Gallipolis, a French Utopia on the Banks of the Ohio River

One thousand French people fled to the United States after the Revolution, aghast at being stripped of their privileges and sensing the imminent arrival of the Reign of Terror. Championing the philosophy of the Lumières and its idyllic vision of the New World, they founded the Gallipolis colony on the banks of the Ohio River – a Garden of Eden, of sorts, on the American Frontier. United by the same inspirations, the group of aristocrats, clergymen, members of the bourgeoisie, artisans, and laborers all set off to “build castles in the land of the savages.”
© D.J.Z.

American independence marked the start of the rush to the wide-open spaces of the Midwest. The Treaty of Paris signed on September 3, 1783, recognized the sovereignty of the 13 colonies, and granted the United States all British-owned land east of the Mississippi River. The overall territory was twice the size of France. Finding itself destitute after ten years of war, the young American nation began selling off its land to the highest bidder. “The government urgently needed to rebuild its finances and pay off its debts,” writes historian Jocelyne Moreau-Zanelli in her book on the Gallipolis colony. “The nation’s lands were put up for auction.” U.S. speculators turned to the rich, thriving European markets to sell these colonizable plots, and descended on Paris to peddle their dreamlike wares.

The most influential of these marketers represented the Ohio Company. Founded by a group of veterans from the War of Independence and adventurous citizens, the Company had acquired five million acres [almost 8,000 square miles] from Congress. The land stretched from Pennsylvania in the east to the Scioto River in the west, and between Lake Erie in the north and the Ohio River in the south. Shareholders began a practice known as “land-dodging” that consisted of selling Europeans plots the Company did not yet own, and using the money from the sale to pay Congress later. A shell corporation named the Scioto Company was even founded to sell the worthless property rights in France.

The lands sold in France by the Scioto Company are shown in green on this map published in Paris in 1789. The indication "Première ville" (First town) on the Ohio River marks the location of the future colony of Gallipolis. © Library of Congress

"Sciotomania" Seizes Paris

A sales office was opened at 162 Rue Neuve des Petits-Champs near the Palais Royal. Two pamphlets published in French extolled the virtues of Ohio, such as its rich soils, abundance of game, and warm climate. Themes of happiness, freedom, hope, order, and peace made up the body of the brochures. No mention was made of the harsh living conditions on the Frontier, nor the fact that the Miami, Shawnee and Lenape tribes were still the legal owners of the Ohio lands. The speculators painted a heavenly picture of a Promised Land to the future colonists, and were quick to cite passages from Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer: “All you have to do is rake the surface of the soil, lay down your wheat, your corn, your potatoes, your beans, your cabbages, your tobacco, and let nature do the rest. During this time, amuse yourself, go fishing or hunting.”

The French obsession for America had reached its peak. Vaunted by the returning volunteer troops from the War of Independence, and by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson while they were in Paris, “the myth of an America where all the dreams of Old Europe would be realized,” created a frenzy nicknamed “Sciotomania.” The storming of the Bastille helped convince those still harboring doubts that it was time to leave. The nobility and the clergy fled the vengeance of the Revolution, while the bourgeoisie were drawn in by the promise of new markets for export. Artisans, laborers, and farmers who had been left jobless by their exiled clients were quick to join the movement. The American madness soon spread from Paris to the rest of France, and people began emigrating from Marseille, Reims, Bergerac, Rodez, Valenciennes, Montpellier, and Nancy. Some 350 French people invested in Ohio lands between November 1789 and February 1791, including 37 nobles, 9 clergymen, 11 doctors and scientists, 14 legal practitioners, 40 merchants, 15 jewelers, 7 shoemakers, 3 bakers, and a perfumer. Even the young Napoleon Bonaparte was tempted by the adventure, but was supposedly dissuaded by his mother…

Disappointment on Arrival

Almost 1,000 colonists landed in Alexandria, Virginia , Philadelphia, and New York. “The adventure immediately seemed to be off to a bad start,” writes Jocelyne Moreau-Zanelli. “They had to deal with every obstacle imaginable.” After three months at sea, the French were at their wits’ end. Many of them had invested the last of their savings in the boat trip, and there was no one waiting for them when they arrived. The American officers responsible for escorting the colonists were nowhere to be found. Awful rumors began to spread about the 600-mile journey across the Alleghany Mountains and tribes of Native Americans roaming the region. The two scouts sent out to find a site for the future colony were both attacked. The first was taken prisoner; the second was scalped.

