A one-mile long chalk and limestone bluff along the Tombigbee River in Demopolis, Alabama, White Bluff is a historic location. An unusual geological formation holding many fossils, the bluffs were noted by local Native Americans and French explorers. The site is best known for it association with the Vine and Olive Colony in the early 19th-century. Following the Haitian Revolution and collapse of Napoleonic France, French refugees in Philadelphia determined to start a colony in the Old Southwest where they would grow olives and wine. Granted a tract of land by Congress, over 100 settlers landed at White Bluff and settled in the region. The French colony proved a failure, beset by survey errors, poor agricultural success, and disease. Although the colony withered away within twenty years, the romanticized story of the colony has lingered. White Bluff was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Backstory and Context
Overlooking the Tombigbee River, White Bluff (also known as Ecor Blanc) is a mile-long stretch of chalk and limestone cliff near Demopolis, Alabama. The cliffs, which contain many fossils, stood as high as 80 feet above the river (though construction of a dam has reduced that to 20-40 feet now). The unusual geological site was used by Chickasaw and other Native Americans as a place to tie up their canoes, and French explorers and mapmakers made note of it in the 1700s.
In 1817, White Bluff became the site of a deeply unusual émigré story. For nearly twenty years, Europe roiled under the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon, the famed military leader and French Emperor, sought to master the continent and plunged it into two decades of conflict. Though Napoleon reached tremendous heights of power, in 1815 he was decisively and finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. As the Bourbon monarchy returned to power, a number of Napoleonic officers were forced into exile.
Some of these exiles landed in Philadelphia. These Napoleonic refugees were not the French only emigrants in town. In 1791, enslaved Africans in the French colony of St. Domingue (Haiti) revolted. The Haitian Revolution raged for over a decade, ending in a victory for black Haitians and the second independent nation in the New World. The Revolution sparked a wave of white French colonial refugees who fled to the United States to escape violence; many settled in Philadelphia.
In 1816, a local newspaper broached the idea of creating a French settlement in the American Southwest, and French refugees established the Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and Olive. The Society’s first president was General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, a noted former cavalry commander under Napoleon and a staunch supporter of the deposed Emperor. The Society secured a land grant from Congress of 92,000 acres near White Bluff along the Tombigbee River on former Choctaw lands. The expectation was the French emigres would plant olives and grapes and produce wine, eventually paying back the government $2.00 per acre.
The French “Vine and Olive Colony,” as it became known, proved a failure. Of the 347 settlers awarded land grants, most never bothered to hazard life on the frontier. Only 150 or so ever arrived. They settled along the Tombigbee and established the town of Demopolis, only to learn that due to a surveying error their settlement was outside the land grant. They thus moved inland and established Aigleville (Eagle City), which struggled without easy access to the river. The olives and grapes refused to grow in the Southern climate, and no wine was ever produced. Sickness ravaged the colonists, who eked out small farms from log cabin homes. Over time, most of the French settlers left the area; those that remained produced cotton as a cash crop, with enslaved labor central to the region’s economic success.
Although a strange, failed chapter in Alabama history, the French colony was romanticized over time. The role Napoleonic roots of the settlers exaggerated and the slave-owning white Haitian refugees reduced. The story was portrayed the French colony as “an oasis of sophistication on the frontier,” but one that was unable to overcome the tough American frontier, thus giving way for more successful Americans to take their place. This ahistorical narrative was bolstered by several pieces of 20th century fiction.
Today the town of Demopolis remains as a small legacy of the venture, as does the name of the Alabama County: Marengo, named for one of Napoleon’s greatest victories. White Bluff is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
1. "White Bluff." September 5, 2020. Digital Alabama. Web. Accessed November 19, 2020. https://digitalalabama.com/alabama-historic-places-landmarks/white-bluff/20415
2. Thomas W. Martin. "French Military Adventures in Alabama, 1818-1828." Newcomen Society, 1937. Web. Accessed November 19, 2020. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/America/United_States/Alabama/_Texts/French_Military_Adventurers_in_Alabama*.html
3. Rafe Blaufarb. "Vine and Olive Colony." October 2, 2019. Encyclopedia of Alabama. Web. Accessed November 19, 2020. http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1539
4. "White Bluff." Nomination Form, National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service, United States Department of Interior. 1970. Web. Accessed November 19, 2020. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77836802
5. Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance. The Bonapartes in America. Philadelphia: Dorrance and Co., 1939. Web. Accessed November 19, 2020. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/America/United_States/_Topics/history/_Texts/MnDBIA/9*.html
6. "The United States and the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804." Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State. Web. Accessed November 20, 2020. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/haitian-rev
7. Terry J. Senior. "The Top Twenty French Cavalry Commanders: General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes." 2002. The Napoleon Series. Web. Accessed November 21, 2020. https://www.napoleon-series.org/research/commanders/c_desnouettes.html
The Napoleon Series: https://www.napoleon-series.org/research/commanders/c_desnouettes.html
Alabama Dept. of Archives & History: http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/m-4513