ALABAMA’S VINE AND OLIVE COLONY
MYTH AND FACT
In Vine and Olive Colony myth, dashing aristocrats struggle in vain to tame the wilderness, but the truth is just as compelling-and far more important to the American story.
Everybody is discouraged, Americans as well as French. Everybody wants to sell. The fever and deaths have caused this.
-Vine and Olive colonist Madame Victoire George (September 6, 1823)
THE STORY OF THE VINE AND OLIVE COLONY has captivated generations of Alabamians since it was first recounted by Albert Pickett in his 1851 history of Alabama’s colorful beginnings. In 1817, the story goes, a group of exiled French military aristocrats loyal to the recently deposed Emperor Napoleon founded a Vine and Olive Colony on a vast tract of wilderness at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers. Granted these lands by the United States Congress under the condition that they clear them and plant grapevines and olive trees, the French colonists set about their task with an abundance of Gallic joie de vivre, but without sufficient agricultural know-how or determination. For a time Marengo County shone as a center of sophistication and grace on the Alabama frontier, as the dashing French counts and their elegant ladies did their best to re-create the pleasures of Paris and Fontainebleau. Yet, more comfortable on a thundering battlefield or ballroom floor than behind a plow, they soon faltered in their pioneering endeavors. Although they did manage to plant some grapevines and olive trees (at least according to local lore still heard in Demopolis today), the unforgiving wilderness steadily wore down their will. Within a few years they had given up and returned to France, leaving their lands to more sturdy American pioneers who quickly succeeded where the scions of Old Europe had failed. Subsequent retellings have added new details, but have not changed the main lines of the story.
Like all legends, that of Vine and Olive contains a grain of truth … but only a grain. In fact, only one “aristocrat,” General Count Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, ever settled in the colony. The son of a cloth merchant, Lefebvre-Desnouettes had risen through the ranks of the French Revolutionary army and owed his noble title to Napoleon, who had bestowed it upon him in 1808. Even with his newly minted title, this hardened career soldier from a middleclass background hardly made a convincing aristocrat. Only a few other Napoleonic officers-all of lower rank-settled in the colony, but they left Alabama after only short stays. Lefebvre-Desnouettes himself left in 1821 to return to France, only to drown in a shipwreck off the Irish coast. By 1830 not a single Napoleonic veteran was left. In reality, the majority of the colony’s inhabitants were not soldiers and were not even from France at all, but were refugees from the French Caribbean island of St. Domingue. St. Domingue had once been the richest sugar colony in the world, the jewel of France’s overseas empire. But its wealth rested on volatile foundations: the labor of five hundred thousand enslaved Africans who lived and died under one of the harshest slave regimes the world has ever known. Soon after the French Revolution broke out in 1789, they began an uprising of their own that left tens of thousands dead and ultimately resulted in the creation of the independent country of Haiti in 1804. White colonists and free people of color fled the blood-drenched island. Many came to the United States, especially to New Orleans and Philadelphia. It was in this latter city that the idea of the Vine and Olive Colony had its origins.
The prospect of establishing a French settlement in the American West was first broached in August 1816 in the pages of Philadelphia’s leading French-language newspaper, the Abeille Américaine (The American Bee). Its editor, the multitalented silversmith and writer, JeanSimon Chaudron (who, after moving to the Vine and Olive Colony himself, would gain the title “The Blind Poet of the Canebrake”), eagerly embraced the notion. Over the next several months, he devoted the pages of his newspaper to promoting the project and calling for volunteers. By November a “Colonial Society” (later renamed the “Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and Olive”) had been formed to make these dreams a reality. Some of the Society’s most prominent members-the former deputies to the French Revolution’s National Convention Joseph Lakanal, Jacques Gamier des Saintes, and Jean-Augustin Pénières-Delors-were dispatched to the Ohio Valley and beyond to scout for a suitable site for the settlement. At the same time, the society’s vice-president, former U.S. Consul to Bordeaux William Lee, was directed to undertake an intensive lobbying effort aimed at convincing Congress to throw its support behind the project.