President George Washington offered to help the French, but failed to follow through on his promise. A representative for the colonists met with Vice-President John Adams, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and Secretary of War Henry Knox, and the Ohio Company finally reappeared. A first convoy of wagons set out inland in the summer of 1790, and an account of the journey was recorded by the Count de Lezay-Marnésia. The travelers had to deal with paths flooded or destroyed by heavy rain, makeshift shelters, and basic meals, while the vulgar, pelt-clad American guides “seemed to represent the transition between the civilized man and the savage.”

Log Cabins and Silver Chandeliers

When the convoy reached its destination in October 1790, half of the colonists had already turned back. Some had returned to Europe, while many others had settled in cities on the East Coast. A total of 400 French people finally arrived in Gallipolis, the “city of the Gauls.” In log and cob cabins built by the Ohio Company’s men, the colonists set down their cases and unpacked inlaid furniture, bookshelves stacked with bound books, silver chandeliers, and ivory dominos. “Those who had imagined idyllic scenes of life in the wild while reading Rousseau were particularly shocked by the reality of physical labor.”

The Gallipolis settlement in 1790. Etching published in Historical Collections of Ohio, Henry Howe, 1847.

Despite help from American hunters, woodsmen, and surveyors, the French found it hard to adapt to life on the Frontier. The winter prevented any crops from growing, and the colony survived on boiled beans and wild corn. The new community was struggling at its first steps, and the hopes of building a hospital, two schools, a university, and factories were soon abandoned. The philosophical society and the French-language newspaper were also forgotten. With arrival of spring, around 100 colonists traveled downriver and settled in Saint-Louis and New Orleans. The others persisted and redoubled their crop-growing efforts. The colony registered its first wedding, followed by its first birth, and a Massachusetts gazette even reported that the French people in Gallipolis were using wild grapes to make wine that was better than Madeira!

The End of Utopia

The outbreak of war with the Native Americans, followed by the bankruptcy of the Ohio Company, hastened the colony’s decline. The arrest of the head of the Company in spring 1792 “put an end to any lingering hopes of ever seeing the land purchased in Paris.” The French had to wait until a decision from Congress in 1795 to enjoy the full use and ownership of their lands on the Ohio River. When the news came through, there were just 200 colonists left in Gallipolis. An act of Congress passed on April 14, 1802, then made the final settlers naturalized American citizens, and marked the end of any French presence in the region. “The wild dreams of exporting a new society to America” and “the disappointed utopians” disappeared, says the historian. “But a large number of colonists did in fact find a slice of rural paradise befitting Crèvecœur’s descriptions.”

Through their culture, sophistication, and know-how, the French left a long-lasting mark on the Midwest. After becoming judges, politicians, or officers in the army, some of them have gone down in local history. Jean-Pierre Bureau, originally from Beton-Bazoches in the Paris region, was elected representative and then senator of Ohio. And for a long time, Versailles-born Antoine Saugrain was the only doctor in the Mississippi Valley, and helped develop a smallpox vaccine.

Gallipolis is now a town of 3,600 inhabitants nicknamed the “Old French City,” and continues to pay homage to its founders. A trail created by the tourist board takes visitors through the historic center of Gallipolis, to City Park where the first cabins were built, past the colonial houses on 1st Avenue, and to the Pine Streeet Cemetery where many French people and their descendants have been laid to rest. A clinic and a flea market are named after the colonists, and the local police wear an embroidered badge bearing the words “Gallipolis – City of the Gauls” in honor of the forgotten colony.

Article published in the January 2018 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.