As Thanksgiving approaches, I thought it might be nice to look back at our country's earliest--and strangest--effort to help asylum seekers. I'm not talking about the Pilgrims, who came here long before our nation's independence. I'm talking about the French colony of Asylum, founded in 1793 on the shores of the Susquehanna River in northern Pennsylvania.

In those days, the United States and France enjoyed good relations, thanks in part to France’s key role during the American Revolution. When France’s own Revolution went bad, the United States was prepared to help refugees fleeing the guillotine—and to make a profit in the process.

...and that's why, even today, you can find good croissants in northern Pennsylvania.

Several prominent Pennsylvanians were involved in forming the Asylum Company, which purchased land and began constructing large houses in the untamed wilderness. The largest house, called “la grande maison,” was 84 feet long and 60 feet wide. It had eight fireplaces. Supposedly, it was built for Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI (she of the “Let them eat cake” fame). Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette was executed by the Revolution before she could find asylum in the U.S.

A number of prominent exiles did manage to reach Asylum, including members of the French Royal Court, soldiers, and businessmen. The exiles tried to re-create their aristocratic life style in America, and they enjoyed music and plays, brandy and fine wine. Ultimately, though, the idea of an aristocratic French Court in the Pennsylvania wilderness could not be sustained; the exiles yearned to return to France. One historian described the mood in Asylum:

As time went on [the French] grew to hate the work, the monotony, and the sordid hopelessness of their life at Asylum… Nostalgia had the colony in its grip.

Finally, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France and ended the Revolution. He invited all French exiles to return, and promised to restore their estates. The celebration in Asylum supposedly lasted for days, and most of the residents returned to France by 1802. The Asylum Company itself proved a failure, with at least one principal landing in debtor’s prison.

All that remains today of Asylum are some archaeological ruins and a museum. The historic site serves as a reminder of our country’s earliest effort to provide refuge to those fleeing persecution.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: