suggestion the horses, nearly foundered after their long journey, were sent overland by easy stages to meet their riders at Northumberland, Pennsylvania, while the travellers proceeded to Geneva. Here, on July 13, they stopped, certainly at Captain Williamson’s magnificent three-story hotel, erected in 1796 and still today sheltering guests in diminished splendor. Thence they paddled, or sailed, the length of Seneca Lake, and then, on foot, carried their packs twenty miles to Newtown, now Elmira. Here they bought a boat of some sort, no doubt a Durham boat, or flat-bottomed scow, and on it floated down the Chemung and the Susquehanna.
A few miles below Towanda they came to Azilum, that remarkable colony established by a group of French émigrés to offer a refuge to Marie Antoinette and her family. The princes are said to have stopped here. This is possible but unlikely, for Azilum was fiercely legitimist, and the sons of Philippe-Egalité would hardly have been welcome.
They continued down the Susquehanna to WilkesBarre. They seem not to have met their horses, but to have made the last stage of their journey on hired steeds and in public conveyances. They arrived in Philadelphia on or about July 27. They had been four months on the way and had covered well over two thousand difficult miles. They settled, with great relief, into their own house.
But yellow fever raged in sultry Philadelphia, and the gentry had fled the city. Early in October the princes set forth again on their travels. They stopped in New York to cash a !3,000 letter of credit from Gouverneur Morris, then continued by sloop to Providence and by stagecoach to Boston. They lodged at the Hancock House, in Corn Court, just south of Faneuil Hall. Louis Philippe often cited the hostess, the future Mrs. William Brazier, as a model housekeeper. The travellers were received by Boston’s great: Harrison Gray Otis, John Amory, and others. They pushed on to Portsmouth, and were welcomed in the pleasant mansion of Senator John Langdon. They spent a week at the home of Mrs. Martine, on nearby Sagamore Creek. Then onward to visit General Henry Knox in Thomaston, Maine, and General Henry Dearborn (whose name is still sacred in Chicago) at Pittston, near Gardiner on the Kennebec River.
This was the travellers’ farthest north. They turned back to Boston, and put up with a French tailor, James Amblard, at the corner of Marshall and Union streets. The Union Oyster House, on the same site, claims to remember the royal visitor, but the Union Oyster House has been in business a mere 142 years. (Do not believe its story that Louis Philippe set up as a teacher of French; he was well in funds, and anyway he was not in Boston for more than a week.)
Back in Philadelphia at November’s end, the brothers learned that the French Directory had deported their mother to Spain. They immediately determined to join her there, declaring: “She shall not remain sonless while we are alive!” But there was a difficulty: England and Spain were at war, and communications between America and Spain were cut off. The princes saw only one possibility—to make their way to New Orleans, then held by the Spanish, and embark on a Spanish blockade-runner. The prospect of a 2,000-mile journey in winter weather could not discourage them.
They set forth, riding westward, on December 10, with good Baudoin; but we hear no more of the globetrotting dog. On the way Beaujolais fell ill. Unwilling to delay, the brothers bought a cart for their transport. In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, their horses took fright and ran away, crashing their cart into a tree and throwing out the occupants. Louis Philippe, though briefly knocked insensible, applied first aid and spectacularly bled himself before an admiring group of citizens. The next day a committee waited upon him and proposed that he should remain in Carlisle as the town physician. After he had become France’s monarch, Louis Philippe loved to tell this story, concluding: “Perhaps I should have lived happier as the Doctor of Carlisle than as King of the French!”
When the princes arrived in familiar Pittsburgh, ice was already forming in the Ohio River, threatening to cut off navigation. They bought a keelboat, a raftlike craft guided by men with poles and a steersman with a sweep-oar. They were in constant danger from floating ice, from the menace of shoals and snags, from thievish Indians and even more thievish rivermen. They grounded once for twenty-four hours, while crewmen and princes worked together to set the vessel free. They arrived at last in New Orleans on February 17, 1798, after two months on the river.
Five weeks later they sailed in an American brig for Havana. On the way they were boarded by a British frigate; its captain proposed to impress the passengers to serve as British seamen, but Louis Philippe assumed his most regal air, revealed himself as the Duc d’Orléans, and successfully threatened the captain with vague governmental reprisals.