Vine And Olive Colony – Fact & Fiction about their lives in Alabama

This story can also be found in the book Alabama Footprints: Immigrants 

Vine And Olive Colony – Fact & Fiction

In 1817, a romantic tale involves a group of people who settled at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers in present-day Alabama. The story as related by many Alabama historians states that “French military aristocrats who were loyal to the recently-deposed Emperor Napoleon founded the Vine and Olive Colony to plant grape vines and olive trees, but the initial settlement was a complete failure. The cause of the failure was that the settlers were more familiar with fighting battles and attending ballroom dances than working the plow. After their plans faltered, they left their land in America and returned to France.”

“After the downfall of Napoleon in 1815, many of his officers and adherents came to the United States as refugees from the vindictive persecutions of the restored Bourbon dynasty. Among them were several Marshals and Generals of Napoleon and other prominent citizens with their families. Congress made a donation of lands in the vicinity of Demopolis to the French emigrants, with the view of introducing the culture of the grape and the olive.” Descendants of these immigrants reside in Marengo (named by the French) and the adjoining counties.”1

“The colony has been featured in several works of fiction. In 1934, Carl Carmer featured the story of the colony in his novel Stars Fell on Alabama. Carmer brought together all of the popular beliefs of the origins of the settlement that make the popular account such a potent myth-making tool: ‘Dressed in rich uniforms, they cleared wooded land, ditched it, plowed it. Their wives, delicate women still in Paris gowns, milked the cows, carried water to the men in the field, cooked meals over coals in the fireplace.’ In 1937, Emma Gelders Sterne published her novel, Some Plant Olive Trees, a fictional and highly romantic account of the Vine and Olive Colony.”2

Author Rafe Blaufarb, deeply researched the story of the Vine and Olive Company in his book Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835,3 and drew different conclusions.

True facts about the Vine and Olive Company according to Rafe Blaufarb

  • A group of merchants and military figures from Santo Domingo formed the Colonial Society (later renamed the Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and Olive in November 1816 in Philadelphia.
  • Scouts from the group were sent to find a suitable site and a settlement on the Tombigbee River on former Choctaw lands was chosen.
  • Congress was lobbied and supported the project. Congress was receptive to the idea because they had sympathy for the French exiles and a wine-making industry in the United States would diminish the dependence on imported European wines.
  • On March 3, 1817, Congress granted the group 92,000 acres of land near the present site of Demopolis with a 14-year grace period to plant a reasonable proportion of the land in grapes and olives before they had to pay for the land.
  • Settlers sailed from Philadelphia to Mobile and then up the Tombigbee to the land. Most of the 347 original grantees never came to Alabama but instead sold their allotments.

Historian Albert James Pickett described their journey to Alabama below:

The schooner McDonough was chartered, and the commissioners, with many French emigrants, set sail from Philadelphia. Late one evening, in the month of May, this vessel, bearing these romantic voyagers, was seen approaching Mobile Point, in the midst of a heavy gale. Governed by an obsolete chart, the captain was fast guiding her into danger. Lieutenant Beal, commanding at Fort Bowyer, perceiving her perilous situation, fired an alarm gun. Night coming on, and overshadowing both sea and land with darkness, he caused lights to be raised along the shore as guides to the distressed vessel.

The wind continuing to increase, she was thrown among the breakers, and immediately struck. Signals of distress being made, the noble lieutenant threw himself into a boat, with five resolute men, and with Captain Bourke, formerly an officer. Mounting wave after wave, they reached the wreck about one o’clock in the morning. The wind had somewhat abated, and Beal crowded the women and children into his boat and conducted them safely to shore.

Map of Alabama with the location of Vine and Olive Company encircled (L. D. Miller, History of Alabama, 1901)

The larger number of the colonists remained on board the schooner, which was ultimately saved, by being washed into deeper water. Bestowing upon the refugees every attention while they remained at the Point, Beal accompanied them to Mobile and partook of a public dinner, which they gave him, in token of their gratitude.

