Friday, August 26, 2011

Regency in Alabama:
The Vine & Olive Colony of Demopolis
by Sheri Cobb South

Certain places tend to hold a particular fascination for those of us interested in the Regency period: London. Brighton. Bath. Paris. Vienna. Demopolis.

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
One has only to look at contemporary engravings of the colony to predict its inevitable fate. Illustrations in Parisian newspapers of the time depict elegantly dressed ladies and dapper military men toiling serenely beneath swaying palm trees—even though palm trees do not grow 140 miles north of the Gulf Coast. Just as the climate was harsher than the immigrants expected, so was the way of life. In France, they had been courtiers from aristocratic families; in Alabama, they would be pioneers. Except for the occasional pocket of civilization, of the Alabama territory was still mostly wilderness.
Aigleville Colony 1819
In August of 1818, more bad news greeted the immigrants when a government survey revealed their actual land grant was located one mile east of their riverside settlement. Abandoning their newly cleared land, the settlers established communities called Aigleville and Arcola, neither of which exist today. In the meantime, the vine and olive crop failed, and several settlers died of fever. Others, disillusioned with pioneer life, returned to France or the predominantly French towns of Mobile or New Orleans. By the end of 1818, only 69 settlers remained in Alabama.

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.

Sheri Cobb South has never lived in Demopolis, but she has driven through frequently and has toured Gaineswood and Bluff Hall, its beautiful antebellum homes. Her writing, including the John Pickett series of regency mysteries, has been interrupted by a cross-country move from Alabama to Colorado, but her regency romances, released in electronic format by Belgrave House, are now available for Amazon Kindle.


Nancy said...

Sheri, what a fascinating piece of history! I had no idea a French settlement existed in Alabama, much less one connected to the Regency!

Thanks to you and Lesley-Anne for the enlightenment!

Nancy Haddock

Sheri said...

Thanks, Nancy! I'm glad you enjoyed it. (And thanks, Lesley-Anne, for giving me the opportunity to guest blog!)

Sheri Cobb South

Cara Lynn James said...

Sheri, fascinating post! We miss you at GCC, but hope you and your family are enjoying Colorado. When's your next book coming out? I'm still waiting to read about Hollywood in the 1930s.

Casey Crow said...

What an amazing blog and history lesson. I'm from Thomasville (40 mins away from Demopolis) and have spent quite some time there (lots of Friday night football games between my school and DHS), but I never knew the French connneciton. Even when I tour Gaineswood for my 8th grade Alabama History project on Antebellum Alabama, I don't think Napoleon was mentioned. I do remember the chairs in the house and how they were so small and low. The tour guide said it was because men and women back then were shorter than they are today. Apparently, the Napoleonic gene is fading through the years.

Great job!

Sheri said...


I'm glad you enjoyed it! I've driven through Thomasville many times en route to Tuscaloosa, where my son is a sophomore at the University of Alabama. In fact, my husband & I once made the trip and stopped to read every historic marker between Mobile and T-town, even tramping through the woods to see the Ellicot Stone, marking the boundary between British-held and Spanish-held lands. (It's east of Highway 43 around Axis, in northern Mobile County.)