Chapter 45: Modern French Colony in Alabama, or the Vine and Olive Colony

Albert James Pickett: HISTORY OF ALABAMA.
(Kindly contributed by William C. Bell)



A Colony of French sought Alabama as an asylum from Bourbon persecution. The winter of 1816 and 1817 found many of these distinguished refugees in Philadelphia. An ordinance of Louis XVIII had forced them from France on account of their attachment to Napoleon, who was then an exile upon St. Helena.

The refugees despatched Nicholas S. Parmentier to the Federal city to obtain from Congress a tract of land in the wild domain of the West, upon which they had resolved to establish a colony. On the 4th March, 1817, Congress authorized the sale of four townships to them, at two dollars per acre on a credit of fourteen years, upon condition that they cultivated the vine and olive. In the meantime, the refugees had entered into a correspondence with intelligent persons of the West, in regard to the soil and climate of different regions. Dr. Brown, of Kentucky, who had traveled in France, and had become much interested in these unhappy people, advised them to settle near the confluence of the Warrior and Tombigby, which they determined to do. Organizing in Philadelphia, the company was found to consist of three hundred and forty allottees, and the land was divided among them; some acquiring a full share of four hundred and eighty acres, and others half and quarter shares, and some not more than eighty acres. April 1818: To each man was also assigned a lot in the town which they were to establish, and also one in the suburbs. Associated with them as assistants were Prosper Baltard A. Mocquart and J. le Francois. George N. Stewart, then a youth of eighteen, and now a distinguished lawyer of Mobile, was their secretary.

The schooner McDonough was chartered, and the commissioners, with many French emigrants, set sail from Philadelphia. Late one evening, in the month of May, this vessel, bearing these romantic voyagers, was seen approaching Mobile Point, in the midst of a heavy gale. Governed by an obsolete chart, the captain was fast guiding her into danger. Lieutenant Beal, commanding at Fort Bowyer, perceiving her perilous situation, fired an alarm gun. Night coming on, and overshadowing both sea and land with darkness, he caused lights to be raised along the shore as guides to the distressed vessel. The wind continuing to increase, she was thrown among the breakers and immediately struck. Signals of distress being made, the noble lieutenant threw himself into a boat, with five resolute men, and with Captain Bourke, formerly an officer. Mounting wave after wave, they reached the wreck about one o'clock in the morning. The wind had somewhat abated, and Beal crowded the women and children into his boat and conducted them safely to shore. The larger number of the colonists remained on board the schooner, which was ultimately saved by being washed into deeper water. Bestowing upon the refugees every attention while they remained at the Point, Beal accompanied them to Mobile and partook of a public dinner, which they gave him in token of their gratitude.

The commissioners remained a few days at Mobile, which was then a small place, with but one wharf, and proceeded up the river in a large barge, furnished by Addin Lewis, the collector of the port. Stopping at Fort Stoddard, they were received with hospitality by Judge Toulmin, to whom they bore letters. June 1818: They next visited General Gaines, then in command of a large force at Fort Montgomery, and the barge then cut across to the Tombigby and landed at St. Stephens -- a place of some size, with refined and lively inhabitants. Discharging the government boat and procuring another barge, the refugees once more began their voyage up the winding and rapid current. July: Camping upon the banks occasionally, and exploring the country around, they at length established themselves temporarily at the White Bluff. A portion of them proceeded to old Fort "Tombecbe," and near there visited Mr. George S. Gaines, who was still United States Choctaw factor, whose table fed the hungry, and whose roof sheltered the distressed. He advised them to make their location in the neighborhood of the White Bluff. John A. Peniers and Basil Meslier, whom the association had despatched to explore the Red river country now arrived. Receiving favorable reports of the country in the Alabama Territory, the association at Philadelphia took measures to colonize it. The west side of the Tombigby belonged to the Choctaws, and the east had recently been in possession of the Creeks. The region where the French emigrants had resolved to establish themselves was an immense forest of trees and canes, interspersed with prairie; and near the present town of Greensboro was Russell's settlement of Tennesseans, and some distance below the White Bluff were a few inhabitants. However, the French continued to arrive in boats by way of Mobile, and cabins were erected about the White Bluff in a rude and scattering manner. Having been accustomed to Parisian life, these people were very indifferent pioneers. Unprovided with wagons and teams, and unacquainted with the shifts to which pioneer people are often compelled to resort, they made but slow progress in subduing the wilds. Provisions of all kinds were remarkably high. They, however, slowly struggled against these difficulties, and endeavored to raise provisions upon small patches, without knowing upon what tract in the grant they were to live in future.