The commissioners remained a few days at Mobile, which was then a small place, with but one wharf, and proceeded up the river in a large barge, furnished by Addin Lewis, the collector of the port. Stopping at Fort Stoddart, they were received with hospitality by Judge Toulmin, to whom they bore letters. They next visited General Gaines, then in command of a large force at Fort Montgomery, and the barge then cut across to the Tombigby, and landed at St. Stephens—a place of some size, with refined and lively inhabitants. Discharging the government boat and procuring another barge, the refugees once more began their voyage up the winding and rapid current. Camping upon the banks occasionally, and exploring the country around, they at length established themselves, temporarily, at the White Bluff. A portion of them proceeded to old Fort “Tombecbe,” and near there, visited Mr. George S. Gaines, who was still United States Choctaw factor, whose table fed the hungry, and whose roof sheltered the distressed. He advised them to make their location in the neighborhood of the White Bluff.

Blaufarb states that few aristocrats were associated with the venture. Instead, most were French continental exiles of military rank who made their reputations from battlefield exploits during the Bonaparte wars and that they held shares, but rarely settled in the colony. Most of the people came from Philadelphia and were Saint Dominguan refugees who were linked by business and marriage ties. The immigrants did attempt to grow grapevines and olive trees, but the plants and trees failed because they were not suited to the climate. In 1821, the French planted three hundred and eighty-three olive trees upon the grant, and a large number in 1824. Every winter the frosts killed them down to the ground, but new shoots, putting up, were again killed by the succeeding winter.4

The following accounts of some of the people who settled in Alabama has been transcribed from History of Alabama, and incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi from its earliest period by Albert James Pickett:

General Lefebvre Desnoettes – opened a farm on his Tombigbee allotment. He had been a cavalry officer under Bonaparte with the rank of lieutenant-general. He accompanied Napoleon in his march to Russia and rode with him in his carriage in disastrous retreat over the snows of that country. bloody engagements, and was an active participator in the dreadful battle of Saragossa.

Vivacious and active, handsome in person and graceful in carriage, he was the most splendid rider of the age in which he lived. His imperial master was so much attached to him, that when forced to abdicate the throne, and about to depart for Elba, and while addressing his weeping and sorrowing officers at Fontainbleau, said, “I cannot take leave of you all, but will embrace General Desnoettes in behalf of you all.” He then pressed him to his bosom in the most affectionate manner.

Napoleon frequently made him valuable presents, and influenced his cousin, the sister of the celebrated banker, La Fitte, to espouse him. While he was at Demopolis, that lady made an attempt to join him in exile, but being shipwrecked on the coast of England, was forced to return to France. At length, she negotiated with the French government for his return, and, through the influence of her family, succeeded in obtaining permission for him to reside in Belgium. This induced Count Desnoettes, in 1823, to leave Alabama in the ship Albion, which was wrecked upon the coast of Ireland, at Old Kinsale, in view of an immense number of people, who were standing on the cliffs. The distinguished refugee was washed overboard, and the ocean became his grave. While in Marengo County, he often received large sums of money from France and was the wealthiest of the emigrants. Near his main dwelling he had a log cabin, which he called his sanctuary, in the centre of which stood a bronze statue of Napoleon. Around its feet were swords and pistols, which Desnoettes had taken in battle, together with beautiful flags, tastefully hung around the walls.

M. Peniers, another distinguished emigrant, was a republican member of the National Assembly, and voted for the death of the amiable Louis XVI. He remained about Demopolis, engaged in agriculture, but procuring an appointment of SubAgent for the Seminoles, died in Florida, in 1823. Distinguished in France, and honored with many civil appointments, he was at last expatriated for his adherence to the fortunes of Napoleon.

Colonel Nicholas Rooul, a remarkable personage, had been a colonel under Bonaparte, and had accompanied him in his banishment to Elba. When his imperial master left that island, Rooul commanded his advanced guard of two hundred grenadiers upon the march from Caenes to Paris. When this small band was preparing to fire upon the king’s troops under Marshal Ney, who had come to capture the emperor, Bonaparte advanced to the front of the lines, and gave the command to “order arms.” Bearing his breast to Ney’s division, he exclaimed, “if I have ever injured a French soldier, fire upon me.”

