April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
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
On October 7, 1798, the streets of Philadelphia were ominously deserted. A yellow-fever epidemic was at its height. Anyone who could had fled the city, and few would enter it voluntarily. Nevertheless thirty-three-year-old Aristide Aubert Dupetit-Thouars, a captain in the French navy, arrived there on foot from Wilmington and was anxiously seeking The Mansion at Spruce and Third streets. He had been warned to avoid the capital, but French refugees from Santo Domingo had also told him it was in Philadelphia that he might find an answer to his immediate need to subsist and to the fulfillment of a life’s dream. At the splendid house of financier and statesman William Bingham, the refugees said, he would find a compatriot, Vicomte Louis-Marie de Noailles. It seemed that Noailles had been dreaming dreams similar to his.
Since childhood Aristide had imagined a home in the virgin wilderness where he would hew out a life; there he would bring his brothers and sisters and found a colony based on love, self-reliance, and simplicity; there the Noble Savage would be his friend and neighbor. So when Aristide learned that Noailles and others were planning to settle enormous tracts of land in northern Pennsylvania with French people seeking refuge in America from the Revolution in France, he could not be frightened off’ by the threat of yellow fever. He had known and survived it aboard ship coming from Europe, and besides, physical danger or a sudden reverse in fortune in the past had failed to deter him. Aristide had taken part in victories and defeats at sea for the last fourteen years; he had left his country torn by revolution and civil war; he had sold his lands to finance his own expedition to seek the lost explorer La Pérouse, who had disappeared in the South Seas almost five years earlier, and when his own funds proved in sufficient he had gained the support of the legislative assembly (and more secretly of the king in his last days of powerless existence in the Tuileries). In spite of a name whose “du” proved him of aristocratic origin, Aristide had managed to become somewhat of a hero in France, and people had rushed to subscribe their money for his expedition. He had sailed just after the fall of the king, and finding it necessary to seek food, water, and medical help for the crew of his little vessel, the Diligent , he had stopped at the island of Fernando de Noronha, only to learn that all Europe was declaring war on France. The Portuguese rulers of the island seized him as a dangerous revolutionary. His ship was sunk, his expedition ruined. Aristide finally managed to prove that his mission was not a warlike one and squeezed a small indemnity out of Lisbon, but his own country now barred him—the new republic had declared him an aristocrat, an emigrant, and a traitor, with rank, profession, and livelihood gone. Perhaps Noailles could tell him if he could hope for any future at all.
Noailles was settled in small but comfortable quarters in The Mansion. There Aristide found him dispensing hospitality to two other compatriots, Antoine Orner Talon and the Marquis de Blacons. “I was most perfectly received by these gentlemen,” he wrote that night to his sister Félicité in Anjou. “They are founding a great establishment on the Susquehanna.”
Aristide had not been sure that a simple introduction of himself as a fellow Frenchman in trouble would open doors so easily, because in France of the ancien régime he might never have met these gentlemen at all. He was a younger son of provincial nobility with no court connections, while the Vicomte de Noailles came from one of France’s most powerful families; his mother, the Duchesse de Mouchy, had been arbiter of etiquette at Versailles, his brother-in-law was the Marquis de Lafayette, and Noailles had himself been a high-ranking officer in both the French and the American armies, a court darling, judged the best dancer at Versailles. Noailles’s popularity at court had plummeted when he achieved national acclaim for proposing the abolition of feudal rights in the early, heady days of the Revolution in 1789. Omer Talon was a dignitary of the law in Paris, civil lieutenant of the Châtelet Prison, chief justice of the criminal court, on terms of almost intimacy with King Louis XVI . The Marquis de Blacons, an aristocrat from the Dauphiné, had represented the nobility of his province when the States-General met in the same great year of ’89.
