William Penn referred to his undertaking in the New World as a holy experiment. For a century and a half after Penn’s death, Pennsylvania continued to be a proving ground for social ideas, some of which were holy and others unholy experiments.
The broad promises of freedom vouchsafed during the early days of the settlement of Pennsylvania continued to attract groups of people who were trying to work out new ways to life for themselves. During the colonial period of our history we have noted the communal life of the brothers and sisters at Ephrata, and the mystics of the Wissahickon. These early societies were primarily religious organizations. After Independence was won new groups sought the shelter of Pennsylvania hills as a haven from old world troubles.
The French Asylum, 1793-1805
Early in 1793 a group of refugees came to Philadelphia to escape the horrors of the French Revolution. They were Royalists who had escaped from France and from French colonies, seeking shelter in Pennsylvania. As the number of these refugees increased it was decided to establish a separate colony in the northern counties of Pennsylvania. A committee of Philadelphia citizens raised a sum of money to help the Frenchmen purchase lands in Bradford County, south of the present-day Towanda. Aided by Robert Morris, of Philadelphia, and Mathias Hollenback of Wilkes-Barre, the leaders of the French refugees organized the asylum company and secured titles to extensive lands in Bradford, Sullivan, Lycoming, and Luzerene counties, selling these lands to their followers.
There was a great deal of land speculation as many people who never planned to move to the asylum. Those who did actually move into the wilderness found the kind of life unsuited to their tastes. Many of the refugees had been wealthy people in France, accustomed to luxuries which could not be enjoyed deep in Pennsylvania’s woods. In spite of their hardships they managed to build a small settlement and for a period of ten years they continued to cultivate the fields, growing wheat for markets in Wilkes-Barre, flax for their own clothes; maple trees were tapped for sugar; tar was made from pine trees and a beginning was made in the manufacture of potash.
The leaders of the colony were Viscount de Noailles a brother-in-law of Lafayette, and the Marquis Talon, who held important offices under the French King Louis XVI. When the settlement was founded it was hoped that Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, might escape execution and be brought to the asylum as a place of refuge. This hope was destroyed when the unfortunate queen was guillotined by the French Revolutionists.
Early in the 19th century the French exiles learned that Napoleon who had gained control in the affairs of France, invited all royalist refugees to return home. The settlers of the asylum received the news joyfully and most of them abandoned their American centure; some to return to France or the French colonies in the West Indies; a few moved to New Orleans and still others to Philadelphia. After 1805 the colony was completely deserted, the newly built houses were allowed to fall into disrepair and eventual ruin.
Image: Louis-Marie, Vicomte de Noailles, painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1798. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(To be continued)