Visit French Azilum, where nobles fled to the wilderness of the PA | Trip
One of the most unusual chapters in Pennsylvania history sits inside a horseshoe bend in the Susquehanna River, plowed by well-spaced farm fields.
But 228 years ago, a strange little village was born out of the wilderness of what today is known as the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. About fifty aristocratic families fleeing the French Revolution escaped the guillotine by settling in a pop-up town called French Azilum (pronounced Ahz-EYE-lum). They were joined by wealthy French people from Santo Domingo (now Haiti) when the people they had enslaved rebelled against them.
The refugees even designed a large mansion intended to house Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI, and their children, but she lost her mind before construction began.
Still the Big House stood, a striking three-story building with marble floors, patio doors and patio doors, and black walnut woodwork. In the queen’s absence, it housed municipal directors and distinguished guests, including Louis-Philippe, who later became King of France. It was demolished in 1848.
About fifty far from rustic two-story houses were built on half-acre land between 1793 and 1803, each with two reception rooms, two bedrooms, a wine cellar and a dining room connected by a covered passage to a kitchen.
Although it was a modest community by aristocratic standards, it was almost the size of the county seat, Towanda.
The local German and English settlers nicknamed the French Azilum “the Versailles of the Susquehanna”. They kept the reference to themselves because many of them were hired to work in the village and take care of the fields for the transplanted nobles. Some refugees from Santo Domingo brought with them slaves who lived in a slum by the river.
Approximately 413 lots were planned on 300 acres of the 1,600 acre property, with straight and wide streets. The hope was that of a self-sufficient city. But, after only a decade, French sources of money dried up and the Philadelphians who designed the city went bankrupt.
When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and welcomed expatriates to France, most French families abandoned the city, selling their homes to locals for use as building materials.
Many returned to France. Others headed for cities in the southern United States with large French populations, such as New Orleans and Charleston. Only four families remained and took root: Homet, LaPorte, LeFèvre and Brevost.
All but one excavated wine cellar are gone, and if you are visiting French Azilum you will have to use your imagination to imagine the scene, much like visiting a battlefield. With the exception of the 22 acres owned by the French nonprofit Azilum, almost all of the land is on a handful of large and beautiful farms.
After only a decade of existence, this strange nugget of Pennsylvania lore quickly faded from sight and memory so completely that even current historian Deborah DeBilly dit Courville – who traces her ancestry to medieval French King Louie VII – had never heard of French Azilum when she moved to the area 31 years ago from Massachusetts.
“It’s the best kept secret,” said Courville, now completely thrilled and well versed in all things French Azilum. She has written two historical novels set in the short-lived colony and is the association’s treasurer and events coordinator.
After a brief takeover by the state, the all-volunteer private company French Azilum, Inc. was formed in 1988 to resuscitate consciousness. They open the site for three visits per day, Friday through Sunday, Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Creative living history classes have included open hearth cooking, themed teas, and blacksmithing. There is even a French flag fluttering along the river to attract the attention of passing paddlers, with brochures for their edification.
Any visit to French Azilum should start across the Susquehanna, on a ridge where the group owns the Marie Antoinette Overlook, along US Route 6. The wide lookout was built in the 1920s and improved in the 1930s by the Depression Era Works Progress Administration.
Here, 500 feet above the river, you can see the entire horseshoe loop that the early Iroquois inhabitants called “the meadows.” The Iroquois used the lookout site as a signaling point. The mountains rise slowly towards the southwest.
Although the French Azilum was built in a wilderness, it was strategically located with two sides facing the Susquehanna curve, the main highway for moving and receiving goods at the time. Thus, the wealthy members of the village could have the furniture and materials to which they were accustomed to be shipped by barge.
At the viewpoint is a large panel with a photo of the scene below, covered with the locations of the now-defunct monuments of French Azilum, including La Grande Maison and the market square, which included a Catholic church, of small shops, a school and a theater.
While it lasted, the town also supported a flour mill, smithy, distillery, gardens, orchards and farms.
After exploring the land, visitors can drive a 20-minute drive across the river to the French site of Azilum and its grass parking lot. The visitor center is a small hut – built at the same time as the village, but not originally located there and not architecturally representative of the houses of French Azilum.
Here you can watch a video explaining the history of French Azilum and see some artifacts recovered during an archaeological dig.
You will learn that the idea of the French Refugee Retreat was invented by three prominent Philadelphia businessmen, Robert Morris, John Nicholson, and Stephen Girard, who saw money to be made. Many Philadelphians believed the city was already overrun by the French, dating back to the American Revolution itself, Courville said. “I think the feeling in Philadelphia was ‘enough of these people, send them somewhere else.’” So they sent them to the Susquehanna.
At first, the entrepreneurs called the new retreat in French “Asile”, but thought it over and adopted the French spelling of the word – lest there be any confusion over the type of place they were building. .
There was a cultural divide between the French refugees and their neighbors. “[The local people] thought they were snobs and maybe they were inappropriate, but there was no animosity, ”Courville said.
The visible focal point of the French park of Azilum is Maison LaPorte, built in 1836 where La Grande Maison once stood. It was built by John LaPorte, the son of Bartholomew LaPorte, a French resident of Azilum origin and one of its leaders.
John LaPorte, who was born at La Grande Maison, went on to become a prominent citizen of the state, serving as banker, judge, lawyer, state senator, and then member of the United States Congress. A neighboring town is named Laporte in his honor.
He had fond childhood memories of growing up in French Azilum. When he decided to build a summer residence, he chose to build on the vacant city site. Generations of LaPorte have lived there for over 100 years. A small, wrought-iron fenced-in family cemetery, which includes John LaPorte’s resting place, sits roughly where the center of the Market Square once stood. LaPortes’ summer house with a white picket fence facing the river was supposed to impress. Upon entering the riverside, guests were greeted by a butler and ushered into one of the two function rooms.
Although built long after the French Azilum, you’ll find furniture here, including a game table and inlaid wooden pianoforte, from the original colony. There are artist renderings of La Grande Maison and other houses, as well as a map showing all the lots in the city.
Samples from Courville’s extensive collection of original period clothing are generously sprinkled throughout the house. In the Marie Antoinette Room, for example, you can find realistic figures of the Queen and a servant, both dressed in ball gowns from the late 1700s.
Maison LaPorte is also full of furniture from the century of the family’s existence. On the grounds, you can visit a smithy, a scale house, a stable, a smokehouse, a wagon house and an exhibition of agricultural equipment.
In the courtyard near the summer kitchen is an iron bell. It was used by French settler Joseph Homet, who lived outside French Azilum and operated a ferry and a mill. The bell was used to signal the departures of the ferry. There is also a large grinding wheel from the original village on the grounds.
The French Azilum may have disappeared without a trace, but there are still some visible reminders. The nearby towns of Laporte, Asylum, and Dushore, as well as French Asylum Church and Homets Ferry Road – all have names reminiscent of the city time has forgotten.
Cover photo: The French Azilum site in Pennsylvania, located along the Susquehanna River, is seen from a nearby lookout. (Crable ad)