French Azilum, Inc
RR 2 Box 266, Towanda, PA 18848
About ten miles below Towanda in Bradford County, we wend our way along the Pennsylvania Trail of History to French Azilum, located on a lovely horseshoe bend of the meandering Susquehanna River.
Azilum or Asylum was appropriately named, for it provided a natural setting of undisturbed calm and pastoral serenity for a group of French exiles who settled there in the autumn of 1793.
Some of the refugees, because of their loyalty to the King, had left France to escape imprisonment or death at the hands of the Revolution. Others had fled the French colony of Santo Domingo (Haiti) to escape the carnage of the mulatto and slave uprisings inspired by the declaration of equality of the radical French Assembly. According to an unverified story, even Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, and her two children were to settle here.
Several influential Philadelphians who were sympathetic to the exiles also saw in their plight an opportunity to profit financially. To this end, Stephen Girard, Robert Morris, and John Nicholson, Pennsylvania's comptroller general, abetted the purchase of a large tract of land in the northern wilderness of the State. 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 approximately one-half acre each. By the following spring, about thirty rough log houses had been built.
In time, several small shops, a schoolhouse, a chapel, and a theatre appeared around the market square; dairying and sheep raising were begun; orchards and gardens were planted; a gristmill, blacksmith shop and a distillery were erected; and the manufacture of potash and pearlash was established.
Although the domestic structures were crude, many had chimneys, wallpaper, window glass, shutters, and porches to satisfy the desire for beauty and comfort, and some of the little luxuries and extravagances brought with them from their native lands kept alive the memory of better days.
The most imposing building in the colony was "La Grande Maison", a two-story log structure eighty-four feet long and sixty feet wide. It had numerous small-paned windows and eight large fireplaces, and it has been said, though hardly proven, that it was to be the dwelling of the Queen. It was the scene of many social gatherings, and among its most famous guests were Talleyrand and Louis Phillipe, who was later to become king.
The phantasm of a quasi-aristocratic French court transplanted to a rustic sylvan environment, however, was to be of very short duration. Economic depression set in and money was hard to obtain. Morris and Nicholson went into bankruptcy, and the income which the colony's founders received from French sources stopped.
In the late 1790's many of the emigres drifted away to the southern cities of Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans; some returned to Santo Domingo. Napoleon made it possible for exiles to return to France, and many did. A few families, however, including the LaPortes, Homets, LeFevres, Brevosts, and D'Autremonts, remained in Pennsylvania, and in later years their progeny helped to settle Wysox, Wyalusing, Athens, Towanda, and other communities. Azilum itself soon passed into history.
Of the more than fifty structures erected by the refugees, not one remains. The four hundred-odd half-acre house and garden plots, so carefully planned and then abandoned, were absorbed into larger tracts of farmland and tilled for generations by later occupants.
The aura of the serenity that pervaded French Azilum, however, remains unchanged, and the years have not obliterated all vestiges of the settlement. The millrace and millstones can still be seen at Homet's, traces of the old road that ran over the mountain toward Loyalsock are faintly discernible, and the spring that supplied the water for "La Grande Maison" still issues forth.
The LaPorte house, built in 1836 by the son of one of the founders of the colony. Its delicately painted ceilings and interior decor reflect the French influence, elegance, and refinement of an earlier day
Donations and memorials are always welcome and encouraged. Donations to the French Azilum are always fully tax deductible in the United States
French Azilum, Inc was incorporated in 1954 as a non-profit Public Foundation (with 501 (c)(3) and 509 (a)(2) IRS Status), which manages the French Azilum Historic Site for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).
Donations can be sent to: