Saturday, August 27, 2011

French Azilum

As you know My wife and I have recently finished a trip to Western Pennsylvania. While returning we stopped off to see the site of a ghost town called Petroleum Center which in turn perked my interest in “ghost” towns of Pennsylvania. I purchased a book called “Pennsylvania Ghost Towns” by Susan Tassin and was surprised at the number of them. Most were related to some natural resource (coal, lead, lumber, oil etc) in which the town was built with the idea it would only exist as long as the natural resource exist. Others were Forts used for settlers to defend themselves from the Indians. Still others were made a ghost town by a dam being put in and the town was flooded out and is now underwater.

The one I found most interesting due to the uniqueness of it is French Azilum.

Our federal government did not begin to regulate the flow of immigrants until 1875 and there is some question as to if they regulate it today. However in the 1790s three events and subsequent flows of migrants to the United States emerged. First was the French Revolution (1789), second, the Haitian Revolution (1791), and third, the failure of the United Irishmen to win independence for Ireland in the 1790s. The first two had French refugees flooding into the United States, taking up residence in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah, Wilmington (Delaware), New Orleans and numerous other cities. The main French family that comes to mind for Wilmington Delaware would be P. S. du Pont and E. I. du Pont. There is some question however as to rather they were fleeing the French revolution or merely came to America with the French Government knowledge. But other French families arrived here.

Nevertheless, French Azilum was a town created as an escape effort by French nobles fleeing the Revolution. When Comte Louis de Noailles, a French Naval officer, and Omer de Talon, a French nobleman, fled France for fear of execution, they came up with the idea for a settlement by and for refugees.

French Azilum was located on a horseshoe bend along the Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania, at a point about ten miles below Towanda, Pennsylvania. In the autumn of 1793 sixteen hundred acres were acquired, three hundred of which were laid out as a town plot with a two-acre market square, a gridiron pattern of broad streets and 413 lots of about one-half acre each.

Those fleeing the French revolution and coming to America numbered between ten and fifteen thousand and mostly they settled in the coastal towns such as Philadelphia. Some however went further west to Azilum. The French revolution refugees were in two waves with the first being the elite classes who feared that their wealth, status, and privileged positions were lost (but not their heads) and the second wave consisted of patriotic and intellectual nobles and the middle classes who had supported them.

The second group of French refugees to go to Azilum were from Santo Domingo,(Haiti) when between 1791-1804, the island of Santo Domingo was shaken by a series of revolutions. Thousands of the inhabitants of the island, both black and white, were murdered in the series of slave rebellions and counter-revolutions that broke out. Hundreds of white aristocracy were guillotined during the reign of terror that followed the rebellions. Most who flee went to Charleston and New Orleans but a few made it to Azilum.

A little over 100 noble settlers set up businesses and produced such goods such as pots, furs, and baskets. In time, several small shops, a schoolhouse, a chapel and a theatre appeared around the market square, along with a gristmill, blacksmith shop and a distillery. Dairying and sheep raising began. Orchards and gardens were planted, and the manufacture of potash and pearl ash. The first Catholic Church in the present day Diocese of Scranton was started. While these nobles lived in the wilderness, basic and independent, some of the luxury goods that they were accustomed to as nobility were brought to Azilum on barges up the Susquehanna River.

After Napoleon Bonaparte gained control of France, he signed a general amnesty on April 26, 1802 that allows all but about 1,000 of the most notorious émigrés of the French Revolution to return to France, as part of a reconciliary gesture to make peace with the various factions of the Ancien Regime that ultimately consolidates his own rule.

Missing all the perks of being noble (afterall what is the point of being noble if you only have what everyone has), many of the occupants of Azilum left in 1803 to return to comfort in France. With a large share of its inhabitants gone, the local economy of Azilum collapsed, causing all the families that stayed behind to disperse. The remaining families either struck it up and moved south, or settled in emerging towns across Northeastern Pennsylvania. By 1804, Azilum was deserted. As time passed the site, and its history, passed into obscurity.

Azilum was largely abandoned until the 1830s when Rep. John LaPorte, a son of one of the original LaPorte Azilum settlers, returned to the region and built a home and farm there.

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