County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

It seemed as implausible as it was urgent: that French aristo­crats, the select inner circle closest to King Louis XVI, and perhaps even Marie Antionette herself, would flee the conti­nent and take refuge in the immense and isolated wilderness of what is now Bradford County. Implausible or not, a band of brave French exiles – the crown’s endangered courtiers and office­holders, several members of the clergy, merchants and artisians­ – fled to Missicum, or the “Meadows,” as the deep forests of north­ern Pennsylvania were known during Indian occupation. for the refugees, whose lives were jeopardized by remaining in France, Missicum offered them a welcome sanctuary, one they christened Azilum.

The international saga of this northern tier county’s serving as the seat of a displaced nobility in 1793 has prompted a book by well-known author Mildred Jordan, Asylum for the Queen, and a spate of popular shorter pieces which continue to delight – as well as bemuse – the public. Few, however, know well the history of the county named in honor of William Bradford, famous statesman who served in Pres. George Washington’s cabinet.

The region’s earliest inhabitants, the Native Americans began occupying the area following the last great glacier. To this day, arti­facts are still recovered which date Indian settlements to between the Archaic Period, about B.C. 6000, and historic periods during which tribes moved westward – just barely ahead of eighteenth century European intruders. The first white man believed to have V1S1ted the heavily forested territory was explorer Etienne Brulé who, about 1615, traveled the entire course of the Susquehanna River, beginning in present-day Pennsylvania at South Waverly.

Isolated from early centers of commerce and trading. the Brad­ford County area attracted few, except hardy explorers, occasional trappers and zealous missionaries. Legendary Indian negotiator and peacemaker Conrad Weiser visited the Indians’ favorite treat, grounds at Athens in 1737, and David Zeisberger and fellow missionaries were known to have met with Indians at Wyalusing in 1763. In fact, two missions were established in the region but moved west to Ohio with the opening of the frontier following the Treaty of fort Stanwix five years later. The first permanent settlers were Palatine Germans from New York state, Peter Shuefeldt and Rudoph Fox, who arrived in May 1770 Other early settlers were a group known as – and still called – “Pools” who had emigrated from the Holland Dutch communities of eastern New York in 1785. Some of these pioneers had married Indians in Albany.

A number of early settlers were men who had served under Gen. John Sullivan in his 1779 punitive expedition against the Iroquois. Gen. George Washington ordered the campaign against the Indians who, it was believed, supplied enemy British forces with supplies and provisions from their luxuriant fields. General Sullivan’s principal fortification was located at Tioga Point where his officers conceived the strategy to completely destroy all Iroquois settlements in the entire area. Following the campaign, many of Sullivan’s soldiers returned, enticed by the verdant and fertile river flats.

Prominent individuals occupying the region and who helped shape its history included Matthias Hollenback, a trading post operator whose primitive storehouse was stocked with goods purchased in Philadelphia and hauled up the Susquehanna River in canoes and Durham boats. Settlers paid for their purchases by bartering rich pelts and furs, hides, grains, salt and whiskey. Another early settler was Robert Barclay of London, owner of more than 21,000 acres in the area by 1794, on whose land valu­able outcroppings of coal were discovered eighteen years later. The discovery spawned a great fortune and numerous subsidiary enterprises, including the Barclay Railroad which made its inaugural run in 1856, its cars laden with soft coal, to waiting canal boats at Towanda. The early railroad eventually connected with the Pennsylvania and New York Railroad. Huge rail yards were located m the village of Sayre.

It was not long after the county’s coal boom that various ethnic groups began arriving steadily. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Scotch-Irish, German, Welsh, Irish, Polish, Italian and Ukrainian immigrants sought work in the mining, rail­roading and lumber industries Great numbers of Irish workers were hired m the 1840s to work on the North Branch Canal, estab­lished to ship coal and farm produce to New York state.

But the most improbable settlers were the titled French emigrés.

The exiles, affluent and highly-placed citizens of France and its West Indies colony of Santo Domingo (Haiti), arrived first in Phila­delphia during the summer and fall of 1793, aided by leading Franco-American sympathizers Stephen Girard and Peter Dupon­ceau, founders of the French Benevolent Society of Philadelphia. Partners Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution and leading merchant, and John Nicholson, Pennsylvania’s comp­troller general, offered a large tract of wilderness land in Bradford County to the refugees. Not long afterward, the French nobility arrived at a site, known as Standing Stone, in canoes and Durham boats, supplied by trader Matthias Hollenback, which plied the waters of the Susquehanna River from Wilkes-Barre and Cata­wissa.

Sixteen hundred acres were set aside for the new settlement called Azilum. Of the parcel, three hundred acres were dedicated to a town plot, with a central two acre lot to serve as a market square. Poorly outfitted tor the rigorous manual labor, the deposed French nobility relied on hired workers from Wilkes­-Barre, Tioga Point and other river communities to help clear the land, gather building materials and raise the first structures. By spring of 1794, thirty erode log houses had been built. but eventu­ally a small chapel, a schoolhouse, a theater and several shops fringed the town square. The little colony’s most impressive and imposing structure, La Grande Maison, reputedly was to serve as the residence of Marie Antionette and her two children. It served as the site of formal assemblies and dinners given in honor of visiting dignitaries.

Azilum‘s prominent residents included Antoine Omer Talon, chief justice of France’s criminal court and head of the royal secret service; Louis de Noailles, a member of the French National Assembly of 1789 and brother-in-law of Lafayette; the Marquis de Blacons, a former deputy; and Colin de Sevigny, once an arch­deacon on the continent. They were visited by the Duc de la Rochefoucald-Liancourt, a French nobleman; statesman and prince C.M. de Talleyrand-Perigord; and Louis Philippe, later king of France.