Both of these initiatives were successful. In January 1817 the society found an ideal location for the settlement on the banks of the Tombigbee River, in the territory General Andrew Jackson had recently conquered from the Creek and Choctaw Indians. At the same time, Lee’s lobbying efforts had succeeded in winning the support of key power-brokers such as former President Thomas Jefferson, current President James Madison, secretary of State James Monroe, Speaker of the House Henry clay, and General Jackson himself. In February 1817 Congress began to consider an act “disposing of a tract of land to embrace four townships, on favorable terms to the emigrants, to enable them successfully to introduce the cultivation of the vine and olive, etc.” After some heated debate in which Federalist opponents charged that such a grant would result not in the creation of sustainable American viticulture, but only in sordid land speculation, the measure was approved overwhelmingly. The bill was signed into law by President Madison on March 3, 1817, his last day in office. It allowed the French to choose for their settlement four contiguous townships (144 square miles or 92,000 acres) in the Greek Cession before these lands were offered to the general public. The Colonial Society was given a fourteen-year grace period before it had to plant a “reasonable” (although undefined) proportion of its lands with grapevines and olive trees and before it had to pay for its lands at the rock-bottom federal rate of two dollars per acre. Given the pace at which land values were rising in Alabama during the period 1817-19, the period of “Alabama Fever,” and the generous fourteen-year grace period, Congress had effectively given the French a gift.
Why did Congress lavish such favor on a group of foreign expatriates? Such largesse was not without political risk. Prominent national newspapers were quick to criticize this unprecedented generosity. Prophesying failure in 1817, the Columbian Centinel of Boston ridiculed the French-and unwittingly helped plant the seeds of the tenacious myth of French aristocrats floundering in the wilderness. “Made up of princes, generals, legislators, counts, school masters, and scholars-bred in the refinements of luxury and many of them advanced in years, we are confident they will find themselves better qualified to shine in a court in Paris than in a forest.” Several Alabama newspapers such as the Huntsville Republican and the Alabama Democrat also made dire predictions of speculation. By “inconsiderately granting to a company of foreigners 92,000 acres of the choicest selections” warned the Republican’s editorialist in April 1818, Congress was playing into the hands of “French speculators” who would sell out to American newcomers at “an incredible price.” In a short time, there would be no “extensive vineyards,” just cotton fields.
What prompted Congress to brave this storm of protest was a set of strategic considerations that boiled down to this imperative: the United States had to solidify its hold on the Gulf Coast. The recently concluded War of 1812 had revealed that control of this region was critical not only to the security of the southern states, but also essential if the nation was to survive as a unified polity. Not only had the British tied down thousands of American troops by a skillful guerilla campaign they mounted from the sanctuary of Spanish Florida, they had also come close to bringing the trans-Appalachian west to its knees by capturing New Orleans. Since the economic existence of the West depended on its ability to ship goods down the Mississippi River for export through that port, it followed that whichever power controlled New Orleans would be in a position to exert irresistible pressure on that region and, ultimately, determine its destiny. Although General Jackson had saved the city from British occupation in 1815, it had been a brush with disaster that far-thinking American political leaders did not want to repeat. In the years immediately following the war, the government made determined efforts to encourage settlement in the Gulf Coast region to firm up the American presence there by creating demographic “facts on the ground.” One such attempt was the creation of the Vine and Olive Colony.
But in American strategic thinking, increasing the Gulf Coast population was not the only purpose the Vine and Olive Colony served. Located on heights above the juncture of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, it controlled a critical choke-point on navigable rivers that flowed into Mobile Bay. Already in 1817 American planners had concluded that one way to end the West’s dangerous dependence on New Orleans would be to develop a great system of canals, locks, and dams that would allow uninterrupted water travel from the Tennessee River to the port of Mobile. The Tombigbee River was to form a large section of the projected waterway. Although this dream was not fully realized until 1984, with the opening of the Tenn-Tom waterway, this vision lay behind Congress’s decision to make the Vine and Olive grant.
