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.

The Coins of the Lost Emperor

 

Coins are an unusually good way of preserving history. They are stamped with the images of rulers and significant persons, the precious metals in them do not corrode easily, and the value of precious metal coins means that people save them. In the case of the Gallic usurper Domitianus, the best evidence we have are two coins recovered from buried hoards, one of which was ignored for a century.

 

The 3rd century CE was a time of great unrest in the northwest Roman empire. Rome faced enemies on several fronts, as well as internal strife. The Crisis of the Third Century, as it is known to historians, included a 50-year period in which there were no less than 26 claims to the throne of the Empire, largely from officers of the military. Gaul and Britannia had formed the Gallic Empire and claimed independence from Rome; the current Roman emperor rarely challenged this, as the Gallic emperor usually bore the brunt of invaders from the north, making one less thing for Rome to worry about. The eastern edge of the empire had become the Palmyrene Empire, ruled by regent Zenobia, who later claimed the title of Empress and was defeated by Aurelian in 272 CE.

 

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The Chalgrove Domitianus coin, courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum

Several leaders claimed the rule of the Gallic Empire, five of whom were considered somewhat legitimate (though not by Rome itself, since none of them had been acclaimed by the Senate), and two of whom were usurpers. Domitianus was one of the latter.

 

Until the more recent coin was found, historians were unsure that Domitianus had ever even claimed the Gallic throne. The majority of what we know about him comes from two sources written a century after Domitianus died. Both sources together give us fewer than 30 words about his life and reign. Zosimus states, “Epitimius, Urbanus, and Domitianus, were suspected of committing treason [by Aurelian], and were immediately apprehended and punished.” Neither source mentioned him as emperor.

 

Some sources say that his predecessor, Victorinus, was killed by one of his soldiers after finding out that the emperor had been sleeping with the soldier’s wife. While it’s possible that Domitianus was that soldier, there’s no way to know for sure, unless more contemporary records are found. However it happened, Domitianus claimed the throne after the death of Victorianus in late 270 or early 271 CE, and probably took control of the mint at Trier (in what is now Germany.) It’s unclear if the portrait on the coin is even that of Domitianus; it looks very similar to the coins minted for Victorinus. It’s possible the mint did not take time to create a new portrait, but simply made a few slight alterations and changed the name on the coin.

 

The first Domitianus coin was found in France in 1900; however, since little record had been kept of how it had been found, and there was no textual evidence for Domitianus ever having been emperor of the Gallic empire, it was assumed to be a modern forgery and dismissed. In 2003, metal detectorist Brian Malin was detecting in a field in Chalgrove, just outside Oxford. His family had recovered a small hoard from the field nearly 20 years before, but Malin was not convinced they had found everything. He came across a jar full of coins from the Roman era, which had fused together with the coil into a compact lump. He turned the hoard over to the Ashmolean Museum without attempting to separate the coins. As the experts at the museum worked their way through the coins, carefully freeing each one from the others, they discovered the Domitianus coin. Since this hoard had careful documentation, and the coin was found fused with other easily verified coins of the era, its authenticity was unquestioned. Even better, examination of the original French find confirmed that both coins had come from the same stamp. Both were authentic, and Domitianus regained his place in the line of Gallic rulers.

 

Both coins and their respective hoards seem to have been buried not long after Domitianus was overthrown by Tetricus. The Gallic Empire was reclaimed for Rome by the emperor Aurelian in 274 CE (as the Palmyrene Empire had been a few years earlier.) Aurelian suppressed the Gallic culture that had arisen, and it’s possible the coins were buried to protect them from raids or other military threats. It’s also possible that having a large amount of money was dangerous during such uncertain times, and the coins were buried to prevent them from being stolen. Regardless of how the coins ended up in the hoards, it is only due to their burial that we have any solid evidence of the emperor Domitianus.

 

Cover image by Wikipedia User Geni, used under GFDL.

World War I Silk Embroidered Postcards

Embroidered postcards made their first appearance at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. Collectors can still find these lovely cards today, though it’s difficult to find them in great condition since many have faded from being placed on window sills or displayed close to sunlight.

Embroidered postcards reached a level of popularity during WWI from 1914-1918 that would never be reached again, thanks to soldiers on duty who would send these bright, colorful cards home to loved ones.

You won’t get this level of detail from any postcards today. It was mostly French and Belgian women refugees who hand-embroidered the designs onto silk mesh, which were then sent to factories for putting on postcard material.

Many of these postcards were actually envelopes, prepped for carrying even smaller cards with sentiments like “To my dear Mother.”

Up to 10 million handmade cards were made during the war!

These postcards became very popular with British and American soldiers in France. You can clearly see the patriotic themes in the cards; almost all of them have British, French, or American flags.

Starting in 1930, machines made simpler cards with less character; the unique silks had lost their time in the sun.  But if you’re lucky you can still find and own these special historical postcards.

