Asylum "A Paris in the Wilderness"

by Rebecca Geoffroy


Works Cited


On the Susquehanna River, about twenty five miles north of Wilkes-Barre and only eight miles from Towanda, Pennsylvania, is a tract of open farmland sometimes referred to as "Frenchtown". Today, a home built in the early nineteenth century and two small log huts stand there. The structures are not far from the river at the base of picturesque, rocky mountains. This is all that remains of a late eighteenth century French colony called Asylum.1 The colony received its name because it was meant to be an asylum for the émigrés fleeing the death and destruction of the French Revolution. The most important émigré to take asylum here was supposed to be the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. She never reached her asylum, and the colony planned for her was not long-lived. Despite Asylum's small place in history, merely a decade, prominent Pennsylvanians and Frenchmen worked together to make the colony a reality and it is an interesting chapter in Pennsylvania history.

Founders of Asylum and The Asylum Company

Although the colony was meant to be an endeavor by French émigrés, prominent Pennsylvanians had considerable involvement in both the inception and maintenance of Asylum. Many Americans felt a strong connection to the French and their struggle for liberty. American involvement in this particular French settlement had more to do with financial gain than political beliefs. Senator Robert Morris and Pennsylvania Comptroller General John Nicholson created the Asylum Company in April 1793. The company's Articles of Agreement laid out the business plan for an area that would consist of one million acres covering a large part of what are today Bradford, Sullivan, and Lycoming counties. The site of Asylum was a small fraction of this area, only sixteen hundred acres, but the company intended to sell the remaining land to future French émigrés. Without the financial support of Morris and Nicholson, Asylum would not have been possible. The businessmen's financial risks and eventual bankruptcy, however, were also part of the colony's demise.

Two Frenchmen and one Irish-born Englishman took part in the deliberations that led to the formation of The Asylum Company-Louis Marie the Vicomte de Noailles, Antoine-Omer Talon, and John Keating. De Noailles was of royal blood, brother-in-law of the Marquis de Lafayette, and known as "the most exquisite dancer in the gay court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette"2. He was a prominent member of the French army, organizing several regiments, becoming commander, and eventually a well-known colonel. When armies were necessary in the colonies, De Noailles jumped at the opportunity and went to the Antilles sometime before 1778. After this he traveled to mainland America and commanded troops at Yorktown, gaining the favor of General Washington. De Noailles returned to France after the American Revolution and worked closely with the royal family while still holding republican ideals. He was a member of the Constitutional and National Assemblies. On May 4, 1792, however, his belief in republicanism was not enough to spare him from the Parisian mob, so he escaped to England and became an émigrés. Eventually he emigrated to Philadelphia where he became a business partner of Mr. William Bingham, a prominent merchant, U.S. Senator, and one of the richest men in Philadelphia. 3

M. Talon was also born in France, and although not royalty, he was a member of a family who was "illustrious in the practice of law"4. He was also descended from Frenchmen who helped build the French colony in Canada. As opposed to De Noailles, Talon was a strict royalist. During the beginning of the French Revolution Talon was civil lieutenant of the prison of the Chétlet and chief justice of the Criminal Court of France. He was associated with planning for the king's escape to Varennes, and subsequent failed escape plans. Because of his involvement with the royal family, Talon was forced to flee to Marseilles, England, and eventually Philadelphia. During this journey he met Laporte, a Frenchman whose descendents would play an integral role in the Asylum colony. In Philadelphia, Talon made the acquaintance of and befriended De Noailles5. John Keating was from an English Catholic family who was forced into Ireland by Oliver Cromwell. He decided to serve in the French army and was sent to Martinique and later the United States. Eventually he was sent to Santo Domingo. When revolutionary stirrings began there, Keating resigned and moved to Philadelphia. It is unknown how Keating made the acquaintance of De Noailles and Talon.6

Two agents were hired to explore the North Branch of the Susquehanna River, Charles Felix Bué Boulogne and Major Adam Hoops. Boulogne was experienced in exploring the frontiers of North America and founded French settlements on Indian land in New York. Hoops was familiar with the Susquehanna Valley after taking part in the invasion of Iroquois country in 1779 by Sullivan's army. With Boulogne's previous settlement experience and Hoops' knowledge of the Susquehanna Valley, the two were prepared to explore the wild lands of Pennsylvania.

Boulogne and Hoops traveled to regions around Harrisburg in the summer of 1793. At that settlement, they reached the Susquehanna River and boated to Wilkes-Barre. Boulogne and Hoops arrived in Wilkes-Barre on August 27, 1793, and met with Judge Matthias Hollenback, a businessman who opened trading posts along the river. One prominent post was Tioga Point, about twenty-five miles above Wilkes-Barre. The judge played a prominent role in shipping supplies to Asylum as it was being built and once it was settled. Boulogne and Hoops presented letters from Mr. Morris to Judge Hollenback to explain their business endeavor:

Should Mr. Boulogne find it necessary to purchase provisions or other articles in your neighborhood for the use of himself and his company, I beg you will assist him therein, or should you supply him yourself and take his draft on this place, you may rely that they will be paid, and I will hold myself accountable. Any service it may be in your power to render this gentleman, or his companions, I shall be thankful for, and remain

               Sir Your Ob't Servant,

                    ROBERT MORRIS 7

After this, the two men ventured up the Susquehanna, where "their explorations began."8 The only method of traveling toward the men's destination was the river. They traveled for days against a difficult current. Finally, Boulogne and Hoops came to a place known to white settlers as Standing Stone and to American Indians as Missicum, the "Meadows".9 The reason for choosing this location is painted romantically by T. Wood Clarke in émigrés In The Wilderness:

Near a place known as Standing Stone, from a great rock which arose on edge forty-four feet above the surface of the water, the river took a gigantic horseshoe bend. The inside of this horseshoe, lying on the west bank of the river, was a great level space of rich alluvial soil, four square miles in area. Behind the neck of the peninsula the hills rose abruptly. A spot of surpassing beauty, close to the river, isolated by the surrounding mountains, with fertile soil already under cultivation, it seemed ideal for the planting of a new Paris in the wilderness-a place where French émigrés, both high and low, could find a home far from the turmoil of the American cities. Here, surrounded by the beauties of nature, they could forget the horrors of their recent life in France.10

One problem existed, however, with the settlement of Asylum. The area of land had been disputed between Pennsylvania and Connecticut for decades. Although Congress had settled the claim in favor of Pennsylvania in 1786, the settlement also guaranteed Connecticut settlers possession of their land- who owned what land remained in dispute for well over two decades. The Asylum Company was caught in the middle of this long-lived controversy.11 In order to please all parties while still obtaining its desired land, the Asylum Company would have to buy rights of all the claimants. Here, Judge Hollenback stepped in to aid Mr. Morris. Judge Hollenback purchased the land rights from Connecticut settlers and Mr. Morris from the Pennsylvanians. The two men paid from $133 to $800 for the lots. Through this and other transactions, the Asylum Company eventually accrued around 125,000 acres of land. There was not much chance for the displaced settlers to demand high prices of their possessions because "in case they had only the Connecticut title, Mr. Morris would alarm them with a writ of ejectment. If they had the Pennsylvania title, Judge Hollenback would show them that their lands were with the boundaries of one of the seventeen townships in which only the Connecticut title was good, and would hold the land."12

On October 9, 1793, Mr. Morris informed Judge Hollenback that the transactions must be completed as soon as possible as the French were eager to begin their settlement:

Whatever you do must be done soon. Winter is approaching, and these gentlemen are extremely anxious to commence the operations necessary to the settlement they intend to make, but they will not strike a stroke until the whole of the lots are secured for them, and unless the whole are obtained they give up the settlement and will go to some other part of America.13

Whether Morris believed this or not, prior to the transactions' completion, Boulogne began building the settlement before the winter of 1794 closed in.14 Boulogne expressed his anxiety about completing the deals with Connecticut and Pennsylvania settlers in a letter to Judge Hollenback on October 9, 1793:

Esq. Hancock had not yet concluded his bargain with Gaylord; and Skinner you know is now of the greatest importance to have it concluded, as well as the one of Ross; otherwise it will stop me here, all at once the gentlemen in Philadelphia being determined to have the whole, or none at all, or to reject the whole purchase from Mr. Morris…I hope you have concluded the whole; and beg of you to say something to me of that account in your letter and explain it well, because of your answer I shall either go on with the buildings or stop them immediately.