Although the reasons for creating the Vine and Olive Colony are numerous, another possibility is that Congress granted the Alabama territory in hopes of achieving U.S. self-sufficiency in wine production. The War of 1812 had revealed U.S. vulnerability in the area of transatlantic trade. In the event of another war, America would be at the mercy of the British navy for obtaining luxuries such as wine.
In the spring of 1817, an advance party of settlers sailed from Philadelphia to Mobile. After a slow trip upriver, during which they were feted by local notables such as Judge Harry Toulmin and General Edmund Gaines, they finally arrived at the grant. They reported back favorably about conditions there. Thus encouraged, General Lefebvre-Desnouettes decided that the time was right to lead a larger party of colonists to Alabama. They left Philadelphia by sea in August 1817 and arrived at Mobile after an uneventful voyage. The colony seemed to be taking shape as planned. But Lefebvre-Desnouettes had made a critical error before departing: he had neglected to distribute allotments among the individual members of the grant.
This task fell to General Charles Lallemand, who was elected President of the Colonial Society soon after Lefebvre-Desnouettes’s departure. Former commander of a mounted regiment of Napoleon’s famed Imperial Guard (at whose head he had been wounded in a desperate charge at the Battle of Waterloo), Lallemand had no intention of giving up the life of action and adventure he had led since 1791, when he had joined the French Revolutionary army at the age of seventeen. Fleeing France after Napoleon’s fall in 1815, Lallemand had taken stock of the turbulent state of American affairs-then dominated by the wars of Latin American independence-and concluded that they offered richer opportunities for a man of his character than the backbreaking drudgery of clearing virgin forests in a remote wilderness. During the fall of 1817, he began to organize an expedition to invade Texas, ownership of which was then disputed by Spain and the United States. Such an undertaking required substantial funds, and Lallemand knew just where to get them: through the sale of Vine and Olive lands. He proceeded to strike a secret deal with a small group of St. Domingan merchants prominent in the Colonial Society. They agreed to elect Lallemand president of the society; in return, he would have his followers, mainly junior officers discharged from Napoleon’s armies, sell their lands to the merchants at the bargain-basement price of one dollar per acre. Thus, the merchants would be able to acquire cheaply thousands of acres of Vine and Olive land, and Lallemand would gain the funds he needed for his expedition. The plan was carried out smoothly in early December. Sixty Vine and Olive grantees, for the most part military men, sold their shares. The merchants, among whom figured names which would become prominent in the Vine and Olive Colony-Fontanges, Frenaye, Duval, Ghapron, Nidelet, Curcier, Newman, Villars, Ravesies, Teterel-thus acquired over eleven thousand acres of grant lands, and Lallemand’s war chest was no longer empty.
On December 17, 1817, a small boat named the Huntress left Philadelphia. It carried the bulk of Lallemand’s followers-about eighty or ninety junior officers under the command of General Antoine Rigau. Thus began the ill-fated Bonapartist expedition to Texas. Although it became an international cause célèbre-especially as it was rumored to be part of a plot to rescue Napoleon from captivity on St. Helena and crown him King of Mexico-it ended in failure. It did, however, affect the Vine and Olive Colony by diverting most of the Napoleonic officers from Alabama, concentrating the land allotments in the hands of a few Domingan merchants, and casting a cloud of suspicion over the Alabama settlement.
