French Azilum History

Located on a bend in the Susquehanna River near present-day Towanda, Pennsylvania, Azilum provided refuge for a group of French exiles in the autumn of 1793.

Some of the refugees, loyal to the King, left France to escape the horrors of the Revolution; others fled the colony of Santo Domingo (Haiti) to escape the slave uprising there. The French refugees even believed that it might be possible for the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, and her two children to come to Azilum if they got out of France alive. In the plans of the old town there was a house built for the queen, called ‘La Grand Maison.’

Robert Morris, John Nicholson, Stephen Girard and others were sympathetic to the plight of these exiles and also saw an opportunity to profit financially. They formed a land company and purchased sixteen hundred acres to establish Azilum; they also purchased several thousand additional acres over the next few years, extending down to Sullivan County. Three hundred acres were designed as a planned town with a two-acre market square, a gridiron pattern of broad streets, and 413 residential lots of roughly one-half acre each. By the following spring, 30 houses had been built. Although not what the nobles had been used to back in France, many of these houses had chimneys, wallpaper, window glass, shutters and porches. La Grand Maison, the most imposing log structure, was the setting of many of the social gatherings for the colony, and housed Talleyrand and Louis Phillip (future King of the French) as guests. This was also the house that was to be the Queen's.

The duration of the sophisticated French town in the wilderness was brief. Economic factors, including the bankruptcy of Morris and Nicholson, led to the settlement's decline. By the late 1790's many of the French had moved to southern cities or returned to Santo Domingo. In 1803 Napoleon made it possible for the exiles to return to France. A few families, including the LaPortes, remained. These families and their descendants helped to settle nearby communities. None of the almost 100 buildings from Azilum, including houses, a chapel, a theatre and several shops, remains. The town plots were abandoned and absorbed into larger tracts of land that were farmd for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, and sold off to other families in the area. And so, Azilum passed into history.

Today, the historic site contains over twenty acres that were part of the original settlement. Although no structures from the original town survive, an original foundation has been left exposed for public viewing . A reconstructed and relocated log cabin, circa 1790, serves as a small museum with artifacts pertaining to the settlement and a video about the establishment of Azilum. Guided tours of the LaPorte house, the restored house museum, are also available. Visitors can see several outbuildings, part of the LaPorte Farm, and outdoor exhibits as part of their self-guided tour of the site.

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