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.
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.
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.”