The rapid progress of the Revolution had tossed Noailles and Blacons, two reforming liberals, and Talon, an obstinate supporter of absolute monarchy, into the same exile. In America, Noailles had been warmly welcomed by old friends from the American Revolution. President Washington received him with affection, William Bingham housed him, the Jays, the Knoxes, and Robert Morris entertained him. But he was poor, earning a puny living from lessons he gave in the French language, dancing, and the violin. Talon had fewer American friends but a great deal more money, having managed to extricate large sums from France through Dutch banks. Blacons had a friend in Thomas Jefferson, but to live he was borrowing from. Talon. They all wanted a position of dignity in their new country either for the rest of their lives—they were all in their thirties- or until France might welcome them home again on some far-off day. It was during Noailles’s busy social life in Philadelphia—as hostesses scrambled to get a delightful French vicomte for their dinner tables—that he had learned of the fortunes to be made out of land speculation.
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.
Following Kcaling in August of 1793 went two agents also employed by the French associates, both of them known and recommended by Morris. They were entrusted with the job of selecting the site for the town and starting delivery of building materials. One, Charles Félix Bué Boulogne, was a land agenl who after serving in Rochambeau’s army had decided not to return to his native FYancc, but set himself up in a business to represent French people wishing to find land in America. His companion, Major Adam Hoops, knew this particular part of the Susquehanna well; he had marched through the Wyoming Valley in General John Sullivan’s expedition against the Iroquois in i779; he had camped there and believed he knew the ideal place on the river, lying between Tioga Point (now Athens, Pennsylvania) and WilkesBarre, where a town could have a commanding position for trading throughout the district.
The pair set off, armed with Morris’ letters of introduction and credit, to present themselves to the most useful and powerful man of the area, Matthias Hollenbeck, judge, colonel, and chief merchant, with trading posts that stretched from Wilkes-Barre to the New York State border. He had fought for this land in the Indian wars and in the territorial civil wars between Pennsylvania and Connecticut claimants; he had covered it all on horseback, knew everybody, and could smooth out for the prospective buyers any former claims that might prove awkward. Hollenbeck was wealthy enough to advance cash at once on Morris’ notes, and his stores were well enough stocked to fill rafts, pirogues, and Durham barges to send upnver with the first essentials.
The section seen by Hoops in the past and now chosen for the town lay within a big arc formed by two dramatic curves of the river, thus enclosing it on three sides with water, while (he fourth and westerly side ended in some steep rocks, beyond which stretched the “wild lands.” Some clearing had been done by earlier settlers, and the area was known as Schufelt Hats, after a Peter Schufelt who had come here in 1770 from the Palatinate and then moved on. Other holdings were scattered about, and it was these that Hollenbeck would prod the owners to sell; if they were obstinate, the greater power of Robert Morris could be called down upon (hem. The landmark for which navigators of the river watched when seeking this spot was a curious rock upended on the bank, rising fortyfour feet and locally known as Standing Stone. Nearby, Boulogne promptly bought on his own account a 35o-acre lot that contained a habitable house and, heading his letters “Standing Stone,” began bombarding Hollenbeck with requests for goods and cash—and a great many complaints. “The cows are exceeding poor and hardly give any milk. … I cannot help but observing to you that your blacksmith hath not treated us well … the chains and tools are hardly worth anything … the iron so bad or tender, that it breaks like butter.” By this time Hoops was back in Philadelphia with the report to Noailles and Talon that the work had truly begun.
Aristide collected two of his shipmates (the third had apparently had second thoughts about the project), pleased that they were ready to follow him again. One, named Valois (later known as Wallois), was a chef formerly employed by the Bourbon-Condés. The other, Norès, only fifteen years old, had been intended for the priesthood. Together the three went to the wharves to examine a boat, but Aristide decided he could build something better—“I have been very active these last days, busy constructing a boat, and the gentlemen are ready to do all the work that I desire.” Triumphantly on October 2 i he reported that “my boat was launched yesterday.”
Unfortunately, Aristide’s first effort failed. He was obliged to sell the boat for as good a price as he could negotiate for Noailles and Talon. Somehow, but he does not tell us how, he got his first party of pioneer workers to the Susquehanna, probably by foot overland to Harrisburg, where they were able to board a rivercraft. Aristide told his sister he was transporting “the husbands and fathers who precede the wives and the children,” but at least one woman was included, because he reports a baby born en route. At night the pioneers sought local hospitality- “we literally fill the houses that are willing to put us up.” The mightiness of the continent became an ever greater reality as they journeyed north: “Poor Aristide, have you not seen now chains of majestic mountains, added to the vastness of the ocean, to separate you further from your sisters?” Each day brought fresh wonders, and at last there was the town of Wilkes-Barre, with Hollenbeck to entertain them in his low frame house with his quick wit and hearty food and perhaps some awesome stories of Indian massacres.
