“The house was new and pretty”

Brought up in the high society of the French court at Versailles; married at 17 to an aristocrat and soldier, with a promising diplomatic career ahead of him; serving the Queen as a lady-in-waiting; HENRIETTE-LUCY DILLON GOUVERNET DE LA TOUR DU PIN (1770-1853) could not have imagined that she, her husband Frédéric-Séraphin and their two children Humbert and Séraphine, would be fleeing for their lives to America in 1794. Disembarking in Boston after a 60-day journey, the emigrants traveled to Troy, New York, where they boarded with the nearby van Buren family to “learn American ways” before acquiring property of their own.

In September, my husband opened negotiations with a farmer whose land lay . . . on the road from Troy to Schenectady. It was on a hill overlooking a wide stretch of country, and we thought it a very pleasant situation. The house was new and pretty, and in good condition. Only a part of the land was in cultivation. There were 150 acres under crops, a similar area of woodland and pasture, a small kitchen garden of a quarter of an acre filled with vegetables, and a fine orchard sewn with red clover and planted with ten-year-old cider apple trees, all in fruit. We were told that the price was twelve thousand francs, which General [Philip] Schuyler thought not excessive. The property was four miles from Albany . . . .

As soon as we had the house to ourselves, we used some of our money to set it in order. It consisted of only a ground floor, raised five feet above the ground. The builders had begun by sinking a wall six feet down, leaving only two feet above ground level. This formed the cellar and the dairy. Above this, the remainder of the house was of wood, . . . The gaps in the wooden frame were filled with sun-dried bricks so that the wall was compact and very warm. We had the inside walls covered with a layer of plaster into which some colour had been mixed, and the whole effect was very pretty. . . .

. . . [O]n the day I moved into the farm, I adopted the dress worn by the women on the neighbouring farms—the blue and black striped woolen skirt, the little bodice of dark calico and a coloured handkerchief, and I parted my hair in the style fashionable today, piling it up and holding it in place with a comb. In summer, I wore cotton stockings and shoes. I only wore a gown or stays when I was going into town. . . .

Many of our neighbours made a habit of passing through our yard on the way to Albany. As we knew them, we never objected. Besides, in talking to them, I always learned some fresh piece of news. As for them, they enjoyed talking of the old country. They also liked to admire our small improvements. What excited most admiration was an elegant small pigsty made out of wood by M. de Chambeau [a friend] and my husband. It was a masterpiece of carpentering, but the admiration was couched in such pompous terms that it always amused us: ‘Such a noble hog sty’.

Because funds were tight, Henriette-Lucy made and sold butter, stamped with the family monogram; it “was much in demand.” She had eight cows and several slaves to assist on the farm. Then, she was dealt “the most cruel blow that any mortal could endure”: her daughter Séraphine was suddenly taken ill and died within a few hours.

In April, 1796, Henriette-Lucy, Frédéric, and Humbert, and their friend Monsieur de Chambeau, having come to America with valid passports, were able to return to France after the Revolution to take possession of their properties. Henriette-Lucy had been happy in America but had “a presentiment that I was embarking on a fresh series of troubles and anxieties.”

From Memoirs of Madame de La Tour du Pin, trans. by Felice Harcourt, (NY:The McCall Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 242, 253, 266, 282. See also In the Words of Women, pp.307-313. Illustration: watercolour on ivory (c.1802) in a private collection.


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