I remain with esteem, Yours,

On April 22, 1794, Robert Morris and John Nicholson signed the "Plan of Association of the Asylum Company". Within the plan, Robert Morris is named president of the company and it states that managers will be assigned to the company, as well. In a document reprinted in Elise Murray's history of Asylum, De Noailles, Keating, and Nicholson are named as managers. By May 1, 1795, due to Mr. Morris overstretching his credit, Mr. Nicholson acquired the whole company except the shares that had already been sold in an amendment made to the "Plan of Association of the Asylum Company".16

Originally Mr. Morris saw the Asylum Company as a financially savvy investment: Vast schemes for converting the Susquehanna into an avenue of commerce were on foot at this era. Baltimore was to be linked with the Great Lakes and the Mississippi via its waters. The legislature of Pennsylvania was offering thousands of dollars to whoever would dredge out the rocks which had foiled Captain Smith, nearly two centuries before, at the entrance to the Chesapeake. Guilelessly also lotteries were authorized to pay for building bridges and inter-connecting canals.17

Unfortunately this plan was never seen through because the river was never truly navigable. Had it been, Mr. Morris and Asylum's fortunes could have been very different.

Building Asylum

Boulogne began laying out a town plot in 1793 that covered three hundred acres. Five streets were constructed from north to south, and nine running east to west. In the center of these streets was a space of two acres cleared as a marketplace. The streets were all sixty feet in width, except for the main street from the river to the marketplace, which was one hundred feet wide. Careful surveying was done of the area and 413 lots of one half acre each were marked out. Boulogne and his workmen, who were mostly hired from Tioga Point and Wilkes-Barre, also began building log houses. The American settlers were baffled by their extravagance. Most elaborate was "la grande maison" (the grand house), supposedly constructed for Marie Antoinette after her projected escape from France. These claims are unverified, yet many settlers believed this was built as her refuge. The house was eighty-four feet long and sixty feet wide, two stories high (although by some accounts three) with eight fireplaces. The queen, of course, never used this house and construction with that purpose was stopped when the news of her death reached the settlement. The house was completed as an inn and served many social purposes during the decade Asylum flourished.

Supplies for building were sent from Wilkes-Barre by boat, a five-day journey. The houses were large for the area, in keeping with the desires of the French aristocrats who hoped to settle there. They consisted of two stories, with chimneys, fireplaces, glass windows, and wide porches. A number of these houses were built before winter. Franklin stoves and stovepipes were shipped to the settlement, as well, so Boulogne and his men were able to spend their first winter at Asylum fairly comfortably. By the spring 1795, thirty log houses were constructed and soon shops, a sawmill, a smith, several inns, a schoolhouse, a chapel, and a theater emerged.

The émigrés and Their Guests

The émigrés began to travel from Philadelphia in the spring of 1794, when the "Plan of Association" was official. A citation describing the emigrants in A Short History of Asylum Pennsylvania states "some were of noble birth; several had been connected with the King's household; a few belonged to the Secular clergy, i.e. had not assumed monastic vows; some had been soldiers; others keepers of cafes, or restaurants, and merchants."18 Unfortunately, these Frenchmen were lacking people who had experience on cultivating the land and raising animals. These members of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie wanted to maintain a lifestyle they had lost in France, and it was unlikely that this would be possible. Some of the few who had money were able to keep servants, while emigrants from Santo Domingo were unable to keep their slaves because of Pennsylvania laws. Other emigrants opened shops as an alternative to farming.19

