Notes, Thoughts, and Ideas.

A French Oasis in Early Pennsylvania

 

Deep in the Pennsylvania wilderness, travelers at the end of the 18th century might stumble upon something extraordinary: a perfect little French town, complete with shops, a distillery, and a theater. What looked like ordinary log cabins on the outside had plastered walls, carpets, and other luxuries. A few years later, however, it was all gone. Today, only one building remains.

 

This fairytale French oasis in the Pennsylvania countryside was Azilum (sometimes spelled Azylum). As the French Revolution got into full swing in the 1790s, many royalists and aristocrats fled the country in fear for their lives. Slave uprisings in French-owned Saint-Domingue sent other French refugees north.

 

azilum ASeveral influential Philadelphians sympathized with the French, and also saw a way to make a substantial profit off the exiled aristocrats. Stephen Girard, Robert Morris, and John Nicholson, among others, purchased 1600 acres of land in the northeastern part of the state, near the Susquehanna river; 300 of the acres were set aside for a town. There was a 2-acre market square, and 413 private lots, each about a half-acre square. Approximately 30 log cabins were built to welcome refugees who began arriving in the fall of 1793; other buildings housed a blacksmith shop, distillery, and theater. Crops and fruit trees were planted, and cattle and sheep brought to the colony.

 

The crown jewel of the colony was La Grande Maison, a two-story building 84 feet long and 60 feet wide. Legend persists that it was built in the hopes that Marie Antoinette and her children would be able to escape the Reign of Terror and settle there. This, of course, did not happen, though the building did house dignitaries who visited, including Louis Phillipe, who reigned as the last king of France from 1830 to 1848.)

 

The Philadelphian investors promoted their French oasis aggressively; agents met ships docking at the harbor to scout out French aristocrats who had money and a need to settle. The investors had bought the wilderness land at about $0.15 per acre; the French aristocrats bought it for 6 francs, a profit for the Americans of about 500%.

 

azilum CThe French families who came to Azilum did their best to recreate the life they had left, despite the difficulties of living so far from other communities. The interiors of the log cabins were plastered and covered in wallpaper, expensive rugs laid on the floors, and elegant drapes hung from the windows. Some families had even managed to bring expensive furniture to the New World. Glass panes were set into the windows, instead of cheaper options like greased paper or flaked mica. Dances and parties were constant pastimes, and the aristocrats hired landscapers to maintain their lawns in the French fashion. Visitors to the colony were amazed at the sheer luxury on display in the Pennsylvania wilderness.

 

This enchanted life was doomed from the start. The nearest town with supplies to be purchased was 75 miles away. Extreme weather made travel next to impossible in winter. Then Morris and Nicholson declared bankruptcy toward the end of the 18th century, and French investors were no longer willing to bankroll a home in America for the refugees. Finally, in the first years of the 1800s, Napoleon declared that all exiles could return; Azilum rejoiced at the news, and celebrated with a feast. As many families as could make the journey returned to France.Some colonists stayed and assimilated into American culture in other towns. Surnames like LaPorte, Homet, LeFevre, and Brevost may indicate descendants of these families.

 

The LaPorte house, which was held by the family until the mid-1800s, and then by a trust until it passed into government hands for preservation, is the only remaining original house at Azilum (though other buildings have been reconstructed.) It serves as a museum, housing many artifacts from the original settlers. This single building and its contents are all that remain of the tiny piece of French life in early America. The site of Azilum is marked and visible from the highway; it remains a popular subject for postcards.

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