This post was written by cataloger Catherine Falzone.
If Marie Antoinette had survived the French Revolution, she might have come to live in the Pennsylvania woods. The American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC) contains documents from the founding of Asylum (or Azilum), the French refugee settlement located in Pennsylvania that was intended for the French royals.
After the French Revolution began and the royal family had been discovered escaping to Varennes in 1791, Louis de Noailles (brother-in-law of the Marquis de Lafayette) and Antoine Omer Talon, both loyal to the king, plotted to smuggle the royal family out of Paris. After Louis XVI was imprisoned in August 1792, Noailles and Talon began to plan a community in America for French exiles.
Noailles purchased a tract of land from American financier Robert Morris (1734-1806) and John Nicholson (1757-1800), his partner in land speculation. The two had bought thousands of acres of land in Pennsylvania, but had been having a hard time attracting settlers. Noailles and Talon hired Charles Bué Boulogne, a French lawyer who had been acting as land agent in America for other French buyers, to find a suitable place for a settlement. They found it on the banks of the Susquehanna River, in present-day Bradford County, Pa., near the landmark called “Standing Stone.” Morris and Matthias Hollenback, a Wilkes-Barre judge and trading post operator, worked to secure the deeds for the Asylum Company.
The two letters in the AHMC from Boulogne to Hollenback—dated October 3, 1793, and June 19, 1794— are evidence of the work that went into planning the community. In the first letter, Boulogne writes that he has received tables, sashes, and frames, and would like the rest to be forwarded. In the second, he is trying to manage the luggage of John Keating (an Irish-born land manager employed by Morris) and Noailles and to have items delivered from Hollenback’s store.
In 1794, French aristocrats and bourgeoisie arrived in the Pennsylvania wilderness, bringing their refined notions of landscape design and architecture to the backwoods, to the amusement of local farmers. Most of the new settlers had never engaged in any farming or physical labor and relied on Americans, who sometimes took advantage of their ignorance by overcharging.
The jewel in the crown of Azilum was the three-story log house called the “Queen’s House” or “La Grande Maison,” intended for Marie Antoinette and her children. However, unbeknownst to the French émigrés, she had already been executed on October 16, 1793. They probably did not learn of her death until the spring of 1794, when the House and other buildings were already well underway. In spite of this disappointment, followed by news of the Dauphin’s death in 1795, development continued.
But Azilum did not even last ten years. Due in part to the economic downturn of 1796-1797, the difficult setting, and the loss of some of its leaders, the settlement gradually declined in population; the final blow came in 1803 with Napoleon’s loosening restrictions on exiles returning to France. In 1809 a traveler described the town as a ruin.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.