Asylum had infamous emigrants such as Aristide Aubert Dupetit-Thouars who was born in Chéteau de Bounoi, France, in 1760. He served in the French Navy during the American Revolution, losing his arm in battle. He later charted an ill-fated expedition that ended on Fernando de Noronha Island off the east tip of South America. The island's governor sent him to Lisbon where he remained in prison until August 1793 when Dupetit-Thouars sailed for Philadelphia. He was an acquaintance of De Noailles and became an overseer of workmen at Asylum. At the settlement, he was affectionately called "the admiral". The admiral moved from the settlement once his work overseeing was finished. He moved twenty miles down the Loyal Sock to what is now known as Dushore, Pennsylvania. The town's name comes from the American settlers' mispronunciation of the admiral's last name, Dupetit-Thouars. He cleared land for himself single handedly and walked to Asylum each Saturday for weekly supplies.20

Other emigrants included M. Buzard, a physician from Santo Domingo, M. Laporte who became Talon's confidential agent, the Marquis de Blécons and M. Colin who opened a haberdasher shop, M. Beaulieu who opened an inn, and M. Aubrey who became a blacksmith. Unfortunately, M. Aubrey went to Philadelphia for surgery and never returned to his shop.21 Some emigrants did, however, choose to become farmers including "a M. Dandelot, an officer in the French army, and M. Carles, late canon of Guernsey, who, while cultivating his farm, also served as rector of the little log chapel around which the religious life of the colony centered."22

Although the émigrés were surviving in Asylum, reports indicate that they longed for France and were thrilled to have guests that reminded them of home. There are stories of many prominent Frenchmen visiting Asylum including Charles Maurice Talleyrand, the Duc de Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, and the Duc d'Orléans, future Louis Philippe, King of France. Charles Maurice Talleyrand was a French bishop who became president of the National Assembly, but was later ex-communicated from the Church and exiled from France. Once Napoleon became Directorate, Talleyrand returned to France becoming a minister to both Napoleon and Louis Philippe. Louis Philippe traveled around Europe, America, and the Caribbean for many years during his exile before returning to Europe and being accepted back into his country. He became king after the 1830 French Revolution.23

For entertainment, the French settlers enjoyed picnics and boating in the summer and sleighing parties in the winter. They also held dances and plays throughout the year. At such festivities, clothing included satin knee breeches, colorful coats, and buckled shoes. The American settlers were in awe of the lavish French lifestyle.24 Judge Jonathan Stevens, an American from the area, described their "amusements" and daily schedules in the summer:

Their amusements consisted of riding, walking, swinging, music, (and perhaps dancing), and some times they passed their time with cards, chess, or the back gammon board. In their manners, they were courteous, polite, and affable. In their living they followed their French customs. Breakfast late, on coffee, fresh meat, bread and butter. Dinner at 4 o'clock. Drank best wine or brandy after dinner, ladies and gentlemen who chose, drank tea in the evening. (I speak of the wealthy). They were able to command the best of everything. One of their American choppers, or log cutters, stated that he was directed to fall a tree across a big stump so that when it was trimmed and the top cut off, it would balance like a pair of scales, and make a splendid teeter. Four or five persons could sit on each end, eight, or ten could enjoy the pleasure at the same time. The same chopper states that several times he was sent a mile to cut tress that obscured a perfect view up and down the river.25

Judging by their amusements, the Frenchmen he described were accustomed to life at the French court. This past made it inevitable that they could not enjoy a future in Asylum. Still, they attempted to make the colony as luxurious as possible as they waited for an opportunity to return to France.

Leaving Asylum

Despite the attempt to build a colony suitable for the luxurious tastes of French nobles, Asylum did not keep the colonists' interest. They often traveled to Philadelphia and Niagara, only to come back to their little settlement even more aware of what it was lacking. Within a few years, the French were tired of working the land and hired Americans to do their labor. The Americans took advantage of this opportunity, and significantly overcharged the French colonists. "As time went on [the French] grew to hate the work, the monotony, and the sordid hopelessness of their life at Asylum… Nostalgia had the colony in its grip."26 During Asylum's decade-long existence, one colonist committed suicide and many died of accidents or sickness. The colonists longed for an opportunity to return to their homeland in peace, with their prosperous lifestyles restored.

