Emigrants, Refugees and Outcasts in the Young American Republic

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During political unrest, from the Revolution to the Restoration, the French took refuge in the United States. Some bought land in states recently opened for settlement from companies, but these speculations ended in failure.

Royalists and Republicans Taking Shelter in a Neutral Country

After the independence of the USA, French traders, businessmen and artisans moved to the Atlantic coast. In the 1790s, ten to twenty-five thousand refugees fleeing the revolutionary disturbances in France arrived, wave by wave, in America. Most of them, like Talleyrand, Volney, or Moreau de Saint-Méry, stayed in the towns of the North-East, such as Boston, New York or above all Philadelphia, which was at the time the most densely populated city and where  the US Congress met. At the same time thousands of planters, including mulattos, left Saint Domingue to flee the slave rebellion. They mostly headed for the Southern States. The USA also took in a large number of refractory priests and, in 1791, the Sulpiciens set up the country’s first Catholic seminary in Baltimore. Monarchists, Girondins and Montagnards published newspapers in which they reported on events in France and fired off pamphlets against one other. To meet the needs for solidarity, the first French mutual welfare society in the USA was set up in Philadelphia in 1793.

Risky Speculations on the Lands of the New World

After speculators close to the sources of power had bought up cheaply huge swathes of land that had been confiscated from the Indigenous people, they promoted them, in Europe too. Outcasts sought shelter there and tried to make their fortunes. Lettres d’un cultivateur américain, published by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur in 1784 in Paris, created the dream of a colonist life on the frontier. But, after 1790 in Gallipolis, with the Compagnie du Scioto (Ohio), then in 1792 in Castorland (New York State), and in 1793 in Asylum (Pennsylvania) where some hoped to bring Marie-Antoinette, one disillusion quickly led to another: on these little-known territories, the surveying of properties took a long time and, when mistakes were discovered, it became necessary to move establishments which had been set up with a deal of difficulty; life was hard for colonists who were not real farmers, with land that was poorly suited to what they had intended to grow; meanwhile, American squatters aggressively occupied plots whose ownership was uncertain.

The Demi-Solde

In 1815, the return to power of the Bourbons forced former Napoleonic officers to leave France. They founded a colony based on vines and olive trees in Aigleville, Alabama, on the banks of the Tombecbe, where they were joined by refugees from Saint Domingue who brought with them the cultivation of cotton, which was better suited. Some of these “demi-solde” left in 1818 for Texas where they took part in the establishment of the Champ d’Asile. The popularity of this military settlement became a way to show opposition to the Restoration in France.

Most of the exiles went back to France as soon as the situation became more stable. Those who decided to stay settled permanently and laid down the bases of new communities. They then took in several thousand outcasts from the revolutionary movements of 1830, 1848, 1851 and 1870.


Published in may 2021

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