The journey was almost over, only seventy-five miles more, but it was slow going up the constantly curving river. The pioneers marvelled at the vegetation—maples, oaks, and elms, butternuts and black walnuts—at the high mountains and the fertile plains that alternated from bank to bank as the river turned and turned, a land that even in late autumn showed promise of abundance. At last the strange upright stone appeared. The flat, arcshaped plain, showing signs of settlement, could now be seen.
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.
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.
The pioneer spirit was there, but the town that was emerging was not at all like those erected by earlier settlers. Its inhabitants were determined to make it pretty as well as utilitarian from the start. Their houses were constructed of interlocked logs, but they were two stories high, with large windows and shutters that folded back (a letter in Aristide’s best English asks a Philadelphia merchant to send “50 pairs of hinges for the Window shuters”). The émigrés painted the shutters black with white trimmings, and soon individual taste added a transplanted poplar, a weeping willow, flowers, or lawns. Tree branches at the river’s edge were lopped off to allow a house a charming vista of water. Madame Sibert’s domaine consisted of a main house with two smaller side pavilions for kitchens, connected to the main building by covered passageways. The pretty stream flowed through her grounds, nine hundred apple trees were planted in her orchard, and huts ior her slaves lined the riverbank.
All this fuss about the niceties seemed very alien to local laborers, and they considered that fewer flowers and more vegetables would make greater sense; but the character of the town attracted visitors, which brought t7-ade and activity (Blacons was accused by Tioga Point residents of takingaway custom). Louis Lefèvre, Madame d’Autremont’s brother-in-law, who had run a smart Paris café, was host of Azilum’s first inn, to be imitated soon after by M. Renaud, a merchant who had salvaged considerable funds, and Lieutenant Beaulieu, late of Pulaski’s legion.
Standing a little removed from the gridiron pattern and approached by an avenue of Lombardy poplars was La Grande Maison , the Big House (or the Queen’s House, as it was romantically called years later). It was built of carefully planed logs, and it stood two stories high plus an attic, eighty-four feet long, and sixty feet wide, with double French doors and numerous large windows, all supplied with shutters, opening onto the river side. Tall stacks of chimneys serviced sixteen fireplaces. Inside was a forty-foot drawing room where Talon received visiting notables, plying them with Valois’s cuisine and imported French wines, while at either end two fireplaces made the room always delightfully warm. Here the social life of the town found its center. Pleasant evenings were spent when Mademoiselle Marin sang, accompanied on the piano by Madame Gui de Noailles (a lady from Santo Domingo, no relation of the vicomte), who could play equallywell for dancing. When a change of entertainment was sought, there was always the art of conversation or a game of trictrac, dominoes, or faro, amateur theatricals, or the invention of rhyming games. The little community flowed here in the evening to forget the hard work of the day, to shut out the thought of the busy guillotine in France, to dress up a bit and recapture a moment of grace and good manners. The candles blazing late in the Big House, the music and laughter at outlandish hours, with wine constantly flowing (it was said), shocked the native farmers who had moved in as paid workers or owners of lots.
These small differences in living habits began to take the first glow off the early days. The French ladies vied with one another to keep up a high level of elegance in dress, and this was resented; they were supposed to be farm wives like anyone else, so why did they need bales of fancy cloth from Philadelphia? Why did a house have to have wallpaper on the walls, and why was food eaten off delicate china? How could Montulé manage to bring in quite so many trunks of goods for himself alone? Long after the sun was up and an honest day’s work begun, the French were still drinking coffee and eating the strange bread they made in their bakery. At four in the afternoon they would stop work and dine for what seemed hours. Odder still, they would take fine linen tablecloths and real silverware up to the rocks above the town for a picnic and run races and fly kites. They built a foolishlyrustic bridge over to the little island that lay in mid-river and there erected a platform for outdoor theatricals. Word began to spread about the countryside that the French settlers were a frivolous, lazy, licentious lot. Instead of chopping wood they preferred to play teeterboard.
