Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835

Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835

Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835

Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835


Bonapartists in the Borderlands recounts how Napoleonic exiles and French refugees from Europe and the Caribbean joined forces with Latin American insurgents, Gulf pirates, and international adventurers to seek their fortune in the Gulf borderlands. The U.S. Congress welcomed the French to America and granted them a large tract of rich Black Belt land near Demopolis, Alabama, on the condition that they would establish a Mediterranean-style Vine and Olive colony.

This book debunks the standard account of the colony, which stresses the failure of the aristocratic, luxury-loving French to tame the wilderness. Instead, it shows that the Napoleonic officers involved in the colony sold their land shares to speculators to finance an even more perilous adventure--invading the contested Texas borderlands between Spain and the U.S. Their departure left the Vine and Olive colony in the hands of French refugees from the Haitian slave revolt. While they soon abandoned vine cultivation, they successfully recast themselves as prosperous, slaveholding cotton growers and gradually fused into a new elite with newly arrived Anglo-American planters.

Rafe Blaufarb examines the underlying motivations and aims that inspired this endeavor and details the nitty-gritty politics, economics, and backroom bargaining that resulted in the settlement. He employs a wide variety of local, national, and international resources: from documents held by the Alabama State Archives, Marengo County court records, and French-language newspapers published in America to material from the War Ministry Archives at Vincennes, the Diplomatic Archives at the Quai d'Orasy, and the French National Archives.


This project has taken me down historical pathways I never expected to tread. Trained as a historian of early modern and revolutionary France, I had always assumed my research would focus on the metropole. and it surely would have had I not accepted a position at Auburn University and met Wayne Flint, then the department’s preeminent historian of Alabama. Wayne told me about the Vine and Olive colony, the short-lived French settlement founded in western Alabama in 1817, and suggested that the University of Alabama Press might be interested in publishing a book on the subject. in following his advice, I found that the story of Vine and Olive was more than just a colorful episode in Alabama history. It was enmeshed in the broader process of the reordering of Atlantic geopolitics in the aftermath of Waterloo.

Tracking down the French who came to the Gulf Coast after 1815 was not an easy task. Many were Bonapartists, political opponents of the Bourbon regime, who continued to plot (or at least fulminate) against it. Since they were being shadowed by the agents of France and Spain, the expatriates tried to leave as few traces as possible. There is thus no central archive containing their records. Indeed, I found myself obliged to use sources from more than twenty repositories in five countries to reconstruct, however imperfectly, their activities. These were the National Archives and Records Administration, Library of Congress, Archives Nationales, Archives des Affaires Etrangères, Archives de la Guerre, Bibliothèque Nationale, Centre des Archives Diplomatiques, Public Record Office, Archivo Histórico Nacional, Archivo General de la Nacion, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Birmingham Public Library, Demopolis Public Library, University of North Carolina Southern Historical Collection, Tulane University Howard-Tilton Memorial Library Manuscript Department, Louisiana State University Hill Memorial Library Special Collections, University of Texas Center for American History, Firestone Library of Princeton University (especially the tireless interlibrary loan department) . . .

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