It was early in the evening of May 25, 1817, and the sentry atop Fort Bowyer’s sandy ramparts could see that something was amiss. A fine two-masted schooner was struggling to find a navigable channel into the Bay. This was a difficult task without an experienced pilot, which the vessel obviously didn’t have. Furthermore, nightfall, rising wind and building Gulf rollers were complicating the effort. The sentry alerted his superiors, Lieutenant R. Beal of the artillery and Captain Bourke, who immediately discharged a gun and ordered log signal fires kindled along the shore. To no avail. As darkness enveloped the scene, the schooner fired a gun signaling her distress. She was hard aground.
On board the vessel, named the McDonough, Captain John MacCloud and his small crew faced two serious problems. First, their ship was stranded in a dangerous position, and if the sea built any higher, she might be pounded to atoms on the bar. Even more worrisome, however, was the second problem, 20 frightened passengers, some of whom were hindering the crew. If MacCloud did not get control of the situation soon, they might all be lost.
Managing the passengers promised to be difficult. They were by no means an ordinary, malleable lot but rather the desperate human flotsam of a fallen empire — a mix of Napoleonic and Santo Domingan refugees seeking a new home in the Alabama Territory. After Waterloo and the successful slave revolts on Santo Domingo (modern-day Haiti), hundreds of Bonapartist soldiers and Santo Domingan planters and tradesmen fled the unfriendly Bourbon and Black replacement regimes respectively and settled in Philadelphia, where they formed the French Agricultural and Manufacturing Society. Anxious to rebuild their lives, they lobbied influential friends like President James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay and various sitting cabinet secretaries. On March 3, 1817, they succeeded in procuring a generous congressional land grant of 92,000 acres on the Tombigbee River near its confluence with the Black Warrior. Their intent was to become farmers and cultivate grape vines and olive trees. Unfortunately, as they would soon learn, Alabama’s rich prairie lands were more suitable to crops unfamiliar to them, such as cotton, beans and corn.
The Vine and Olive colonists, as they were commonly called, journeyed to their allotment by land, river and sea, arriving over a period of months. Among the first were the 20 souls on board the McDonough. They had hired the ship in Philadelphia and enjoyed an uneventful three-week cruise down the Eastern Seaboard. Romantic tradition has long asserted that these people were high-born aristocrats decked out in braided uniforms and flowing muslins. But the reality was different. Their leader onboard the schooner that evening was Colonel Nicholas Simon Parmantier, secretary of the Society and an American citizen who had lived in Philadelphia since 1808. He owed his military rank to a stint with the Pennsylvania Volunteers during the War of 1812 rather than Napoleon’s Grand Armée. Others included Prosper Baltard, a Paris architect; Antoine Marie Mocquard, a surgeon; several textile merchants; Marguerite Bichat, an 18-year-old woman accompanied by her parents; and a ship’s captain with his wife and stepdaughter. They were neither aristocrats nor soldiers, for the most part, and were woefully unprepared to break ground in a barely settled wilderness.
As the McDonough groaned and creaked among the Gulf breakers, Parmantier worried that their fragile experiment in “this real land of promise” was about to suffer disaster before it had properly begun. Fortunately, as soon as the schooner grounded, Beal and Bourke ordered a longboat prepared and launched. Parmantier admiringly wrote how these “two gallant men, with four privates” battled wind and wave to reach the vessel and successfully ferry the passengers ashore. “Not content with rescuing us from danger of wreck,” he continued, “they conducted us into the fort, and with an affection the most unaffected taught us to forget the dangers we had escaped, and to bless the circumstances which enabled us to enjoy their generosity, hospitality and kindness.”
Fortune continued to smile when the schooner washed off the bar the following day, allowing the passengers to resume their journey north. Parmantier admired the view as they sailed up the channel. As he wrote later to a friend: “The country on the margins of the sea presents a scene of the highest luxuriance. The foliage brighter than your northern climate; the bay is a young sea, and appears to be unbounded.”
American Mobile at that time was a small town, only four years removed from Spanish rule. There were less than 1,500 residents, who lived in one- and two-story frame buildings, many dating from the 18th century. Despite its small size, the place retained a dash of its original Gallic culture, and the arrivals eagerly lined the rail as their vessel dropped anchor midriver. “The city is situated on a sandy beach,” Parmantier wrote, “perfectly level.” He counted roughly 80 dwellings besides the brick fort and Catholic church.
The city’s residents were expecting the exiles and excitedly greeted their arrival. Parmantier and his compatriots were overwhelmed by their attentions and delighted when local officials introduced them “to the first houses of Mobile.” The colonists attended a public dinner where they enthusiastically toasted Lt. Beal, who had accompanied them up to the city, and professed satisfaction at being so close to their destination. A local French language newspaper, Gazette de la Mobile, was positively giddy at the prospect of their success. “This country is said to be extremely fertile,” it wrote of their Tombigbee grant, “and good for vine growing; and as our government always encourages enterprises of this nature, we can soon hope to harvest right here wines of as good a quality as those of foreign countries.”
After several days in the Port City, the refugees were given the services of a revenue cutter to take them farther upriver. At St. Stephens they left the cutter and boarded flat-bottomed barges for the remainder of their trip. Within days they reached their destination, the so-called White Bluff on the Tombigbee, which Parmantier proclaimed “one of the finest situations I ever saw in my life.” As the colonists clambered ashore to begin their bold experiment, they could not know if they would succeed or fail. But thanks to the quick thinking and actions of Fort Bowyer’s officers and the warm hospitality of Mobile’s citizens, they at least had a chance.