Talon did not help the mood of the place. He had spent, it was acknowledged, thousands of his own money to open a new road running west to connect—he hoped—the town with the fork of the Susquehanna and make speedier communication with Philadelphia, and he had rebuilt the old trail that Sullivan had left. But he refused to learn English, his manners were haughty, and his constant disappearances to the great world of Philadelphia were unpopular. Aristide had numerous disagreements with him, having to fight to get the 50cents-a-day wage paid to his workers, and he found himself suddenly the victim of jealous quarrels because of his friendship with Blacons, d’Andelot, and Beaulieu. He distrusted Talon’s promises of great rewards in the future and referred to Talon’s moments of affability as his “half-friendship.”
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.
Aristide’s trips to Azilum for supplies became important events for the town. He had acquired a legendary aura as the only one who had realized the popular romantic fantasy of a return to Nature. Stories began to be told of him, none of which he mentions himself. He was supposed to have met a man in the woods who had been robbed of most of his clothes and to have given him his only shirt, later arriving at Talon’s for dinner with his jacket firmly buttoned to the neck. The two fireplaces made the room hot, and Aristide began to sweat but refused to remove his jacket. At last the robbed man arrived to ask for a night’s lodging and pointed out his benefactor. It was said that Aristide became so threadbare that people would contrive to leave bundles of clothes anonymously at his cabin, and lest he lack food, baskets of supplies were slipped through his cabin door.
It was on one of these trips to Azilum that Aristide learned, five months after the event, of the fall of Robespierre. He learned also that his cousin Martine de la Boissière had arrived in Philadelphia, so he walked there, some of the time barefoot because of a blistered heel, to hear her news. His nearest and dearest were living, and the ache to return to France grew agonizing. He and Blacons took a trip to Canada with the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt (Aristide always leaving on foot one day earlier than the others because he could not afford a horse); and passing through Philadelphia, he seized the opportunity to clear his status with the French consul for his return. He was the first to leave Azilum just before the new year of 1796, ready to face whatever France of the Directoire might hold for him. Faithful young Norès went with him. Aristide—modest, humorous, gentle, a bit of a poet, with never a penny in his pocket—took some of the original soul of French Azilum away with him.
Restlessness was affecting all the residents now. The end of the Terror, the change of regime might mean eventual amnesty for them, and return became an obsessive idea. Enthusiasm for work waned; more and more labor was farmed out to paid help. Talon was away more often than he was there, hanging around Philadelphia in constant communication with counterrevolutionaries abroad. Keating had gone, too, like Hoops disillusioned with the failing life of Azilum. Now it was left to Laporte to play host at the Big House, and it was he who received three princes of the blood, the young Orléans, Montpensier, and Beaujolais. They were sons of the Duc d’Orléans, “Philippe Égalité,” the dead king’s cousin, accused more than anyone of fostering the first revolutionary explosion. Unwittingly Azilum was entertaining a future king, for young Orléans became the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe.
The exodus gathered momentum. Madame Sibert drifted off to Wilmington, where there was more social life; Montulé and Abbé Carles went to Savannah; and the d’Autremonts considered returning to their original holdings at Butternuts on the Chemung, their family correspondence filled with anxious worries of the pros and cons (eventually they resettled in Angelica, New York). Poor Boulogne had drowned in the Loyal Sock creek when he missed his way on a dark and stormy night, but some said that a disappointed client had pushed him. In Wilkes-Barre Matthias Hollenbeck wondered if half the money he had advanced would ever be repaid. Noailles in Philadelphia tried to re-form the company, but his own will to bring new life to Azilum was dealt a fatal blow when he learned that his wife, his parents, and his mother-in-law had all gone to the scaffold among the last of Robespierre’s victims. He stayed in Philadelphia grimly making money as a particularly gifted player of the American monev market.
