Tour To Show That French Settlement Here Was Close To Reality
By Rick Hiduk
The legend of French Azilum is one of the most enduring elements of Bradford County’s history, but few high school students get beyond the basics of what might have happened on the pastoral peninsula now know as Asylum Township to come to the realization of just how close the area was to being not just influenced but dominated by colonial-era French culture.
When the poorest people of France revolted against their monarchy in the late 1700s, anybody there with a modicum of wealth was considered to be part of the corruption and therefore subject to death by guillotine. According to French Azilum Historic Site manager Marguerite Fox Picou, a group of upper middle class French reached out to Pennsylvania colonists Robert Norris and John Nichols, who were receptive of taking in French refugees. “The French helped support our revolution against the British monarchy, so it seemed fitting to assist them,” Picou stated.
On Sunday, Aug. 7, Picou and other French Azilum staff members will guide visitors on special tours slated for 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. that will dig deeper into the French revolutionary history than is explored during regular tours of the site. Each Deep Down History Tour will begin at the quiet intersection of French Asylum and Queen’s Roads, which served as the market square for a village of French settlers who never saw the influx of their countrymen for whom they were preparing a Utopian-type society.
“French Azilum was one of the original planned developments in America, even though it was never completed,” Picou explained. The river was still the primary mode of transportation when the first French settlers arrived at the site in the early 1790s, and streets were designed to take people like spokes of a wheel from the river to various parts of the village, including the square, where there were several shops and bistros, a church, and craftsmen at work. “This really was a heavy crossroads,” Picou said of the intersection that is now flanked by cornfields and a monument erected in 1916 by descendants of the original settlers who were then being called to fight against the Germans alongside fellow Americans at the dawn of the first world war. The monument, she noted, was more of an act of historic preservation than one of civic pride.
“They had to wonder, ‘What if we don’t make it back? Who will know that we and our ancestors were here?’” Picou related. “This monument articulates the important people who were here.” The stone and its corroded marker were rededicated in 2010. In addition to depicting the plight of French Royalists and their supporters and famous Frenchmen who visited the village, the monument also acknowledges that French refugees from slave uprisings and a yellow fever outbreak in French-controlled Haiti were among its settlers.
The settlement was ill-fated from the start, Picou continued. Marie Antoinette was beheaded in 1793, and many of the refugees never made it past Philadelphia, then the nation’s capitol and largest city, where deaths from yellow fever were rampant.
“Yellow fever was a larger player here than what people are aware,” Picou related. Authorities at the time were under the impression that the mosquito-born virus was contained to Philadelphia, but such was not the case. One of Picou’s ancestors died of yellow fever in Towanda.
The Deep Down History Tour will also include a walk to the LaPorte family cemetery, where several of the original settlers and their descendants are interred. The plot contains one large lichen-tinged monumental stone and about a dozen smaller grave markers that are surrounded by a wrought iron fence. The cemetery sits in the middle of a field owned by current French Asylum farmer Ronald Yanney, who maintains access through the tall cornstalks to it for French Azilum Historic Site. The LaPorte family had a 420-acre farm there at one time, and their neighbors, the Homets (pronounced O-May), farmed the adjacent land and established a ferry across the Susquehanna River.
Tour guides will direct visitors to an area called “the Green” next. Although the area is currently maintained as a grassy area, Picou uses the open space as a metaphor for the lack of “creature comforts” awaiting the French settlers.
“It was an uncharacteristic lifestyle for them,” Picou said of the conditions the new settlers endured during the first few years. The French didn’t do manual labor, she noted, so they hired locals to build crude huts for them, to which they later added wallpaper and windows. The French colonists started planting their first crops in the spring of 1794.
Many additional tidbits of history will be shared with Deep Down guests on Aug. 7 at the aforementioned points and four additional stations. Picou invites participants to preregister by phone or email at 570-265-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The two-hour walking tour does cover a considerable amount of ground and open area, so guests are encouraged to wear sturdy shoes, sunblock, and a hat. Cost for the tour is set at $5 per person. French Azilum can be reached via Route 187 from its intersection with Route 6 in Wysox Township or from its intersection with Wyalusing-New Albany Road across the river from Wyalusing Township.