The Time 18th-Century French Aristocrats Fled to Rural Pennsylvania

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In 1793, the French Revolution was in full swing. Royal sympathizers—nobles, military officers, clergy, and other aristocrats—were guaranteed a sharp kiss from the guillotine. Frightened, thousands of aristocrats fled to neighboring countries like Austria and Prussia. A small handful of nobles, however, escaped to a place so obscure that they were able to start their own refugee colony, the only one of its kind. Their location? A meadowed hamlet in the Pennsylvanian backwoods.

There, a 4000-mile buffer separated the expatriates from the bloody streets of Paris. The nearest American city, Philadelphia, was 150 miles southeast. Miles of rolling hills and wavy pastures locked each person away from civilization. It was a sanctuary all right, but how did the King’s close circle wind up in the middle of nowhere?

You've Got a Friend in Pennsylvania

It all started when Robespierre condemned Colonel Vicomte de Louis de Noailles to death. Noailles was a prominent military man with an impressive network: the Marquis de Lafayette was his brother-in-law, his mother was Marie Antoinette’s Chief Maid of Honor, and George Washington was one of his war-buddies. Sadly, Noailles' royal ties destined him for the chopping block. By 1793, his entire family had been executed, forcing him to flee to Philadelphia.

In Philly, Noailles met Omer de Talon. Talon had been an advisor to King Louis XVI and served as Chief Justice of France’s Criminal Court, a job that made him pretty unpopular with Jacobin rebels. After a few prison terms, Talon escaped France by hiding in a wooden cask stowed at the bottom of an American ship.
When the two met in Philadelphia, they immediately began bouncing around the idea of starting a haven for other exiles. They met with a trio of shrewd American businessmen, who accepted the well-to-do refugees with open arms (partly because they knew they could make an easy penny). When the trio heard their idea, they bit at the chance to make it happen. The three men floated up the Susquehanna and found an isolated, but fertile, patch of land. Noailles and Talon loved it, and they naively bought it at an absurdly over-inflated price. After sketching the plans for France’s newest court, they started building.

Well, sort of.

French aristocrats were a dainty bunch. Few knew how to use a shovel or a plow, making them awful candidates for manual labor. So, rather than soil their hands, they hired locals. The local were no dummies. They took advantage of the language barrier, and overcharged the noblemen for each house they built. After three months of construction, 30 log cabins stood on the pasture, and Royalists began filling the homes. The colony was named “Azilum,” meaning “place of refuge.”

Although Azilum was nothing like the estates in France, the pampered aristocrats didn’t exactly rough it. Parisian fashion had plowed its way to the prairie—cabins were lined with fleur-de-lis wallpaper and rococo furniture. Women wore silk gowns and sparkly jewels, a stark contrast to the gritty, dirt-covered farmers who lived nearby.

Marie Antoinette: Pennsylvania Farm Girl?

Architecturally, the crème-de-la-crème of the colony was an opulent 3,600 square foot mansion dubbed “Le Grande Maison.” Some historians believe the massive house was Pennsylvania’s Versailles—it’s speculated that the house was built for Queen Marie Antoinette and her children. Indeed, there were plans to get the Queen out of France, but no one knows if her getaway plans included Azilum, or if Le Grande Maison was built just for her. Regardless, she lost her head before any plans were realized.

For 10 years, some 200 French exiles lived at Azilum. Many were confidants of the King: courtiers, army officers, special clergy, and other nobility. At one point, Louis Phillipe—who later became King of France—visited the settlement. But at the turn of the century, things started going downhill. The original backers went bankrupt, and the refugees stopped receiving money from Royalists overseas. Azilum’s economy floundered, and its citizens began filtering out. Some headed to bigger cities like Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans. Others went back to France after Napoleon granted repatriation rights to émigrés. Azilum quickly deteriorated into a royal ghost town, a scenic but obscure pasture.

Interested in the full story? You can visit Azilum, where vestiges of the old settlement, as well as later settlements, still remain.

July 12, 2012 - 8:48am
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