By the opening of the nineteenth century, Azilum began to rap­idly decline. The isolated colony’s income from French sources was severely curtailed and titles to its lands disputed. Robert Morris and John Nicholson went bankrupt. Emigres began drift­ing to Charleston, New Orleans and Savannah, while others returned to Santo Domingo and, when at last possible, to France.

Not one of the more than fifty structures erected at Azilum­ – including the fabled La Grande Maison – remain, but area villages and towns bear witness to the French occupation by their very names: Laporte, Hornet’s Ferry, Dushore, Roulette, Asylum Town­ship and Frenchtown. For a full decade, Azilum was the center of the Old World culture in an immense wilderness. However, it fig­ured very little in the development of the county’s industries after the close of the eighteenth century.

The greatest factors responsible for Bradford County’s early development were the opening of the North Branch Canal and the exploitation of its rich natural resources, primarily soft coal and timber. Begun in 1836, the North Branch Canal was not completed for another twenty years because the rugged terrain and steep ele­vations required an expensive and time – and labor – consuming series of dams, locks, bridges and aqueducts. Controlled by Col. Charles F. Welles of Athens, the canal extended from Wilkes­-Barre, Luzerne County, to the border of New York state. The North Branch Canal in Bradford County was short-lived; it was purchased from the Commonwealth by the Lehigh Valley Railroad and, by the end of 1867, its towpath began serving as a railroad bed. The Lehigh Valley Railroad prospered and its officers helped found Sayre’s medically renowned Robert Packer Hospital and Guthrie Clinic.

Lumbering, much like the canal, was a short-lived enterprise in Bradford County. About the time the Barclay area mines closed, contracts were let for the cutting of fifteen thousand acres of hem­lock – comprising an estimated half billion board feet! The huge timbering operation gave rise to the town of Laquin which flourished from 1902 until 1932. Du.ring its thirty years of prosperity. Laquin boasted wood mills, a stave mill, a kindling wood factory, a veneer factory and a wood chemical plant which produced wood-based methanol, acetate of lime and charcoal. Now a ghost town, Laquin, at the height of its popularity, claimed about fifteen hundred full-time, permanent residents.

Today, Bradford County’s foremost industry is agriculture, pre­dominantly dairy farming. Its farmers are the largest landholders in the county: more than half of its three-quarters of a million acres are devoted to agriculture. The total number of farms rank Bradford County fifth in the Commonwealth. while its cattle farming claims third place.

There were times when life in the county was not so bucolic as it seems today. In 1790, two Seneca Indians were murdered at Pine Creek (in present-day Lycoming County) and, although the murderers were apprehended, they were acquitted – but not without outrage on the part of the Native Americans who threatened violence and revenge. President Washington immediately appointed Col. Timothy Pickering, a lawyer in Wilkes-Barre, to seek peace with the local tribes. During a heated peace treaty at Tioga Point, Pickering arranged with Matthias Hollenback, the trader, to procure goods with which he had hoped to appease the Indians. Hollenback produced seven hundred and twenty dollars worth of flour, rum tobacco, pipes, kettles, hoes, wooden bowls, clothes and cotton which did, indeed, satisfy the Indians, but not without bitter outcry from Iroquois leaders Farmer’s Brother, Fish Carrier and Red Jacket.

Great controversy arose following the Revolutionary War when both settlers of Connecticut and Pennsylvania claimed proprietor­ship of the territory. The dispute centered around the overlapping land grants and deeds which England’s King Charles II assigned to both factions. Although the Pennsylvania claimants won the judgment, strife and violence between the adversaries continued for nearly a century. Originally organized as Ontario County in 1810, the raging disputes prevented actual determination of the county’s boundaries for two years.

Throughout its two centuries of settlement, Bradford County has played host to a number of historic events. but it has also fostered a number of luminaries, including writers David Craft and Louise Welles Murray and composer Stephen Collins Foster, who attended the Athens Academy where he allegedly wrote his first song, “The Tioga Waltz.” Famous American states­man David Wilmot, author of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have required the United States to prohibit slavery in any lands purchased from Mexico, is buried in Towanda.

Bradford County. Site of an exiled aristocracy. One of the last uncharted frontiers. And home to famous – sometimes interna­tional – personalities. The meadows have changed during the span of two centuries, but for many it remains truly an Azilum, a retreat to the luxuriant wilderness of Pennsylvania’s magnificent northern tier.


For Further Reading

Craft, David. History of Bradford County. Philadelphia: Everts and Company, 1878.

Kaseman, Edward L. Story of the Susquehanna and New York. Williamsport, Pa.: Lycoming Printing Company, Inc., 1979.

Kent, Barry C. Susquehanna’s Indians. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1984.

Murray, Louise W. Old Tioga Point and Early Athens. Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: The Reader Press, 1908.

Orr, John. A Historic Thumbnail Sketch of Barclay. Privately Printed. N.D.

Wilcox, Elizabeth G. Sayre and Early Valley History. Philadelphia: Franklin Craftsmen, Inc., 1958.

Wilt, Leo, and others. The Settler. Towanda, Pa.: Bradford County Historical Society. 1952.


Charles L. Lucy of Athens is a trustee of the Tioga Point Museum, a pop­ular visitors attraction in Bradford County. He currently serves as chapter contributions editor of Pennsylvania Archaeologist and has authored a number of articles concerning the archaeology of Pennsylvania, a lifelong interest.