The meridian line was established, and the grant divided into townships and sections. A town was formed at the White Bluff, which, according to the request of Count Real, of Philadelphia, was call Demopolis -- the city of the people.* To secure the river front, two fractional townships were chosen by the commissioners, instead of two entire townships. Emigrants continuing to arrive, great confusion and controversy arose in the selection of lots and tracts of land, while the association at Philadelphia, unacquainted with the localities, were unwisely and arbitrarily planning their own forms of location. Dec. 1819: By a new contract, made between Mr. Crawford, Secretary of the Treasury, and Charles Villar, agent of the association, the lands were sold and the tracts of each person designated. The allotments made at Philadelphia, and ratified by Mr. Crawford, being different from those already made by the settlers, forced the latter to abandon many of their hardearned improvements, and to retire further into the forest. This wretched state of things caused General Lefebvre Desnoettes, who had opened a farm on his Tombigby allotment, to proceed to Philadelphia to adjust these conflicting interests. He succeeded only in securing his own improvements, while the claims of the others were disregarded, and the contract made at Washington was ordered to be enforced. The settlers were then forced to retire upon the lands assigned them in township eighteen, range three east, and township eighteen, nineteen and twenty, in range four east.

* Afterwards it proved that Demopolis was not embraced in the townships of the French grant. An American company purchased it of the United States, at fifty-two dollars per acre.

Among the French emigrants were many distinguished characters. Count Lefebvre Desnoettes had been a cavalry officer, under Bonaparte, with the rank of lieutenant-general. Accompanying Napoleon in his march to Russia, he rode with him in his carriage in his disastrous retreat over the snows of that country. He had served in Spain in many bloody engagements, and was an active participator in the dreadful battle of Saragossa. Vivacious and active, handsome in person and graceful in carriage, he was the most splendid rider of the age in which he lived. His imperial master was so much attached to him, that when forced to abdicate the throne, and about to depart for Elba, and while addressing his weeping and sorrowing officers at Fontainbleau, said: "I cannot take leave of you all, but will embrace General Desnoettes in behalf of you all." He then pressed him to his bosom in the most affectionate manner. Napoleon frequently made him valuable presents, and influenced his cousin, the sister of the celebrated banker, La Fitte, to espouse him. While he was at Demopolis, that lady made an attempt to join him in exile, but being shipwrecked on the coast of England, was forced to return to France. At length, she negotiated with the French government for his return, and, through the influence of her family, succeeded in obtaining permission for him to reside in Belgium. This induced Count Desnoettes, in 1823, to leave Alabama in the ship Albion, which was wrecked upon the coast of Ireland, at Old Kinsale, in view of an immense number of people, who were standing on the cliffs. The distinguished refugee was washed overboard, and the ocean became his grave. While in Marengo county, he often received large sums of money from France, and was the wealthiest of the emigrants. Near his main dwelling he had a log cabin, which he called his sanctuary, in the centre of which stood a bronze statue of Napoleon. Around its feet were swords and pistols, which Desnoettes had taken in battle, together with beautiful flags, tastefully hung around the walls.

M. Peniers, another distinguished emigrant, was a republican member of the National Assembly, and voted for the death of the amiable Louis XVI. He remained about Demopolis, engaged in agriculture, but procuring an appointment of Sub-Agent for the Seminoles, died in Florida, in 1823. Distinguished in France, and honored with many civil appointments, he was at last expatriated for his adherence to the fortunes of Napoleon.

Colonel Nicholas Rooul, a remarkable personage, had been a colonel under Bonaparte, and had accompanied him in his banishment to Elba. When his imperial master left that island, Rooul commanded his advanced guard of two hundred grenadiers upon the march from Caenes to Paris. When this small band was preparing to fire upon the king's troops, under Marshal Ney, who had come to capture the emperor, Bonaparte advanced to the front of the lines, and gave the command to "order arms." Baring his breast to Ney's division, he exclaimed, "If I have ever injured a French soldier, fire upon me." The troops of Ney shouted "Vive la Empereur!" and Bonaparte marched at their head, through the gates of Paris. Colonel Rooul lived several years upon his grant, and, becoming much reduced in circumstances, was forced to keep a ferry at French Creek, three miles from Demopolis -- being accustomed to ferry over passengers himself. Often would the American traveler gaze upon his foreign countenance, martial air and splendid form, and wonder what order of man it was who conducted him over the swollen stream. At this time Rooul, being in the prime of life, was a large, fine-looking man. He was firm and irascible in his disposition, and was a dangerous competitor in any controversy in which he might engage. His wife was a handsome woman, of the Italian style of beauty. She was a native of Naples, and had been Marchioness of Sinabaldi, and maid of honor to Queen Caroline, when Murat was king of that country. She brought with her to Alabama two children by a former husband. In 1824, she left her lonely cabin upon French Creek and followed Colonel Rooul to Mexico, where he engaged in the revolution, and fought with his accustomed fierceness and impetuosity. At length, once more reaching his beloved France, he there for a long time held an honorable commission in the French army.

