Lucie Dillon Marquise de La Tour du Pin
She fled the guillotine to find refuge as an artisanal farmer in the Hudson Valley.
Marie Antoinette’s favored attendant, Lucie, was fluent in the language of the court at Versailles. Wise beyond her nineteen years, Henriette-Lucie Dillon Marquise de La Tour du Pin Gouvernet had a critical eye as well as a sense of foreboding about the future of France.
This is her story, inspired by her memoir: “Laughing and Dancing Our Way to the Precipice”. In it, Lucie describes her escape from France to America, where she would settle on a farm in Troy, New York. She called this period in the bucolic Hudson Valley, “the happiest time of my life.”
Text by Jennifer Holz
This feature was originally published in Issue No 2 - Limited copies avail.
After the Terror began, Lucie fled Paris. Revolutionary forces had been rounding up members of the aristocracy, and each day, she heard news of another acquaintance that had met the guillotine. Rumors flared quickly and a wrong look or slip-of-the-tongue could prove fatal.
Settling in Bordeaux, she lived inconspicuously in a series of dark, shuttered apartments, going out only in the evenings when she was least likely to attract attention. Her husband, Frédéric, insisted that they separate for safety, especially after the birth of their second child. As former second-in-command at the Ministry of War under the King, his was a wanted head. He lived apart, in hiding, while Lucie appeared as a ‘simple wet nurse’ to the people of Bordeaux.
One evening, she heard about an American ship, docked in the harbor and bound for Boston, and secretly bought passage. A few days later, she lightly announced to the maid that she was going to take her two young children, Humbert and Séraphine, for a walk, perhaps for an hour or two. Secrecy was essential, as servants had exposed many to authorities. She met Frédéric along the way. Together, they made their way to the ‘Diana’, a single-masted wooden ship, manned by the small American crew that would take them to Boston.
Safely on board, she set her gaze to the future, chatting away with the young cook in the galley, a handsome young farmer from Nantucket. Lucie learned everything she could from him about life in America. It was in these conversations that she first imagined herself a farmer’s wife. She also learned a thing or two about cooking.
The trip became difficult. Frédéric withered, Humbert cried for bread, and Lucie’s gums bled as she ate hardened biscuits riddled with worms. Her milk dried up; she was unable to feed Séraphine. Finally, after a month of harrowing travel, Lucie listened underneath the wavering mast and heard a voice cry, “Land ho!” The next few days were a revelation of scenery unlike any she had ever known. Lucie fell in love with the wild beauty of America.
Lucie and her family stayed briefly in Boston before deciding to move to upstate NY. The other émigrés of Boston were predominantly revolutionaries and less than sympathetic to fleeing aristocracy. Family connections led the de La Tour du Pins to the Schuyler family in Albany, who helped them tremendously. From there, they would purchase a farm in Troy. Farm life agreed with them.
In a very short time the de La Tour du Pins made some impressive friends, among them, general Schuyler, who was close to president Washington, the Rensselaers of Albany, a lawyer named Alexander Hamilton, and one M. Talleyrand.
Talleyrand, known to history books as a shrewd player in French politics, had known Lucie as a child. Like her, he had managed to survive the Terror and escape to America. Traveling to Albany with some well-heeled companions, he heard of Lucie’s new farm though the Schuyler family.
Talleyrand became her tacit mentor. Over the next few years, he would arrange care for her when she fell ill with fever and gift her with a lady’s saddle for riding. On several occasions, he would boldly intervene on her behalf in financial matters in which she and her husband would have otherwise been robbed.
He assumed a role in her life that was both personal and fatherly. Was there mild flirtation in Talleyrand’s overtures? Perhaps. Certainly he was known as a womanizer. But Lucie did not reciprocate. Instead, they shared an easy understanding, for they were, in some ways, alike. She was as clever as he and used her charm to endear herself to the new society in which she lived. Charm was currency. She spent carefully, with a more moral compass than Talleyrand, but with equal skill. Perhaps he admired her. She must have been both stunning and charismatic.
Lucie and Frédéric developed their farm. They acquired cows, pigs, chickens, and horses that Lucie took for long rides in wild forests and tall grasses, enjoying a freedom and adventure she had never known. In summer, when members of the Mohawk tribe revealed themselves, she was quick to befriend them, trading buttermilk for baskets, and gifting trinkets and ribbons to an elderly Mohawk woman who delighted in adorning herself. When admonished by a compatriot for walking alone with a handsome and barely clad young Mohawk friend, she replied to her critic that she was certainly safer with the well-mannered Mohawks, who had treated her so kindly, than the rude person who dared to criticize.
