In the spring of 1776, an embittered France, angry and smarting from losing its North American colonies to Britain in the Seven Year’s War, began covertly supplying arms and gunpowder to the fledgling American revolutionaries struggling to break free from what the French perceived as “British tyranny.” With the added persuasive genius of Benjamin Franklin, who traveled to France in December of 1776 to rally support, the nation embraced the American Revolution as the realization of enlightenment ideals.
Several French aristocrats, such as Lafayette and Pierre Charles L’Enfant, saw in the Revolution the prospect of personal glory, a way to pay back the British, or perhaps wanted to support the cause of liberty, and crossed the Atlantic to join the American army. In February of 1778, France formally recognized the United States and openly declared war on Britain, waging America’s war at sea against the British naval fleet, the largest and most heavily armed in the world.
With this French assistance, the war finally ended in 1783 and though some French soldiers stayed on the new continent, many returned home with restored pride. Yet the American colonies-turned-nation remained in their minds and became a lifeline when, ten years later, they needed a refuge.
Back at home, the popular support for a distant war turned sour when the French King raised taxes on the working class and poor, but exempted the aristocracy, to pay the 1.3 billion livres debt incurred on behalf of their foreign ally. Exacerbating a host of other internal issues, Louis XVI soon found himself with a revolution of his own to deal with. The people wanted equality.
By 1793, the French Revolution was in full swing, and royalty, aristocracy, clergy, and royal sympathizers were fleeing the country for their lives.
Some of these noble refugees remembered the beautiful American wilderness and returned there. A few enterprising Pennsylvanians, sympathetic to the Royalist cause and with an eye for profit, bought sixteen hundred acres of the prettiest little wilderness along the Susquehanna River in the autumn of 1793 and three months later had 30 houses built. French refugees started filling the new colony, which they christened Azilum, or “refuge.”
Over the next few years, they purchased several thousand more acres and built over a hundred buildings, the grandest of which, at over 3,600 sq ft., they intended for Queen Marie Antoinette and her children, should they be able to escape France alive.
That dream was never to be fulfilled, and the house was used for balls, meetings, and other social events for the new French Pennsylvanians. The house, Le Grande Maison, did, however, host one royal head when Louis Phillipe, who would later become King of France, visited the settlement.
For 10 years, approximately 200 French exiles lived at Azilum. Many had been confidants of the King and courtiers, some army officers, others clergy, and a wide range of upper and lower aristocracy.
This Versailles-on-the-Susquehanna was not to last, however. Azilum’s economy floundered as money stopped flowing from France and its original backers went bankrupt. Around the same time, Napoleon gained power and offered repatriation rights to émigrés, and many returned. Others moved to larger cities like New Orleans and Charleston. A few blended into the surrounding communities where their descendants remain to this day.
None of the more than 100 original buildings remain of this curious episode in Pennsylvania’s history, but you can still visit the few acres that remain of the site, just a couple miles south of Route 6 in north central Pennsylvania.
The house-museum was closed when I arrived at this much-anticipated detour on my eastward trek across Pennsylvania, but I walked around a bit, in the mud, imagining courtiers promenading the grounds, the women draped in layers of fabric and gleaming jewelry, balancing fantastic headdresses, the men in silk breeches and brightly colored waistcoats with starched white cravattes.
The lives of the courtiers in the wilderness was far from the elegance they were used to on their home estates, but they were hardly roughing it. Many of their houses included chimneys, porches, window glass, fleur-de-lis wallpaper, and rococo furnishings. Manual labor was achieved by hiring locals, who took advantage of the situation and charged well for their services.
The few buildings at the site today are period buildings which have been transplanted from nearby farms. The log cabin at the top of this page, which now serves as a small introductory museum, dates to the 1780s and comes from the Welles Farm. The large, white, well-built LaPorte House provides striking contrast, and was built in 1836 by the son of Bartholomew LaPorte, one of the original settlers. An herb garden was replanted in 2010 with many of the herbs that the French used to flavor their cuisine.
I enjoyed taking this little side trip into a period of history that has always fascinated me. One of my grad school professors was especially enamored with this period in which American, French, German, and Swiss bids for political revolution intertwined, overlapped, and fed on each other. In his honor, I have an urge to reread period poems from each culture that he would surely analyze for similar themes, but I will content myself with an hour promenading the grounds of this lovely bend in the Susquehanna River where French courtiers once strolled.
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