In 1818 the first two contingents of grantees who had come to Alabama the previous year were reinforced by a slow trickle of settlers who traveled independently to the grant. Many of the 347 original Vine and Olive grantees never came to Alabama and probably never intended to. In addition to the sixty officers who had sold their shares in late 1817 to join Lallemand, another seventy-four grantees who were not involved in that venture also sold out. Most were immigrants from France and St. Domingue-innkeepers, confectioners, hairdressers, bakers, and tailors-who were well-established in Philadelphia and other East Coast cities. They were uninterested in uprooting their businesses and families to travel to the Alabama wilderness, but were not averse to earning a little easy money by selling their allotments. Most of these were purchased by the same Philadelphia-based Domingan merchants-notably Newman, Fontanges, Frenaye, Teterel, Ravesies, and Duval-as had purchased Lallemand’s allotments. Their dealings were so blatant that U.S. Treasury secretary William Crawford denounced them to Congress as “sheer speculation.”
While 134 of the original grantees quickly sold out, about an equal number eventually came to Alabama. Most sailed to the port of Mobile and then continued upriver by barge, horseback, or on foot. The journey was long, uncomfortable, and perilous. Madame ThérèseAntoinette-Margueritte Frenaye’s sea voyage lasted an agonizing seventy days and then culminated in a shipwreck at the entrance to Mobile Bay. She lost all her possessions and was lucky to escape with her life. The trip from Mobile to the grant could be even more hazardous. There were no roads or bridges, and heavy streams had to be forded at great peril. Isaac Butaud fell into a rapid stream, which swept away his horse and nearly took his life. Others were not so lucky. Traveling with the first contingent of settlers, Pierre-Ange-Chevalier Stollenwerk died of disease somewhere between Mobile and the grant. As the first Vine and Olive colonist to perish, he was eulogized in the pages of Chaudron’s Abeille. But as the death toll mounted, Chaudron stopped this practice, which was giving readers the (correct) impression that Alabama was unhealthy. Fever periodically swept through the colony. By 1825 at least twenty-two of the grantees-more than twenty percent of the total who ever set foot in Alabama-had died from various accidents and disease.
By the beginning of 1819, only sixty-nine settlers had come to the grant; a year later they numbered only 108. Who were these brave souls? A few were military officers who had resisted Lallemand’s blandishments. A greater number were immigrants from France itself. But the largest group were former refugees from St. Domingue. For them, settlement in Alabama meant the possibility of achieving a lifestyle they had known in the French Caribbean. But this lifestyle had little to do with grapevines and olive trees; rather, it revolved around slavery. Slavery was very much on the minds of the new colonists. Within twenty-four hours of her arrival in Mobile in December 1819, Madame Victoire George found “a Negro woman” and purchased her on credit. Once on the grant, Madame George became even more determined to acquire slaves. “I see it more and more,” she wrote. “The whites who come here ask more wages than we can possibly give them; they all want to be farmers on their own account and they are quite right to do so if they can.” The solution to this dilemma was obvious to this former inhabitant of St. Domingue: “We must absolutely have Negroes to cultivate our land.” Those with sufficient funds thus purchased slaves to clear their allotments. Those without struggled on their own, toiling heroically but hopelessly to tame the wilderness.
The cost of purchasing slaves was the heaviest, but by no means the only, startup expense for the colonists. While waiting for their lands to be cleared, they had to purchase food and build houses. Food was very expensive because it had to be brought from distant markets. One of the most successful colonists, Frederic Ravesies, recalled that in the early days a bushel of corn cost five dollars. To keep these costs down, it was recommended that settlers bring with them to Alabama a six-month supply of provisions. Even those who followed this advice still found it necessary to plant the first acres they cleared with corn rather than with grapevines, olive trees, or cotton. The corn crops did not always do well. The 1818 crop was a total failure, forcing the colonists to purchase seed corn to try again the following year. The 1819 crop was damaged by frost, that of 1821 suffered from flooding, and the nearly mature 1822 crop was devastated by a late summer storm. In addition to putting food on the table, the other main task the settlers had to accomplish was to provide themselves with shelter. They generally built log cabins, which were little more than lean-to’s. One observer commented that, although exorbitantly expensive, these dwellings were “not fine, nor do they last long.” After ten years of settlement, the largest structure on the grant was still a log cabin measuring only nineteen by twenty-three feet. The greatest challenge the first settlers faced was bare survival.
