Unknown France

The Marquis de Lafayette’s Manor of Both Worlds

On June 13, 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette set foot in America for the first time. On his second visit three years later aboard the Hermione, he brought good news to George Washington – he had convinced King Louis XVI to support the American Revolution militarily, politically, and financially. While the future of the “French hero of the American Revolution” went down in history, his origins are not as well known. Just where did this orphan-turned-billionaire come from? To find out, come with us to the superb Château de Chavaniac in Auvergne, where he was born.
The Château de Chavaniac in Auvergne, birthplace of the Marquis de Lafayette, now hosts a museum dedicated to the “French hero of the American Revolution.” © Vincent Gaillot

The future hero of the American Revolution came into the world in 1757 in one of the richly decorated rooms of the Château de Chavaniac, an imposing family estate built with black Auvergne stone dating back to the 14th century. Toile de Jouy fabric covers the walls of the room located on the second floor, a reproduction of America’s Tribute to France. The design depicts French soldiers leaving for America, and was a gift to France after the United States gained their independence.

Despite the premature demise of his parents, who left behind a colossal fortune, the young marquis had a happy childhood. Raised by his aunts and educated in the ways of humanism, he spent his free time exploring the surrounding forests. He befriended the sons of local farmers and, armed with a stick, dreamed of hunting down the Beast of Gévaudan, a mysterious, dangerous animal terrorizing the region at the time. But Auvergne soon grew too small for his ambitions. He left the château at 13, joined the army at 17, and at the age of 19 became a general in the American army under the orders of George Washington.

© Département de la Haute-Loire
© Département de la Haute-Loire

Each room in the château, which is now a museum, features references to the first president of the United States. From busts to portraits, Washington is everywhere! “He was like a father to Lafayette,” says Claire Pratviel, the museum’s tour guide. “Our treasure room boasts a beautiful gold ring encrusted with a lock of George Washington’s hair. The future president gifted it to the marquis as a sign of their profound friendship.” The two men were so close that the American agreed to be the godfather of the marquis’ son, who was naturally named Georges Washington de Lafayette!

America Flies to the Rescue

The history of the château is American in more ways than one. In 1916, a group of U.S. philanthropists known as the French Heroes LaFayette Memorial Fund bought the derelict edifice and set about renovating and modernizing it. The new features included fire alarms, running water, electricity, and even a swimming pool and an elevator! “The fund contributed a number of North American trees to the estate alongside the three-hundred-year-old oak tree planted by Lafayette’s grandfather,” says the guide. “Today there are around 100 different species.”

© Département de la Haute-Loire

A sanatorium and an orphanage were also built. From 1917 through 1960, the site welcomed more than 25,000 French, Russian, Italian, and Polish children. The château now belongs to the Haute-Loire département and continues to honor the marquis’ memory. By flying the tricolor and the stars and stripes side by side, the site strives to be one of the living symbols of French-American friendship as upheld by its illustrious former owner, the “hero of both worlds.”

Article published in the June 2020 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.