What’s that? You’ve never heard of Demopolis? You’re not alone. Few people outside the state are familiar with this west-central Alabama town, much less its unique connection with Napoleon Bonaparte.
The story of Demopolis actually begins in France. After the fall of Napoleon, many of his supporters were exiled by the restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII. Some of these Bonapartists, led by Napoleon’s former aide-de-camp, General Lefebvre Desnouettes, sailed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they petitioned the U.S. Congress to sell them land on which they could establish a colony. On March 3, 1817, Congress approved their petition with an act that allowed them to purchase 92,160 acres in the Alabama Territory for $2 per acre.
There was one stipulation, however: they were to use the land to cultivate grapes and olives. Congress, it seemed, did not quite trust the French newcomers, and wanted to ensure they could not use their foothold in America to plot a Napoleonic return to power. From Philadelphia the group sailed to Mobile and thence 140 miles up the Tombigbee River. About 150 people, including men, women, and children, landed at Ecor Blanc (White Bluff) on July 14, 1817. They called their new settlement Demopolis—“city of the people.”
|White Bluff at Demopolis 1903|
|Aigleville Colony 1819|
But the climate, so unsuited to vine and olive cultivation, proved perfect for large-scale cotton production. In the 1830s, cotton planters bought up the old French land grants and established huge plantations. The vine and olive colony was dead, and cotton was king. It would reign for the next century. Still, the area’s French heritage lives on in place names such as Marengo County, named after Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, Austria; Linden, the Marengo County seat, a shortened form of Hohenlinden, where Napoleon defeated the Bavarians; and in street names such as Desnouettes and Herbert. And according to local lore, in the few surviving olive trees, which bear their fruit every summer as if awaiting harvest by a ghostly hand.