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6 The Early Republic, Continued
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Bonapartists in the Mississippi Territory

An unlikely agricultural colony, very different from the religious communities like Rapp's Harmonists, or refugees from religious persecution, like the South Carolina Huguenots, was formed in 1816 out of the refugee Bonapartists, mostly army officers, who had then congregated in considerable numbers in and around Philadelphia. On his second restoration, after the nightmare of the Hundred Days had been dispelled at Waterloo in 1815, Louis XVIII prudently determined to get rid of the more ardent partisans of the emperor, most of them officers of the Grande Armée or political functionaries under Napoleon. Decrees of exile were issued against some, and the fear of official vengeance determined others to leave. Most of them chose to go to the United States, and of these, many chose Philadelphia, not far from where Joseph Bonaparte was spending his exile at Borden-town, New Jersey. How the idea arose and by whom it was directed we do not know, but by late 1816 the French officers in Philadelphia, with various French merchants and politicians, had organized an association with the vague purpose of "forming a large settlement somewhere on the Ohio or Mississippi . . . to cultivate the vine."[30] They called themselves the French Agricultural and Manufacturing So-


ciety and included among their members Joseph Lakanal, one of the regicides of Louis XVI and the reformer of French education under the Revolution. He was sent out to explore the country for suitable sites, and ventured as far as southwestern Missouri on his quest.[31]

The plan soon grew more distinct. The Mississippi Territory was then being highly promoted and rapidly settled. It had, besides, the attraction of lying within the old French territory; Mobile was a French city, and New Orleans was not too remote. They would go, then, to what is now Alabama, where they had been assured that they would find a climate like that of France and a land adapted to the vine and the olive. An agent was sent to Washington to secure a grant of public lands, and in March 1817 Congress obliged by voting them four townships to be paid for at two dollars an acre on fourteen years' credit.[32] The financial arrangement was the same as that made with Dufour in 1802, and no doubt that precedent was consulted. But the scale of all this was much bigger than that of Dufour's project; this was not a family, but a whole community that was to undertake a new enterprise of large-scale winegrowing.

There were 350 members of the group, officially the "French Agricultural and Manufacturing Society," but more often referred to as the "Vine and Olive Association" or the "Tombigbee Association," after the river along whose banks they meant to settle.[33] Their grant extended over 92,000 acres. It was evidently the intention of Congress to make the experiment large-scale and coherent: no individual property titles would be granted until all the property had been paid for, and so, it was hoped, since the colonists thus could not sell their holdings, they would keep at their work. The whole vast tract was meant to remain exclusively French and was to be devoted mainly to vines and secondarily to olives, all tended by "persons understanding the culture of those plants." By the terms of the contract made between the association and the secretary of the Treasury, they were, within seven years of settlement, to plant an acre of vines for each section of land (that is, a total of about 140 acres at a minimum).[34]

Very shortly after receiving their grant, whose exact location was not yet determined, the first contingent of settlers, about 150 in number, sailed for Mobile, from there went up the Tombigbee to its junction with the Black Warrior River, staked their claim, and laid out the town of Demopolis.[35] The affair attracted much attention, and even the English were impressed: a London paper was moved to call the project "one of the most extraordinary speculations ever known even in America."[36] But the whole thing was grandiose, impetuous, and vague—grandiose because it was seriously maintained that the French would supply the nation's wants in wine;[37] impetuous because the would-be planters began settling even before they knew where they were to settle, with disastrous consequences, as will be seen; vague because no one knew anything about the actual work proposed or had any notion of ways and means. The idea that the veterans of the greatest army ever known, men who had been officers at Marengo, Austerlitz, Moscow, and Waterloo. would turn quietly to the American wilderness to cultivate the vine and the olive.


emblems of peace, has a kind of Chateaubriandesque poetry about it, but little to recommend it to practice. There is a certain charm in the splendid incompetence displayed, but the charm is hardly sufficient to offset the fact that the emigrants paid a heavy cost in disease, death, and wasted struggle. They do not seem even to have heard, for example, of the work with native vines done by Dufour, and had no thought of attempting to grow anything but vinifera.

