Two hundred years ago this week, Napoléon Bonaparte was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. With the collapse of his army, Bonaparte abdicated and made his way to the French port of Rochefort where he was met by his oldest brother, Joseph Bonaparte.
At Rochefort Joseph had dinner with Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont (known in America as James LeRay de Chaumont, founder of the Town of LeRay, NY), who had been in Paris promoting his land development scheme in the Adirondacks.
It’s said that while Joseph Bonaparte and LeRay were having dinner a train of heavily-laden wagons stopped outside. Bonaparte explained that they were loaded with a fortune of jewels and silver taken from the Royal Treasury of Spain. Bonaparte had vacated the throne of Spain, a position secured for him by Napoleon, a year and a half before. Fearing these riches would be lost if he was caught, Joseph Bonaparte offered them to LeRay in exchange for 26,840 acres of land. LeRay was having trouble finding buyers for his Adirondack lands and quickly agreed.
Joseph Bonaparte suggested to his brother Napoleon that they flee to America and establish a base on his newly acquired Adirondack lands. In preparation for their escape, Napoleon had drafts for 100,000 francs sewn into a dozen buckskin belts and the American ship Saale was hired to transport them to the United States. The seventy-four-gun British warship HMS Bellerophone put an end to the plan however, and Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, where he lived until his death.
Joseph Bonaparte however, using the assumed name of Buchard, secured passage aboard the brig Commerce, filled with a cargo of wine and assorted merchandise bound for the United States. At sea the ship was stopped and searched three times by English frigates, but Joseph’s papers were carefully prepared and he went undiscovered.
After a brief stay in the city of New York, Joseph moved to New Jersey, and on to Philadelphia, then the largest city in the United States. Using his preferred royal title Count de Survillers, he finally settled on a 1,000-acre estate in nearby Bordentown, New Jersey. It’s said that Joseph Bonaparte feared agents of the now restored Bourbon monarchy would kidnap and return him to France for trial.
In the Adirondacks, Joseph Bonaparte established a hunting camp on the lands he had purchased for his brother from James LeRay de Chaumont. He had a rustic lodge built on a cliff overlooking the largest lake on the property, which he named Lake Diana, in honor of the Roman Goddess of the Hunt. His camp was well furnished with the tapestries, art, cut glass and silver he had brought from Europe. It was said the dinner plates were of pure gold and were taken into the woods for picnic suppers. A six-oared gondola was launched on the lake for his pleasure and that of guests.
In 1832, Joseph Bonaparte obtained permission to return to Europe. His Adirondack camp was sold to John La Farge, a rich merchant from the city of New York. To his American mistress Annette and their daughter Caroline, Bonaparte left his grand home. Annette subsequently married a young Frenchman, Joseph de La Faille, and they moved to Watertown and into obscurity.
In 1838, Joseph Bonaparte’s daughter Caroline married “Colonel” Zebulon Howell Benton, a man who has come down through history as quite a self-promoter. It’s said Benton took to wearing a ruffled shirt, cocked hat and military style jacket, presenting himself in public with his right hand in his jacket lapel, mimicking the most famous pose of his wife’s uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Benton’s investments in local iron ore mines failed and he fled his debts leaving Caroline to support herself by teaching French in Watertown. She later lived for a short time in Utica, and died in 1890 in Richfield Springs, Otsego County, NY. Caroline Benton is buried with her husband behind the Oxbow Presbyterian Church in Oxbow, NY, just west of Gouverneur. The house she and Benton shared is just around the corner.
The lake that Joseph Bonaparte enjoyed so much in the Adirondacks, which he had named Lake Diana, has since been renamed Lake Bonaparte. It lies just north and east of Fort Drum, just outside the Adirondack Park in the western part of the Town of Diana, Lewis County.
Although Napoleon never made it to the Adirondacks, many of his supporters made their way to Northern New York and settled on lands near Cape Vincent, including: Marquis Emmanuel de Grouchy, who had fought at Waterloo; Count Pierre Francois Real (former chief of police of Paris under Napoleon) and his son-in-law, General Jean Francis Rolland; Camille Arnaud; Paul Charboneau; and the Peugnet brothers, Louis, Hyacinthe and Theophilus, who had all fought under Napoleon.
For two centuries there has been speculation about how Europe might be different today had Napoleon won at Waterloo. I wonder how the Adirondacks might have been different today had Napoleon established himself here in 1815.
Had that venture been successful would he have built a new empire by soliciting the support of the French-speaking Canadians? Would he have used that base to return again to France a conqueror? Would the northwest corner of the Adirondacks today be French-speaking?
Illustrations, from above: Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon by Sir William Quiller Orchardson; Portrait of King Joseph I of Spain by Joseph Flaugier; the Benton Bonaparte House in Oxbow, NY near Gouverneur; and Bonaparte Lake in Lewis County (photos by the author).