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A French Geographer in Search of Lafayette in the United States

A young French history and geography buff is undertaking a project to map and signpost the 5,000 miles of the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1824-1825 tour across America. His work has already received the support of Emmanuel Macron and the White House, and his initiative is being put before the New Hampshire Senate this Thursday.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, enjoyed rock-star status in the United States. He was just 19 when he landed in South Carolina in 1777 with a shipment of rifles for the American rebels. He was appointed aide-de-camp under George Washington, promoted to major general of the Continental Army, and took part in the siege of Yorktown in 1781. This feat of bravery earned the French officer the title of honorary American citizen and the nickname “the hero of two worlds.”

However, it was his farewell tour that forged the reputation he still enjoys today. From July 1824 through September 1825, the hero of the War of Independence visited more than 400 towns in 24 states in a roundtrip of 5,000 miles on stagecoaches, canal barges and steamboats. These 13 months were a “key period,” says Julien Icher, founder and director of The Lafayette Trail project. “It was from this moment onwards that Lafayette’s name was celebrated in the United States.”

Wherever he stopped, General Lafayette — as he liked to be called — was welcomed by jubilant crowds, escorted by fanfares and veterans, honored and glorified. Statuettes bearing his likeness were sold, along with beer tankards featuring his portrait. Towns were even renamed after him. The marquis actually lent his name to a university, 17 counties, 36 towns, and an incalculable number of streets, avenues, public parks, high schools, and theaters. La Grange, his château in the Paris region, also became a popular place name in the U.S.A.

September 3; 1824: Breakfast with the Governor

Julien Icher crossed Lafayette’s historical path in 2017 while working as an intern at the Consulate of France in Boston. At the time he was finishing a Master’s degree in geography and geographic information system at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. While in Boston he was tasked with mapping the marquis’ itinerary in New England. There were, for example, eight stops recorded on September 3, 1824: A reception with local official Isaac Goodwin in Sterling, Massachusetts, breakfast with the governor in Worcester, a reception with Captain Howe in Leicester, a speech by the reverend Joseph Muenschner in Rochdale, a break at the Rider Tavern in Charlton, another reception at the Porter’s Stage-House in Sturbridge, and a night at the Springs House Inn in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. And on and on it went.

la-fayette-trail-farewell-tour-julien-icher

Lafayette’s itinerary for September 3-4, 1824, between Worcester, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut.

Not all of the marquis’ stops are so well documented. A clock stands as testimony to his visit to the West Point military academy in New York State. But nothing proves he actually drank from the glass exhibited at the Harrison House in Branford, Connecticut. “I have to examine the credibility of every source,” says Julien Icher. “There is an abundance of information. I discover another document mentioning Lafayette’s presence in one town or another almost on a daily basis. Sometimes people come forward claiming they have objects that once belonged to him, and I meet them to check their story.”

A Full-Time Project

The 25-year-old historian moved to New Hampshire in 2018, and estimates he has already travelled 15,000 miles in search of Lafayette. Each authenticated stop appears on an interactive map online and the internship mission has become a full-time project financed by the Business France agency and a grant from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and the American Friends of Lafayette association. Research is now being carried out across the 24 states visited by Lafayette, from Maine to Louisiana and from Georgia to Missouri. In each state, Julien Icher advocates for Lafayette’s route to be officially recognized and marked out with signposts and information notices. The Massachusetts legislature approved this initiative in September 2018 and the New Hampshire senate will be debating the bill on Thursday, 14 March, 2019.

The Carcassonne-born historian hopes to complete his project before 2024 and the bicentennial of Lafayette’s tour. His work has already received support from Emmanuel Macron — he was part of the French presidential delegation during his official visit to Washington D.C. in April 2018 — and the American government – he has discussed the idea of a national Lafayette Trail with representatives from the U.S. National Park Service. Julien Icher is also working on a book in French and English, recounting his experience and offering a historical analysis of the farewell tour and its influence on the country. As for the future, he believes “it is important to strengthen this French-American relationship and pass it on to the next generations. Heritage study programs for students, teachers, and other history enthusiasts will also soon be available via a mobile app.”

  • This is very exciting! I’m a francophone from Maine and a fan and student of the Marquis. My home town is Biddeford, and I discovered where the Marquis spent 2 nights there. The house still stands and is the offices of Derring Lumber. There was a plaque outside a church in Biddeford, but sadly is was since torn down, but I would love to learn more!

  • “[A] shipment of rifles”? I don’t mean to be picky but I believe the device which propelled bullets in 1777 was actually called a musket. Just saying.