The troops of Ney shouted “vive la Empereur!” and Bonaparte marched at their head, through the gates of Paris. Colonel Rooul lived several years upon his grant, and, becoming much reduced in his circumstances, was forced to keep a ferry at French Creek, three miles from Demopolis—being accustomed to ferry over passengers himself.

Often would the American traveller gaze upon his foreign countenance, martial air and splendid form, and wonder what order of man it was who conducted him over the swollen stream. At this time, Rooul being in the prime of life, was a large, fine-looking man. He was firm and irascible in his disposition, and was a dangerous competitor in any controversy in which he might engage. His wife was a handsome woman, of the Italian style of beauty. She was a native of Naples, and had been Marchioness of Sinabaldi, and maid of honor to Queen Caroline, when Murat was king of that country. She brought with her to Alabama two children by a former husband. In 1824, she left her lonely cabin upon French Greek, and followed Colonel Rooul to Mexico, where he engaged in the revolution, and fought with his accustomed fierceness and impetuosity. At length, once more reaching his beloved France, he there for a long time held an honorable commission in the French army.

J. J. Cluis, one of the refugees, cultivated a farm near Greensboro. He had been an aid to Marshal Lefebvre, the Duke of Rivigo, who was afterwards at the head of the police department of Paris. Colonel Cluis was then his secretary. At another time, Cluis had the custody of Ferdinand VII., King of Spain, while he was imprisoned by Napoleon near the Spanish frontiers. Like all the other refugees, he found planting the vine and olive a poor business in Alabama, and, having become much reduced in fortune, kept a tavern in Greensboro. He died in Mobile.

Louise Emilie de MaziÃres Cluis of Mobile Alabama born ca. 1793 in France She married Colonel Jean-Jerome Cluis, According to the note on the back, this photograph of Madame J. J. Cluis was taken when she was 80 years of age (photographer B. & G Moses New Orleans, Louisiana = ca. 1873 Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Simon Chaudron, one of the Tombigbee settlers, formerly a resident of Philadelphia, where his house was a centre of elegance and wit, was distinguished for his literary attainments. He had been the editor of the “Abeille Americaine,” and was a poet of considerable reputation. He delivered a eulogy upon the life and character of Washington, before the Grand Lodge of Philadelphia, which was pronounced a splendid effort, both in Europe and in America. He died in Mobile, in 1846, at a very advanced age, leaving behind him interesting works, which were published in France.

General Count Bertand Clausel had been an officer of merit throughout Bonaparte’s campaigns. During the Hundred Days, he commanded at Bordeaux, and making the Duchess of Anglouleme prisoner, released her, for some unknown cause. The general did not occupy his grant, but became a citizen of Mobile in 1821, living on the bay, furnishing the market with vegetables, and driving the cart himself. Returning to France in 1825, he was subsequently made, by Louis Philippe, governor and marshal of Algeria.

Henry L’Allemand who had been a lieutenant-general, commanding the artillery of the imperial guard, was an officer of great merit, and a man of high character. He married the niece of Stephen Gerard. General Charles L’Allemand, his brother, had also been an officer of the distinction, in France. Filled with daring and ambitious projects, he employed the following language, in writing to his brother: “I have more ambition than can be gratified by the colony upon the Tombigbee.” This was literally true, for he soon made a hazardous expedition to Texas, collecting followers at Philadelphia and in Alabama. Arriving at Galveston Island, which was shortly afterwards submerged, his people suffered greatly for provisions, and were generously relieved by the pirate, La Fitte.

The celebrated Marshal Grouchy was one of the Philadelphia associates. He was a man of middle stature, and had very little, apparently, of the military about him. Not being popular with the refugees, in consequence of his conduct at Waterloo, to which they imputed the loss of that day, he became involved in controversies with them in the American gazettes. He never came to Alabama, but one of his sons, who had been a captain in the French army, settled his grant near Demopolis. The marshal afterwards returned to France, and enjoyed honors under the Bourbons.