    In 1795, Robert Morris went into debt and was forced to give presidency of the Asylum Company over to John Nicholson. Three years later, Morris landed in debtor's prison. The holdings of the company were at a quarter of a million acres. Although Asylum was a thriving colony, the other lands of the company to the west were inaccessible and found no purchasers.27 Morris and Nicholson combined were $10 million in debt. Costs became higher to live in Asylum and the colonists' incomes from France were cut off. Financial difficulty was prevalent for both the colonists and the colonies' financiers.28

The death or desertion by some of the communities' prominent members also contributed to its demise. In 1796, Boulogne, who made valiant efforts to build and maintain the colony, was drowned in the Loyal Sock. In 1797, Talon went to Europe in order to pursue another agricultural land development called The Ceres Company. John Keating was then given Talon's power of attorney. Talon never returned to Asylum and died insane and imprisoned in 1811. Clarke explains the culmination of these difficulties for the colonists:

The death of these two leading spirits, the precarious financial situation caused by the bankruptcy of Nicholson as well as Morris, and the loss of much of their property through foreclosure procedures made the colony by the beginning of the nineteenth century a sorry place. Dividends had stopped, improvements had been slighted, road building had been given up and the existing roads were being neglected. The inhabitants, thoroughly sick of hard work, were drifting…Discouraged, hopeless and unhappy, the isolated settlers moped, complained, and waited for something to happen.29

In 1802, the colonists' wish came true. The postman from Wilkes-Barre arrived delivering important news-Napoleon Bonaparte assumed power in France and invited all French emigrants to return home, promising restoration of their estates. First hand accounts claim that colonists were laughing, dancing, singing, crying, and hugging after hearing the news of their ability to return. "Men hugged and kissed each other to the profound astonishment of American beholders. Some days were spent in feasting and then most of them commenced making preparations to leave Pennsylvania woods for their beloved France."30

Only a few French families stayed including the Homets, Laportes, LeFevres, Keatings, Brevosts, and D'Autremonts. All of these families remained well-known names in the region.31 Laporte and Homet bought most of the town properties and were prosperous farmers there. Some sources claim Laporte lived in la grande maison until 1846 when it was torn down. He still owned the property at this point and continued to sell it piece by piece.32 Others claim that on March 4, 1843, the remaining unsold lands were sold to William Jessup of Susquehanna County who then sold the lands to Michael Meylert of Laporte.33

The Asylum Company itself was a failure. In 1819, a catalogue of the lands and stocks of the Asylum Company was published. According to the twenty-first article of the "Plan of Association" the Company would be dissolved in fifteen years and all remaining shares would be sold at auction after being advertised in a prominent Pennsylvania newspaper for six months. The catalogue details immense amounts of land that were never sold. This explains the difficult debt both Robert Morris and John Nicholson encountered after their investment in the company.34

Asylum Today 

Today, all that remains of the efforts of Morris, Nicholson, De Noailles, and Talon to build a great French city on the banks of the Susquehanna River is a small settlement of a dozen houses with five farms and a church, known as Frenchtown, and a large boulder bearing a bronze plate in what was to have been the central square of the city of visions.35

The boulder was erected and dedicated on June 14, 1969 and reads:


The colony benefited the little area on the Susquehanna River-transportation was improved, new industries were created, better breeding of animals developed, and more hard metals were introduced to the area. Aside from these developments, the French colonists showed the Americans new styles of building, dress, dining, and entertainment. More important than the culture and innovations brought to Asylum were the Pennsylvanians who actively participated in making this colony a reality. Despite their short time in Asylum, these French colonists and their Pennsylvania partners created a legacy that has been passed down through the history of Pennsylvania-Asylum, a Paris in the wilderness for Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France.