The later visitors who passed through Azilum were now critical and unsympathetic. An Englishman, Isaac Weld, said: “The French … seem to have no great ability to cultivate the earth … they amuse themselves with driving deer, fowling and fishing. They live entirely to themselves; they hate the Americans, and the Americans in the neighborhood accuse them of being an idle and dissolute set.” He was unfair, but England and France were at war, and he was probably only too ready to discredit the French. But a French visitor, the Baron Colbert de Maulevrier, was not kind either, although he made some charming drawings. The baron took a haughty view of life in Azilum, stating it was inhabited, with a few exceptions, by “valets and laborers.” The exceptions he mentioned were the brave Blacons, Abbé Colin, Madame de Noailles (still giving pleasure at the piano), and Bee de Lièvre. Louis Lefèvre had now moved across the river to Lime Hill as proprietor of a flourishing roadside inn, and Maulevrier probably considered him and Bartholomé Laporte, still running the Big House, “valets,” and Charles Hornet, who had moved back from the woods, “a laborer.” But it was these three who had determined to stick it out and retained their hope in the community. They had their families around them and felt a real life in America was emerging for them.
It has been said that all Azilum jumped up in a body and dashed away when the news came in 1803 that the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, had offered the amnesty so long awaited, but in truth there were few of the original French left to celebrate, weep for joy, and begin to pack. The Blacons and the rest tried to wind up their affairs in an orderly fashion, but Laporte was left with plenty of tag ends of negotiations to settle, until eventually it was he and Charles Hornet who bought the entire arcshaped plain and split it between them. They carted away lumber from the houses to build their barns; they plowed the land where gardens had been and turned into successful farmers, producing descendants who gave distinction to the district, such as Bartholomé Laporte’s own son John, who became a judge. In the homes of Lefèvre, Laporte, and Hornet descendants odd bits of Sèvres porcelain were preserved, as well as a milk churn, a warming pan, and a pair of fancy lace stockings belonging to a Laporte lady; and today the Hornets still pronounce their name in the French way: “O-may.”
The original dream was over. Noailles died nobly off the coast of Cuba, his business success in America cast aside when he felt compelled to fight once more for his own France in the war against England. Talon, more politically devious and too interested in power, secretly slipped back into Napoleonic France as a constant plotter for the cause of a Bourbon restoration, but he was caught, imprisoned, released, and spied upon, and he died insane. His contribution to the monarchy he promoted was a remarkable daughter, the Comtesse du Cayla, who became mistress of the Bourbon king restored after Napoleon’s fall, Louis xviii. Kindly, jolly Blacons, a true citizen of Azilum while it lasted but never a good businessman, got so deeply in debt on his return to France that he committed suicide. His wife, Félicité, and their daughter found comfort in the close friendship of another Félicité, Aristide’s sister.
And Aristide, who had believed he would “always write in the language of poetry” once he was in the wilderness, never forgot his little cabin quietly rotting in the woods. Just before he sailed in 1798 as captain of the eightyfour-gun Tonnant , part of Bonaparte’s expeditionary fleet to Egypt, he wrote to Félicité from Toulon that “the Commander-in-Chief has offered 6 acres of land to each of his soldiers—and I abandoned 3oo in America!” Two months later he died a heroic death defending his vessel to the end at the Battle of the Nile, his lifeblood draining away as he stood upright on deck, his stump of a leg thrust into a barrel of chaff, supported in the arms of loyal Norès. One day a Laporte descendant identified the site of his cabin by marks on trees that could only have been made by a onehanded axeman. Here a town grew, and the name Dupetit-Thouars was compressed and Americanized into Dushore in his honor. (The cabin itself was reconstructed as part of the restoration of the Azilum colony in this century.)
Some people have criticized the French of Azilum for only managing to survive for a bare ten years. These have no understanding of the overpowering love the French have for their own land, nor for the loneliness, the financial muddles, the political chaos, and the sad news from home that unsettled and defeated them. Laportes, Hornets, and Lefèvres still living in the district, Keatings and d’Autremonts farther afield, prove that Azilum was not merely an episode.
That the town worked at all is magnificent because its pioneers were people raised in the ancien régime of France with no knowledge of living beyond the graceful leisure of a perpetual drawing room. They left a memory like a Fragonard painting incongruously set among the endless mountains of Pennsylvania.