J. J. Cluis, one of the refugees, cultivated a farm near Greensboro. He had been an aide to Marshal Lefebvre, the Duke of Rivigo, who was afterwards at the head of the police department of Paris. Colonel Cluis was then his secretary. At another time Cluis had the custody of Ferdinand VII., King of Spain, while he was imprisoned by Napoleon near the Spanish frontiers. Like all the other refugees, he found planting the vine and olive a poor business in Alabama, and, having become much reduced in fortune, kept a tavern in Greensboro. He died in Mobile not many years since.

Simon Chaudron, one of the Tombigby settlers, formerly a resident of Philadelphia, where his house was a centre of elegance and wit, was distinguished for his literary attainments. He had been the editor of the "Abeille Americaine," and was a poet of considerable reputation. He delivered a eulogy upon the life and character of Washington before the Grand Lodge of Philadelphia, which was pronounced a splendid effort, both in Europe and in America. He died in Mobile in 1846 at a very advanced age, leaving behind him interesting works, which were published in France.

General Count Bertand Clausel had been an officer of merit throughout Bonaparte's campaigns. During the Hundred Days he commanded at Bordeaux, and making the Duchess of Anglouleme prisoner, released her, for some unknown cause. The general did not occupy his grant, but became a citizen of Mobile in 1821, living on the bay, furnishing the market with vegetables, and driving the cart himself. Returning to France in 1825, he was subsequently made, by Louis Philippe, governor and marshal of Algeria.

Henry L 'Allemand, who had been a lieutenant-general, commanding the artillery of the imperial guard, was an officer of great merit and a man of high character. He married the niece of Stephen Gerard. General Charles L'Allemand, his brother, had also been an officer of distinction in France. Filled with daring and ambitious projects, he employed the following language in writing to his brother: "I have more ambition than can be gratified by the colony upon the Tombigby." This was literally true, for he soon made a hazardous expedition to Texas, collecting followers at Philadelphia and in Alabama. Arriving at Galveston Island, which was shortly afterwards submerged, his people suffered greatly for provisions, and were generously relieved by the pirate, La Fitte. Annoyed by the Indians, and prostrated by disease, in a short time most of the colonists perished, and the establishment failed.

The celebrated Marshal Grouchy was one of the Philadelphia associates. He was a man of middle stature, and had very little, apparently, of the military about him. Not being popular with the refugees, in consequence of his conduct at Waterloo, to which they imputed the loss of that day, he became involved in controversies with them in the American gazettes. He never came to Alabama, but one of his sons, who had been a captain in the French army, settled his grant near Demopolis. The marshal afterwards returned to France and enjoyed honors under the Bourbons.

M. Lackanal, a savant, and member of the academy at the head of the department of public education under the emperor, settled on the bay, near Mobile, in 1819. He was one of those members of the National Assembly of France who voted for the death of Louis XVI. After a long residence in Mobile, he went to France and there died in 1843.

Among all the refugees who sought homes in Alabama, none had passed through more stirring and brilliant scenes than General Juan Rico, a native of Valencia, in Spain, who had been proscribed in that country, upon the return of Ferdinand VII, because he was a republican, and a supporter of the constitution of 1812. An eloquent member of the Cortes and a distinguished officer of the Spanish army, he resisted to the last the invasion of Napoleon. One day, an interesting scene occurred between General Rico and the elegant Desnoettes. Both being invited to dine at Demopolis, the conversation turned upon the campaigns in Spain, when allusion was made to the obstinate and sanguinary siege of Saragossa, where one of them had commanded the troops of France and the other those of Spain. They were now assembled at a hospitable table in an humble cottage in the wilds of Alabama. They had met before, amid the din of arms, arraying their troops against each other, and pouring out rivers of blood, at the head of the best trained troops of Europe, who had figured in the most eventful times of France and Spain. Each had been expelled from his native country, and each had been blasted in his ambitious hopes. Nevertheless, good humor prevailed in the cabin, and the sorrows of all were drowned in wine, amid merry peals of laughter. In 1825, General Rico was recalled to Spain, and, arriving there, again became a member of the Cortes, under his favorite constitution. He met with singular reverses of fortune, was expelled from Spain the second time, became an inhabitant of England, and was again recalled to assist in the government of his country. When he lived in Alabama, he was fifty years of age, and was of a dark complexion. He possessed great energy and decision of character, and was a most excellent farmer. If our limits would permit it, many other interesting persons among the French emigrants might be described.

