At a point about ten miles below Towanda, Pennsylvania, between Wysox and Wyalusing, the Susquehanna River arches into a great horseshoe bend, half encircling a terrace of land that slopes backward into the western hills. This fertile crescent of land was Azilum or Asylum. The Indians knew this place as Missicum - the "Meadows".
But to a little group of exiles who stepped ashore at this remote spot in late fall of the year 1793 it was a haven far removed from the dangers of revolution, imprisonment, slave insurrections and yellow fever. To them it was Azilum, a place of refuge.
Some of the refugees, because of their loyalty to the King of France, had left France to escape imprisonment or death at the hands of the French Revolution. Others had fled the French colony of Santo Domingo (Haiti) to escape the carnage of mulatto and slave uprisings inspired by the declaration of equality of the radical French Assembly. According to an unverified story, even Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, and her two children were to settle here.
Several influential Philadelphians who were sympathetic to the exiles also saw in their plight an opportunity to profit financially. To this end, Stephen Girard, Robert Morris ans John Nicholson, Pennsylvania's comptroller general, abetted the purchase of a large tract of land in the northern wilderness of the State. 1600 acres were acquired, three hundred of which were laid out as a town plot with a two-acre market square, a gridiron pattern of broad streets and 413 lots of about one-half acre each. By the following spring about thirty rough log houses were built.
In time several small shops, a schoolhouse, a chapel and a theatre appeared around the market square; dairying and sheep raising were begun; orchards and gardens were planted; a gristmill, blacksmith shop and distillery were erected; and the manufacture of potash and pearlash was established.
Although the domestic structures were crude, many had chimneys, wallpaper, window glass, shutters and porches to satisfy the desire for beauty and comfort, and some of the little luxuries and extravagances brought with them from their native lands kept alive the memory of better days. The most imposing building in the colony was "La Grande Maison", a two-story log structure eighty-four feet long and sixty feet wide. It had numerous small-paned windows and eight large fire places, and it has been said, although not proven, that it was to be the dwelling of the Queen. It was the scene of many social gatherings and among its guests were Talleyrand and Louis Phillipe, who was later to become King.
The phantism of a quasi-aristocratic French court transplanted to a rustic sylvan environment, however, was to be of very short duration. Economic depression set in and money was hard to obtain. Morris and Nicholson went into bankruptcy, and the income which the colony received from French sources stopped. In the late 1790's many of the emigres drifted away to the southern cities of Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, some returned to Santo Domingo. Napolean made it possible for exiles to return to France and many did. A few families, including the LaPortes, Homets, LeFevres, Brevosts and D'Autremonts remained in Pennsylvania and in later years their progeny helped to settle Wysox, Wyalusing, Athens, Towanda and other communities. Azilum itself soon passed into history.
Of the more than fifty structures erected by the refugees, not one remains. The four hundred-odd half-acre house and garden plots, so carefully planned and then abandoned, were absorbed into larger tracts of farmland and tilled for generations by later occupants.
The aura of serenity that pervaded French Azilum remains unchanged and the years have not obliterated all vestiges of the settlement. The millrace and millstones can still be seen at Homet's, traces of the old road that ran over the mountain toward Loyalsock are faintly discernible, and the spring that supplied the water for "La Grande Maison" still issues forth.