  • A great project!! Thanks so much for undertaking this. From a high school French teacher in Arizona with French heritage dating at least to the French Revolution. My paternal ancestors were on the side of the Revolution in France, and my maternal ancestors fought in the American Revolution.

  • Although the majority of military flintlock long arms in those days were indeed smoothbore muskets, as they could be loaded faster for getting off volleys quicker, our frontiersmen at Kings’s Mountain defeated the British with their rifles — barrels grooved for accuracy for hunting. And yet true rifled weapons were beginning to appear on the scene for military purposes and Rev. War British officer Ferguson invented one of those that met with some success.
    Bienvenue, Julien.

  • I have a book published by my great uncle, J. Alexis Shtiver, entitled “Lafayette in Harford County.” He stayed at the Shriver homestead in Olney, MD (Harford County).

  • I was delighted to see this! I did a Junior Year Abroad in Aix-en-Provence in 1963-64 and met and married a French Lady. I later practiced law (International Arbitration) for five years in Paris (1987-1991). The Marquis de Lafayette has always been my favorite person (aside from Washington, of course) in our Revolutionary War, in which my ancestors fought. They knew both Washington and Lafayette, having joined Washington in the New York siege and all the way through Yorktown.

    Now one of my sons lives in Auvergne with his family and only approximately 30 kilometers from the place where Lafayette grew up, which I have visited several times. For years I thought of him every day as my law office in Washington, DC was near Lafayette Park, in front of the White House, which I passed each day. One year, at Washington’s Birthnight Ball at Mount Vernon on February 22 another gentleman dressed as and played Washington while I dressed as and played Lafayette.

    What great memories you bring back.

    When you come to Washington, look me up.

    David J. Taylor
    (202) 957-0904
    taylor.davidj@gmail.com

  • There is a house that Lafayette slept in which is located in Ringoes, New Jersey (Hunterdon County), doesn’t show up on the trail but it is a historic house with signage. It is called the Landis House, built in 1750 by Henry Landis. Lafayette stayed there as a patient of Dr. Gershom Craven. Perhaps this should be added too!

  • Louis XV a été lamentable en perdant quasiment tout l’empire français aux mains de l’Angleterre. Louis XVI n’est pas honoré à sa juste valeur puisque le seul fait qu’il a décidé d’aider lourdement la nouvelle république américaine à briser les liens avec la mère-patrie pèse encore dans les liens d’amitié entre les 2 républiques. La Fayette a très honorablement accompli la mission que Louis XVI lui avait confié.

  • La ville de Warrenton, VA dans le comte de Fauquier a celebre le 175 anniversaire de la visite de Lafayette et organise des activites culturelles. Des eleves de francais et d’histoire y ont participe avec l’aide des ecoles et du gouvernement local. Nous avons eu un echange avec les ecoles de Chavaniac en France et avec le lycee Lafayette de Brioude. Contactez-moi si vous avez besoin de details.

  • Auguste Levasseur, secrétaire de Lafayette qui l’accompagna durant son dernier voyage en 1824 et 1825, publia un journal de cette visite. Il y a plusieurs années, lorsque j’habitais le Delaware, j’avais assisté à une présentation à l’Alliance Française de Wilmington du livre traduisant ce journal par Alan R. Hoffman, alors résidant au New Hampshire. Cette traduction terminée en 2006 avait été un labeur de 3 années par ce traducteur. J’ai encore ce livre “Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825”. Il avait été publié par Lafayette Press à Manchester. Comme Julien Icher a résidé au New Hampshire, il le connaît sans doute. Je le signale au cas où d’autres personnes seraient intéressées à la lire.

  • Please let me know if you would be in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. I live in Fayetteville, Georgia, and am the immediate past president of the Marquis de Lafayette Chapter Georgia Society Sons of the American Revolution. My French ancestor Lt. Armable Boileau joined the Second Canadian Regiment during the American invasion of Quebec. His unit served twice under the command of General LaFayette, Vermont in 1779 and at Yorktown.

  • In Cheraw, South Carolina, there is a home known as the Lafayette House because the Marquis lodged there.. It is still owned by descendants of the original family. I would be fascinated to see this on your historical tour.

  • Bonjour Julien,
    I’m still pursuing as much history of Lafayette and his integral part of the Revolutionary War. Congratulations on the successful legislative effort on MA. I know the original start of the Lafayette Trail in MA began in Hinsdale. Were you able to find any connection to his visit there, or why the former origin of the trail was designated there?

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