Located on a bend in the Susquehanna River near present-day Towanda, Pennsylvania, Azilum provided refuge for a group of French exiles in the autumn of 1793.
Some of the refugees, loyal to the King, left France to escape the horrors of the Revolution; others fled the colony of Santo Domingo (Haiti) to escape the carnage wrought by the mulatto and slave uprisings inspired by the radical French Assembly. The French refugees even believed that it was possible that the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette and her two children may also use the Azilum as their new home. In the plans of the old town there was even a house built for the queen.
Robert Morris, John Nicholson, Stephen Girard and others were sympathetic to the plight of these exiles and saw an opportunity to profit financially. They formed a land company and purchased sixteen hundred acres to establish Azilum. Three hundred acres were utilized for a planned town with a two-acre market square, a gridiron pattern of broad streets, and 413 lots of roughly one-half acre each. By the following spring, 30 rough long houses were built. Although crude, many of these houses had chimneys, wallpaper, window glass, shutters and porches. La Grand Maison, the most imposing log structure, was the setting of many of the social gatherings and housed Talleyrand and Louis Phillip (future King of the French) as guests. This was also the house that was to be the Queen’s.
The duration of the sophisticated French town in the wilderness was brief. Economic factors, including the bankruptcy of Morris and Nicholson, led to the settlement’s decline. By the late 1790’s many of the émigrés moved to southern cities or returned to Santo Domingo. By 1803 Napoleon made it possible for the exiles to return to France. A few families, including the LaPortes, remained. These families and their descendants helped to settle nearby communities. None of the more than fifty structures remain. The town plots were abandoned and absorbed into larger tracts. Azilum soon passed into history.
Today, the historic site contains over twenty acres of the original settlement. Although no structures from the original town survive an original foundation has been left exposed for public viewing . A reconstructed and relocated log cabin, circa 1790, serves as a small museum with artifacts pertaining to the settlement. We offer guided tours of the LaPorte house, our restored house museum. Visitors can see several outbuilding, part of the LaPorte Farm, and outdoor exhibits as part of their self-guided tour of the site.