At times, we Americans have uncertain views of wealth, privilege and the line drawn between those who need a nation’s compassion or deserve its criticism. What would you think if you got the following letter from man alive in 1794 Pennsylvania?
“My name is Rufus. I’m a freight hauler in northern Pennsylvania. As a young man I fought for independence during the Revolutionary War. I was wounded at the battle of Brandywine and have a strong bitterness toward all members of the royal class. Now, I’ve been contracted to deliver supplies to Azilum, a settlement colonized by the nobility who cheated death during the French revolution.
You see, as repayment for the contribution of French nobles during the American Revolution, a one-million acre site was set aside as a place of refuge for those who escaped the guillotine in France. In other words, since they helped us years ago, we’re going to help them now. The land the government gave them is fertile, bordered on three sides by the bends of the Susquehanna River. Now, I know that these refugees all made a dangerous journey to America. They left everything behind except for a few possessions. However, they seem to be thriving now.
Driving through Azilum, I noticed that almost 200 logs buildings were transformed into homes, shops, inns, schools, a church, theater and more. I took a peek into the shops and saw musical instruments, perfumes, wine and jewelry for sale along with farming tools, seed and many other goods. I must admit that I was surprised to see noblemen working in the fields as if they were common men who appreciate the chore of tilling the soil. Near the center of town, workers were busy building a huge structure. One man told me that they are building a grand mansion from logs for their queen, Marie Antoinette. They’re all praying that she will be lucky enough to escape death.
As I unloaded my wagon, I heard about parties or recitals planned for the evening. I shook my head and frowned. At the riverbank, I noticed some people dressed in silk suits and gowns. They were gathered for an afternoon picnic held on an island in the river. Musicians waited for boats that were rowed to the island by black slaves dressed in frills. Enough is enough. I know that the French nobles helped us win our independence, but the presence of these comfortable nobles makes me mad. I gritted my teeth and put my calloused hand on my waist where King George’s lead pierced my flesh. I want no royalty in my new nation. I can only hope that most of those nobelmen will leave their refuge in the wilderness once the trouble in France ends. But just then a funny thing happened. Just as my anger reached its peak, I heard the horrible wailing of two women who got word that their loved ones were killed by the guillotine. As they pulled their children into their arms and cried pitifully, I took my hand away from my scar. I suppose that the price of freedom and any change is often pain. Pain for us. Pain for them. So, I just delivered my goods, collected my pay and went back home to the land that I won.”
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this little glimpse into the past and will visit here for future postings. Also, FYI, a story in my collection, The GUIDE, is set in French Azilum. In the story AZILUM, the life of a young nobleman is saved by a mystical occurrence. You may also visit the museum in northern Pennsylvania devoted to this odd piece of our history. In the meantime, for more historical fact and fiction, please visit www.yoreamerica.com. See you there. Kathy Lonetto