The first step in the debacle was the discovery, when the surveyors arrived, that Demopolis was laid out on land that did not belong to the French grant.[38] The settlers had to abandon their clearings and cabins and to found another settlement, which they called Aigleville after the ensign of the Grande Armée. Meantime, the distribution of lands within the grant was being drawn up on paper in Philadelphia after the first settlers had already made their choice on the spot, and of course the two divisions did not coincide. Once again the beleaguered French had to reshuffle their arrangements. Their lands, in the rich Black Belt of Alabama, were then a difficult mixture of canebrake, prairie, and forest, and were not even hospitable to the native grape, much less to the imported; as for the olives, the winters destroyed them at once. Fevers killed some of the settlers; discouragement sent even more to look for their fortunes elsewhere, a circumstance that at once made the original contract impossible of fulfillment. That had stipulated that no title would be given until all the contracting parties had met their terms, and if some of them simply abandoned the work, then the remnant were left with no means of satisfying the requirements. The provision was altered in 1822 when it was clear that the original plan was not going to work out.[39] Stories, apocryphal no doubt, but expressive, were told of the French officers at work felling trees in their dress uniforms and of their ladies milking or sowing in velvet gowns and satin slippers.[40]Toujours gai was the watchword; no matter how desperate the circumstances, in the evenings the French gathered for parties, dancing, and the exchange of ceremony. Such stories sound like Anglo-Saxon parodies of French manners, and probably are. But they testify to the fact that the French of Alabama struck their neighbors as very curious beings, almost of a different order.

It is sometimes suggested that these French soldiers were merely trifling—that they never seriously intended to labor at agriculture but were simply biding their time before Napoleon should return, or some other opportunity for adventure turn up.[41] That was certainly true of some. But others seem to have worked in good faith. Some vines were reported to be planted in 1818; by the end of 1821 there were 10,000 growing, though the French complained that most of the cuttings that they persistently imported from France arrived dead or dying.[42] A few vines lived long enough to yield a little wine, but it was found to be miserable stuff, coming as it did from diseased vines picked during the intensest heats of summer and vinified under uncontrollably adverse conditions.[43] Nevertheless, the usual optimism of ignorance was still alive; on meeting several of the Frenchmen, one traveller through Alabama in 1821 reported that "they appear confident of the success of the Vine."[44]

Since the settlers were under contract with the Treasury to perform their


One of five panels of hand-painted French wallpaper showing idealized scenes from the 
Alabama Vine and Olive Colony. This one presents the building of Aigleville. The street 
signs—"Austerlitz," "Jena," "Wagram"—bear the names of Napoleon's victories. (Alabama 
Department of Archives and History)

promise, the Congress made inquiry into their progress from time to time. From the report for 1827 we learn that there were 271 acres in vines, but that these were not set out in the form of ordinary vineyards; instead, they stood at intervals of 10' × 20' on stakes set in the midst of cotton fields! By this time, the spokesman for the association had acquired at least one item of wisdom, for he informed the secretary of the Treasury that "the great question seems to be the proper mode of cultivation, and, instead of seven, perhaps seventy years may be required correctly to ascertain this fact."[45] The last official report, dated January 1828, states that the drought of the preceding summer had killed their vines, but that the French were "now generally engaged in replanting."[46] On this note of stubbornness in the face of defeat, the French Vine and Olive Association died out; some members returned to the eastern cities, some to Europe; others went to Mobile or points west.

The net result of the French ordeal in Alabama was to make it clear that, if any grapes were to grow there, they must be natives. In 1829 an American who had managed to obtain lands within the French grant reported that he had observed the repeated failures of the French over several years and attributed the result to their using vinifera. The only grape that ever succeeded was one—unnamed—that had been sent to them from New Orleans by the agent there of the Swiss at Vevay, and


which the French vigneron who planted it called the Madeira.[47] Thus, circuitously and accidentally, was confirmed what they might have learned directly from Du-four's experience: with the natives there was a chance; without, none.

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6 The Early Republic, Continued
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