Their efforts were complicated by a surveying error. The first party of colonists had chosen the high ground above the juncture of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers as their townsite and named it Demopolis (City of the People). But when the official survey of the area was completed in August 1818, it revealed that Demopolis lay outside of the grant’s boundaries. The French thus had to abandon their promising riverside town and establish a new capital further inland. They called it Aigleville (Eagle City), a name that evoked both the Napoleonic Empire and the republic of the United States. Several years later, Frédéric Ravesies established a second town, Arcola, on his land. Neither Aigleville nor Arcola thrived. The settlers preferred the more prosperous settlements of Demopolis and Greensboro. Today, a concrete plant sits on the former site of Aigleville.
In spite of these obstacles, the colonists somehow made a start at vine and olive cultivation. They imported grapevines and olive saplings from Europe, but many of the plants died en route. Many of the vines that were planted died, unsuited to the Alabama climate. In 1828 Ravesies predicted that it would take another seventy years of experimentation to find the right mode of grape cultivation. Some colonists, however, remained enthusiastic about wine making and even more exotic agricultural endeavors. As late as 1831, Corneille Roudet was still arguing for the viability of viticulture in newspaper editorials. Former Philadelphia silk merchant Jean Ghapron preferred to take a chance on silkworm cultivation (sericulture). He became a subscriber to Silkworm Grower magazine, ordered batches of eggs, and planted mulberry trees on the grant. All these efforts failed.
The only crop that thrived on the grant was cotton. But if they did not meet the congressionally mandated conditions of vine and olive cultivation, the colonists would lose their lands. Consequently, in 1827 the remaining French colonists, together with American newcomers, began to petition Congress to relax the terms of the grant. These efforts bore fruit. In 1831 Congress not only released the grantees from the obligation of vine and olive cultivation, but also lowered the price they would have to pay for their lands from $2.00 to $1.25 per acre. Congress also struck the clause limiting the amount of grant land any individual could own to 640 acres. With that, the Vine and Olive Colony lost its distinctive character. And, perhaps chastened by the land speculation and filibustering to which it had given birth, Congress would never again grant a group of immigrants a block of land on which to found a “colonial” establishment. Henceforth, American westward expansion would be carried out in a more individualistic way, according to the general laws on public lands.
The law repealing the original colony conditions was welcomed by French grantees like Jean Ghapron, who owned four thousand acres, and Americans like Alien Glover, who possessed over three thousand acres. The political savvy the colonists displayed in defending their landed interests highlights how the Vine and Olive Colony had changed. No longer a distinctly French settlement with a peculiarly Gallic agricultural vocation, it had become a collection of lucrative cotton plantations whose owners, both French and American, cooperated efficiently to advance their common interests.
By the 183Os, the Vine and Olive Colony had metamorphosed into something quite different than its founders had envisioned. By this time, most of the original 347 grantees had sold their allotments and left the colony, if they had even come. Many drifted into the formerly French towns of the Gulf, notably New Orleans and Mobile. Others returned to Philadelphia, and others even returned to France. Some of those who left sold their grants to wealthy Americans who began to establish plantations on the grant. But Americans were not the only ones to benefit from the misfortunes of the defeated. Some French colonists-those rich enough to afford slaves and with enough capital to weather hard times-snatched up the allotments of their compatriots at rockbottom prices. By the 183Os, shared economic interests, business partnerships, and intermarriage had created a mixed planter elite that eventually shed the trappings of French language and culture. Although little remains of the French presence, the descendants of the Vine and Olive families-many of whom still live in Alabama-cherish their unique heritage.
Based on RafeBlaufarb’s Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835 (University of Alabama Press, 2006).
Copyright University of Alabama Press Summer 2006
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