The principal portion of the French grant lay in Marengo county. This name was proposed by Judge Lipscomb, while a member of the legislature at St. Stephens, in honor of the great battle fought during the French republic. It also extended into the county of Greene, embracing some of the best lands in the vicinity of Greensboro. It has been seen that much difficulty arose among the French about their respective locations, and that three times they lost their improvements. Forced to abandon their settlements in Demopolis, they laid off the town of Agleville, and erected cabins, but the drawing at Philadelphia not embracing this place, they were once more forced to go deeper in the forest. The want of wagons and teams, and the great scarcity of water in the cane brake, induced them to dwell on small allotments, while their more valuable tracts were unoccupied. Owning no slaves, a number of German redemptioners were imported, through the enterprise of Desnoettes, but these people proved a burden and expense, and also disregarded their obligations. The French were less calculated, than any other people upon earth, to bring a forest into cultivation. The provisions which they raised were made at the expense of extravagant hire, and Desnoettes expended over twenty-five thousand dollars in opening and cultivating his farm. In this manner the whole colony, after a few years, became poor, and many were forced to sell their claims to Americans, who soon opened large plantations, and made the earth smile with abundant products. However, a majority of the French still held on to their grants, and, in good faith to the government, entered upon the cultivation of the grape and olive. Importations of plants were often made from Bordeaux, but the newness of the land and the ignorance of the colony in regard to their cultivation, were among the reasons why the experiment failed. The importations frequently arrived out of season, when the vines withered away and the olive seeds became defective. At length, with difficulty, grapes were grown, but they failed to produce even a tolerable wine, because the fruit ripened in the heat of summer. Before the vinous fermentation was completed the acetic had commenced. In 1821 the French planted three hundred and eighty-three olive trees upon the grant, and a large number in 1824. Every winter the frosts killed them down to the ground, but new shoots putting up were again killed by the succeeding winter. The usual mode of planting the grape was at the distance of ten feet in one direction, and twenty in the other. They were trained to stakes and cultivated with cotton.

In addition to the ruinous failure of the vine and olive, the French were continually annoyed by unprincipled American squatters. Occupying their lands, without a shadow of title, they insultingly told the French that they intended to maintain their footing at all hazards. Several law suits arose, and although our Supreme Court decided in favor of the grantees, yet the latter became worn out with controversies, and allowed the intruders in many cases to retain possession for a small remuneration. On the other hand, many honorable Americans purchased their grants for fair considerations, and thus the French refugees were gradually rooted from the soil.

But, in the midst of all their trials and vicissitudes, the French refugees were happy. Immured in the depths of the Tombigby forest, where for several years want pressed them on all sides--cut off from their friends in France -- surrounded by the Choctaws on one side, and the unprincipled squatters and land-thieves on the other -- assailed by the venom of insects and prostrating fevers -- nevertheless, their native gaiety prevailed. Being in the habit of much social intercourse, their evenings were spent in conversation, music and dancing. The larger portion were well educated, while all had seen much of the world, and such materials were ample to afford an elevated society. Sometimes their distant friends sent them rich wines and other luxuries, and upon such occasions parties were given and the foreign delicacies brought back many interesting associations. Well cultivated gardens, and the abundance of wild game, rendered the common living of the French quite respectable. The female circle was highly interesting. They had brought with them their books, guitars, silks, parasols and ribbons, and the village, in which most of them dwelt, resembled, at night, a miniature French town. And then, farther in the forest, others lived, the imprints of whose beautiful Parisian shoes on the wild prairie, occasionally arrested the glance of a solitary traveler. And then, again, when the old imperial heroes talked of their emperor, their hearts warmed with sympathy, their eyes kindled with enthusiasm, and tears stole down their furrowed cheeks.*

* Conversations with George N. Stewart, Esq., of Mobile, who was the secretary of the French Vine Company; also conversations with Mr. Amand Pfister, of Montgomery, whose father was one of the French grantees.

to next chapter
to Contents