French America

A French Royalist Refuge in Pennsylvania

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This issue takes us to Marie Antoinette Overlook in Pennsylvania and a forgotten French refugee colony.
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© Mathieu Persan

Anyone driving down Route 6 between the townships of Towanda and Wyalusing, in Pennsylvania, will discover a stone belvedere built in 1930 on their right-hand side. The overlook offers views of a bend in the Susquehanna River and the site of French Azilum, a waterfront settlement created during the French Revolution to host France’s nobility and Queen Marie Antoinette!

The idea came from two royalist aristocrats. The first was the Vicomte de Noailles, who fought in the American War of Independence alongside his brother-in-law, the Marquis de Lafayette, and received the English capitulation at Yorktown. The second was the Marquis Antoine Omer Talon, who was also a noble representative of the Constituent Assembly. In 1793, they were both exiled in Philadelphia, where they joined forces with two local financiers to sell plots of land to French nobles fleeing the Terror and the Haitian Revolution.

After clearing some 2,000 acres of forest, around 30 log cabins, a theater, a few stores, a chapel, and a school were built. The Grande Maison, with two floors, eight fireplaces, and a piano, was supposed to welcome Marie Antoinette and her children. But the queen never made it to the United States. News of her execution, on October 16, 1793, only strengthened interest in this French village. Prince de Talleyrand and Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt came to visit, as did the future Louis Philippe I, who reigned as the last king of France from 1830 to 1848.

The colony collapsed after Napoleon declared an amnesty in 1803. Most of the families had never taken to living in the great outdoors and returned to France. Bartholomé Laporte was one of the few who stayed. His son John became a representative for Pennsylvania and built a house where French Azilum once stood. Today, it is used as a museum about this surprising royalist refuge in America.

 

Article published in the July 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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