M. Lackanal, a savant, and member of the academy, at the head of the department of public education, under the emperor, settled on the bay, near Mobile, in 1819. He was one of those members of the National Assembly of France, who voted for the death of Louis XVI. After a long residence in Mobile, he went to France, and there died in 1843.

Among all the refugees who sought homes in Alabama, none had passed through more stirring and brilliant scenes, than General Juan Rico, a native of Valencia, in Spain, who had been proscribed in that country, upon the return of Ferdinand VII., because he was a republican, and a supporter of the constitution of 1812. An eloquent member of the Cortes and a distinguished officer of the Spanish army, he resisted to the last the invasion of Napoleon. One day, an interesting scene occurred between General Rico and the elegant Desnoettes. Both being invited to dine at Demopolis, the conversation turned upon the campaigns in Spain, when allusion was made to the obstinate and sanguinary siege of Saragossa, where one of them had commanded the troops of France, and the other those of Spain.

They were now assembled at a hospitable table, in a humble cottage, in the wilds of Alabama. They had met before, amid the din of arms, arraying their troops against each other, and pouring out rivers of blood, at the head of the best-trained troops of Europe, who had figured in the most eventful times of France and Spain. Each had been expelled from his native country, and each had been blasted in his ambitious hopes. Nevertheless, good humor prevailed in the cabin, and the sorrows of all were drowned in wine, amid merry peals of laughter. In 1825, General Rico was recalled to Spain, and, arriving there, again became a member of the Cortes, under his favorite constitution. He met with singular reverses of fortune, was expelled from Spain the second time, became an inhabitant of England, and was again recalled to assist in the government of his country. When he lived in Alabama, he was fifty years of age, and was of a dark complexion. He possessed great energy and decision of character, and was a most excellent farmer.

“But, in the midst of all their trials and vicissitudes, the French refugees were happy. Immured in the depths of the Tombigbee forest, where, for several years, want pressed them on all sides—cut off from their friends in France—surrounded by the Choctaws on one side, and the unprincipled squatters and land-thieves on the other—assailed by the venom of insects and prostrating fevers—nevertheless, their native gaiety prevailed. Being in the habit of much social intercourse, their evenings were spent in conversation, music and dancing. The larger portion were well educated, while all had seen much of the world, and such materials were ample to afford an elevated society. Sometimes their distant friends sent them rich wines and other luxuries, and upon such occasions, parties were given, and the foreign delicacies brought back many interesting associations. Well cultivated gardens, and the abundance of wild game, rendered the common living of the French quite respectable. The female circle was highly interesting. They had brought with them their books, guitars, silks, parasols and ribbons, and the village, in which most of them dwelt, resembled, at night, a miniature French town. And then, farther in the forest, others lived, the imprints of whose beautiful Parisian shoes on the wild prairie, occasionally arrested the glance of a solitary traveller. And then, again, when the old imperial heroes talked of their emperor, their hearts warmed with sympathy, their eyes kindled with enthusiasm, and tears stole down their furrowed cheeks.”(From Pickett’s Conversations with George N. Stewart, Esq., of Mobile, who was the secretary of the French Vine Company; also, conversations with Mr. Amand Pfister, of Montgomery, whose father was one of the French grantees).5

1Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama for Thirty Years: p. 37

3Blaufarb, Rafe, Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005

4Pickett, Albert J. History of Alabama, and incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi from the earliest period, Volume 2, 1851, Walker and James

5Pickett, Albert J. History of Alabama, and incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi from the earliest period, Volume 2, 1851, Walker and James

ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Immigrants: Lost & Forgotten Stories (Volume 5)

ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Immigrants includes some lost & forgotten stories of their experiences such as:

  • The Birth of Twickenham
  • Captain Slick – Fact or Fiction
  • Vine & Olive Company
  • The Death of Stooka
  • President Monroe’s Surprise Visit To Huntsville

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