 

Sources:

Propaganda cards

Library of Birmingham

Vintage Blog

Traveling with Art: Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France

We take a trip once again to Paris, where history and modernity intermingle in a perfect balance of past and present.

The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France is a piece of rich history near the middle of the famous city, standing as the hub of radiating avenues like spokes of a wheel. It’s been an important landmark to Paris for many years, ever since the beginning of its construction in 1806, despite numerous setbacks on its design.

The painting you see above is an oil painting by Antoine Blanchard titled “Le Champs Elysees”, showing the famous street in Paris with the Arc de Triomphe in the background.

An illustration of Victor Hugo's tomb under the Arc. Many were devastated at the famous author's death.

An illustration of Victor Hugo’s tomb under the Arc. Thousands were devastated at the famous author’s death.

The Arc was commissioned as a representation of a victory by Emperor Napoleon. The foundations alone took two years, foreshadowing a construction schedule that would take a while. In the following years, it witnessed further setbacks: the first architect, Jean Chalgrin, died; construction was halted during the Bourbon Restoration until 1833, then switched between two more managing architects until its completion, finally, in 1836.

Many famous people have passed under the arch, both alive and dead. The body of Napoleon passed under the arch on the way to his final resting place, and Victor Hugo’s body was viewable under the arch before his burial in the Pantheon.

For France’s Bastille day on July 14th, the military parade begins at l’Arc de Triomphe, although parades now avoid marching through the arch out of respect for the Unknown Soldier’s tomb.

In 1916, an idea was presented to suggest creating a tomb for an unknown soldier. The idea was picked up quickly, and a tomb underneath the arch was created, saying only “A Soldier” and dating it “1914 – 191?”. In 1920 the first eternal flame in Western and Eastern for over a thousand years was lit in honor of the soldiers who were never identified after dying in the midst of war.

A picture taken right during the action as Godefroy flew his plane under the arch.

A picture taken right in the midst of the action as Godefroy flew his plane under the arch.

In 1919, the pilot Charles Godefroy successfully flew his biplane under the arch for a victory parade marking the end of WWI hostilities. This was following the death of Jean Navarre, the pilot first chosen for the ceremony who crashed his plane and died while practicing for the flight.

The arch has clearly been the site of many important events, and today it still stands at its impressive 164 feet (50 meters) high. The bustling lanes in the roundabout circling around the arch are a driver’s worst nightmare, but for those visiting the arch itself, the top offers a spectacular view, looking out over its spot in the famous Champs Elysees.

Don’t forget to visit our other post about Paris. Have you visited the Arc de Triomphe in Paris? What did you think of it?

How a Shipwreck Changed History: Part I

In 1784, a Spanish warship called El Cazador sank to the bottom of the ocean…

…And caused the United States to double in size, forever changing history.

It all concludes with coins at the bottom of the ocean, but let’s start at the beginning.

The Territory

In the 1700s, Spain won the battle over control of North American territories by gaining the biggest plot of land: almost a million square miles in North America, the Louisiana Territory.

It was a big prize, but the port of New Orlean’s economy started to fail in the 1760s and ’70s and paper currency began to lose its value.
It didn’t help that scheming New Orleans revolutionaries created counterfeit bills that were useless to the Spanish Crown.

A Spanish four dollar bill for "The United Colonies", issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

A Spanish four dollar bill for “The United Colonies”, issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

Spain had to come up with a plan to appease the colonists in Louisiana, especially those near the vital shipping port of New Orleans. Carolus III, Bourbon King of Spain, made a key decision to exchange paper bills for silver coins, which would provide actual value to their currency.

Carolus III would send the coins to the New World, supplying New Orleans with a solution for the troubled economy.

El Cazador means “The Hunter” in Spanish.

The Plan in Action

The ship El Cazador was sent off from Spain, destination Vera Cruz, Mexico. After stocking up on more than 400,000 Spanish Silver Reales in Mexico in January 1784, the ship left for the New Orleans port.

Who knows what happened next: maybe a strong storm or pirates took over, but either way El Cazador never reached the shore of the New World, instead finding itself at the bottom of the ocean.

The ship was declared missing in June of the next year.

The loss was devastating to Spain and Louisiana’s economy, and though Spain dispatched more coins, the Spanish Crown began to wonder at the value of the Louisiana territory. They were never able to stabilize its economy.

The Territory Changes Hands

In 1800, the king of Spain finally agreed to give up Louisiana to France. But France was also having economic trouble, and soon afterward, Napoleon sold the territory to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.

The shipwreck of El Cazador led the Louisiana Purchase, the treaty that doubled the size of the U.S. and changed the fate of the world forever.

There’s a Part II to this story, centuries later in 1993, when a vessel named “Mistake” found itself in the same waters as the shipwrecked El Cazador.

But that’s another tale to tell: don’t forget to check back for the story next week!

Sources:

How Stuff Works

El Cazador

Hats off to you, Wikipedia