Bartholomew LaPorte and the strange story of Azilum

My grandmother Ada told me a story that had been passed down through the family. It went like this. The LaPortes had a fort in Sullivan County, which they built for the king of France, but he was beheaded first. This improbable bit of family lore actually turned out to be true. At least there was such a place as Azilum (or Asylum in the English spelling), though it was more of a town than a fort. It was built as a refuge, although there is no indication that the builders ever actually expected the king or queen to reach it. There was a LaPorte prominently associated with the founding of Azilum, and he left descendents in Pennsylvania.

Asylum was founded in 1793 by a group of French noblemen, seeking an escape from the turmoil in France. They bought a large tract of land on the Susquehanna in present-day Bradford County and laid out a town there. There were grand plans for a market square, four hundred lots, shops and mills. They brought in slaves from Santo Domino, Haiti, and built thirty log houses, plus a larger one called La Grand Maison, intended as a possible home for Marie Antoinette, but actually used for social gatherings.

A small group of émigrés reached Azilum and lived there for a few years. One of them was Antoine Omer Talon. A romantic story has been passed down about his escape to America.

“Talon…one of the most faithful advisers of the king…escaped and fled to the sea coast, Havre-de-Grace or Marseilles, where he lay in hiding for several weeks. At this time he became acquainted with a young Frenchman, Bartholomew LaPorte by name, who had been a prosperous wine merchant at Cadiz, Spain. A decree of the Spanish Government, banishing all French subjects and confiscating their property, had left LaPorte penniless and anxious to make his way to America, as Talon proposed to do. At last, having an opportunity to embark in an English merchantman at Marseilles, LaPorte concealed Talon in a wine cask, carried him on board and stowed the cask in the hold of the vessel, covering it with charcoal. Suspecting that Talon would embark, soldiers searched the vessel, but in vain. On reaching England, Talon engaged passage to American for himself and LaPorte, who was ever afterward his confidential agent and trusted land steward. Talon arrived in Philadelphia early in 1793. He had wealth, and it is said he purchased a large house at once which he threw open to all his exiled countrymen.”  Whether the story of the cask is true or not, it is unlikely that LaPorte was actually a wine merchant. It should be noted that this story was told by Louise Welles Murray, a great-granddaughter of LaPorte. A more plausible version of the story is that Talon met LaPorte in Marseilles in 1790 while waiting for a ship to America and engaged him as his assistant. In any case LaPorte travelled to Pennsylvania, settled there as a servant to Talon, and rose to become a land agent.

As David Craft related in his history of Asylum, Talon became more and more indispensable to Talon in Pennsylvania. “At one of his entertainments at which the Governor had distinguished guests, his butler having imbibed too freely of his master’s wine, spilled the soup upon one at the table. This was not his first, nor his second offence for which he had been sharply reprimanded. Mr. Talon at once sent for LaPorte to come to him and said, ‘Will you be my butler?’ Mr. LaPorte replied by pleading for the forgiveness of the offender; but Mr. Talon stopped him by saying: ‘He cannot hold his position longer; will you take it?’ ‘Yes,’ said LaPorte, and soon rose to places of higher responsibility as he more and more won the confidence of the Governor.”

The town of Asylum was short-lived. It was an unnatural setting for most of the Frenchmen and they were glad to seize the opportunity to leave it. They did not adjust easily to pioneer life, and when Napoleon issued a pardon most of them returned to France. In 1807, as the settlement was dissolving, the Asylum Company gave LaPorte a power of attorney to dispose of the property there. He bought over four hundred acres of the Asylum lands, settled down as a wealthy farmer, and raised his family. By then he had a wife Elizabeth; their only child John was born in 1798. John had a distinguished career, serving as Surveyor General of Pennsylvania, Speaker of the Pennsylvania House, and Associate Judge of Bradford County. He married twice and had four children by his two wives. Some of the stories about Bartholomew were passed down from John and his friends. Bartholomew, the emigrant, died in 1836; his son John died in 1862. They were buried in the LaPorte family plot at Asylum, now a forlorn enclosure in the middle of rolling green fields.



Wharton, A. H. In Old Pennsylvania towns. Chap. 14, “A Pa. Retreat for Royalty”

Heverly, History and Geography of Bradford County, 1926

Murray, Louise Welles.  The story of some French refugees and their ‘Azilum’, 1917

Ingham, J. W., A short history of Asylum, Pennsylvania, 1916

David Craft, “A Day at Asylum”, Proc. Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, vol. 8, 1904

Land Warrantees, Bradford County, in PA Archives, vol. 24

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