Ever since it was founded by William Penn, Pennsylvania has been a destination for immigrants.
By the end of the 18th century, the state had drawn so many German speakers that, except for African Americans, the Pennsylvania Dutch- as they are commonly known- were the largest immigrant population in the new United States that was not from the British isles, i.e. England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Some came to Penn’s Woods seeking religious freedom. Others came to start a better economic life for themselves or their children. And some were fleeing the law.
But others were fleeing for their lives. A conservative estimate has 160,000 people fleeing France during the Revolution, at least 32,000 of them going to England. Others estimate the number at near 25 million. No one knows for sure how many French refugees came to America. Cultural geographer Professor D.W. Meinig estimates the number between 1792 and 1798 at several thousand.
And that is why from 1793 to 1798 Pennsylvania became site of a community of French aristocrats known as French Azilum. Located on the Susquehanna River in what is now Bradford County near Towanda, it is a lovely space in a park-like setting that is maintained as an historic site.
France in the 18th century was a country of vast inequality. So when the French Revolution broke out there was much anger, anger that was used by overly ambitious and unscrupulous men for their own ends. Chief among these was Robespierre, a radical who, by 1793, was using aristocrats as objects to incite the masses. Men, women and children were turned over to the sharp blade of the guillotine.
It was against this background that some in France began to turn to America, and Pennsylvania in particular, as a refuge. Sometime in 1792, or so the story goes, servants of the French royal family were sent there. It has long been speculated that the property was actually purchased first as a refuge for French Queen Marie Antoinette, supposed author of the phrase “let them eat cake.”
This may or may not be. Among those servants who did come to Pennsylvania were members of a family named Homet (pronounced O-may), which is a common name in the region to this day. Others are descendants of the LaPorte family who also fled France. But while they were waiting for the queen and the king to arrive, most of the royal family had either been executed or died in prison.
But there were still plenty of noble Frenchmen seeking refuge in Pennsylvania, and one of those wanting to take advantage of these longings was Robert Morris, the Philadelphia banker and land speculator.
Known as the financier of the American Revolution, by the 1790s Morris was the largest single landowner in the United States, encompassing millions of acres. His business partners included James Greenleaf, husband of Ann Penn Allen, a member of Allentown’s founding family. When his friend George Washington warned him about his speculation, Morris roared back, “I must be a man, not a mouse!”
Morris’s interest in the French refugees was anything but idealistic. In 1793 Morris joined with the French noblemen the Vicomte Louis de Noailles and Antoine Talon, the ruthless head of the former royal secret service, to create the Asylum Company.
It is believed that the word became “Azilum” when the French word for asylum, asile (pronounced “ahzeel”), was combined with the English word. Some believe the word grew out of the florid long-tailed letter S of the era that looked like a z to the French accountants who kept the town’s ledger books.
Among the first buildings constructed at the site on a lazy bend in the Susquehanna River was a big, two-story structure that was 84 feet long and known as the Grand Maison. It was occupied by Talon, who paid $3,000 for it.
Soon two-story buildings of roughly 60 feet long by 40 feet wide were popping up. Eventually there would be 55 of these structures for the 200 inhabitants of French Azilum, making it one of the most populated areas in northern Pennsylvania.
At a time when glass was heavily taxed, the Frenchmen were bringing it in by the boatload. It was followed by a harpsichord.
Even if Marie Antoinette never made it to French Azilum, many other prominent Frenchmen did. Among them was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, a former bishop who had renounced his vows and would later become Napoleon’s foreign minister.
Talleyrand and his servant could not find their way in the woods while trying to find French Azilum. “Do you think we are lost?” Talleyrand asked his valet. “I think we have been lost ever since we left Philadelphia,” his servant replied. When he finally got there, Tallyrand spent most of his time hunting.
Perhaps the most romantic figure in the little colony was a former royal naval officer, Captain Aristide Du-Petit-Thours. Cut off from the sea and his family, the one-armed sailor (he had lost it in a hunting accident) found French Azilum overcrowded. Despite his lack of an arm, he is said to have spent his time cutting trees on a settlement near the Loyalstock Creek. Other visitors included Count La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, whose travel book gives historians much useful information about the French Azilum, and the three sons of the Duke of Orleans, one of whom was to be France’s king in the 1830s and 1840s.
But time did not stand still in France. The Terror ended with Robespierre’s death on the same guillotine to which he had sent so many. Finally Napoleon came to power and allowed the nobles to return.
Many did, including Du-Petit-Thouars. He rejoined the navy but his virtual dismemberment by British fire during the battle of the Nile in 1798 led him to commit suicide. The town of Dushore in Sullivan County was later named in his honor.
In America, Morris’s land empire collapse and he and Greenleaf were both thrown into debtor’s prison. By 1824 one traveler noted there was little left of the once grand houses but chimneys. Today a delightful summer home built in the 1840s by a LaPorte descendent contains all the relics that remain of French Azilum.