Lucie briefly hired an American servant girl, and treated her with such generosity that Lucie developed a reputation for kindness. That reputation would spread, and greatly influence coming events.
At that time in New York State, a slave could petition the local judge, if he felt mistreated, to be re-sold to someone more humane. One day, Lucie and Frédéric received a visit from a dark-skinned young man named Minck, who presented them with paperwork requesting that they purchase him from his abusive master. Together, they visited the master, a Dutchman with a reputation for harshness. After some negotiation, the man agreed to the sale. As Lucie returned to her wagon, she found young Minck was already there, packed and smiling, with one simple question: “Are these my horses now?” Without hesitation, she replied, “Of course.” Soon after, Minck’s father, Prime, made the same petition and came to live at the farm as well. Prime became manager and essential advisor on the farm.
He counseled Lucie to purchase two more slaves: Judith and her husband, who had been separated by sale and were each living in abusive situations. This time, Lucie went by herself. Her request was not well received, and she used every bit of attitude she could muster to press the slave owner into submission. When he replied that poor Judith would find another master when she had recovered from her most recent beating, Lucie replied, “She has found one — Call her!” He complied. Judith was overjoyed to discover that Lucie had purchased her husband in the same manner. The family was reunited.
Lucie bought several yards of blue and white flannel and sewed shirts for everyone, hiring a tailor to make them coats and capes. She was critical of him, noting that while he refused,to sit with the “negro staff,” his manners and speech were clearly inferior to theirs.
The next years were a flurry of activity and Lucie embraced each morning before the sun was up. She and Judith worked together every day. Lucie did all the ironing, Judith milked, and together they ran the household.
They made the most extraordinary grass-fed butter, which she stamped with her wooden insignia, wrapped in linen, and nestled in baskets for sale. Their dairy became the most successful in the area. Likewise, when they harvested their apples for cider, Lucie sought out higher-priced barrels made for cognac and treated their cider like a fine Bordeaux. Prime, who took the horse-drawn wagon to Albany each week and managed sales, negotiated excellent prices for butter, cream, wood, cider, and grain.
It is impossible to write about slavery without condemning it and imperative to neither overlook nor rationalize it. Lucie owned slaves, no matter how she procured them. But it must be noted that when Frédéric announced that the Terror had passed and they must return to France to reclaim their properties, Lucie had but one condition: she must be allowed to free her slaves. Her husband agreed.
The scene that followed was so emotional, with so much weeping, kissing, and caressing that it is impossible to be unmoved by it. Whatever else her accomplishments, she freed four adult slaves and their children, leaving them with skills, valuables, and the reputation of their shared enterprise. In the 1790s in America, Lucie did not challenge the institution directly, but she defied expectation, and in so doing, found herself unknowingly on the right side of history.
As the Terror ended and the de La Tour du Pins returned to France, Lucie again felt the same foreboding she had experienced during those gay and decadent days at Versailles. It was not over, she was certain. And yet, the worst had passed. France struggled towards a better future.
And it was so good to see her friends again. Still, as time went on, Lucie would find herself thinking more and more of her time as a farmwoman. For it was on the farm that she had found herself, applying the artifice of
the aristocracy to the art of farming. It was there that she’d discovered the autonomy that had been impossible at court, where she had studiously avoided the queen’s occasionally jealous eye, and spent long hours, coiffed and powdered, in tedious attendance.
On the farm, Lucie had discovered the humility and strength that every farmer knows: the confidence in seasons, nature, and hard work. There, she was judged not by her station, but her character.
They returned to a changing France. Her husband, Frederic, and her mentor, M. Talleyrand, would each find occupation in the fluctuating political scene, always keeping a step ahead of shifting, sometimes dangerous trends. There would be balls and fashion, intrigues and scandals in the unsteady emergence of post revolutionary France. At 27, Lucie had plenty of adventures left.
But in her own hand she would describe those precious years in America, nestled in the barely tamed landscape of the Hudson Valley, as the finest time of her life and referred to the hour that she told Judith and her husband, and Prime, and Minck, “On my word, you are as free as I!” as the single happiest moment of her 83 years. 220 years later — her story still resonates with tenderness and conviction.