Since March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 was International (Working) Women’s Day, I developed a character sketch on Madame Rosalie Bacler, a French émigré who came to the United States during the French Revolution, and who was a “working” woman, a “noble” who planned a French refugee colony in the Massachusetts Territory of Maine. Whenever I “introduce” this historical female to people, they become fascinated. Madame is the main character in the historical romance novel that I am attempting to write.
Frederick S. Allis, Jr.* suggests that Madame played a minor chapter in the larger story of the French Revolutionary War emigration from France to the United States. I contend she plays a major role, if not in land speculation and emigration, in the fact that Madame, within two months of arriving in the United States, and minimal knowledge of the English language, was dealing in land speculation with two of the major American land speculators, Henry Knox and William Duer. In less than two years, she was negotiating with William Bingham and Alexander Baring. Although her dreams were not realized, it was not due to her ineptitude in business and skill, but due to the financial over-extension and financial irresponsibility of both Henry Knox and Henry Jackson.
Madame Rosalie Bacler de la Val, a French émigré who came to the United States to escape the atrocities of the French revolution, was an independent land speculator/settler in what is known today as Hancock County, Maine. In the 1790s, this region was the Maine Territory of the State of Massachusetts, part of the Penobscot Land Tract purchased from the State of Massachusetts by land speculators Henry Knox and William Duer.
Only about ten percent of the post-American Revolution land speculators worked independently, outside a company. None, as far as I have encountered, were women—much less foreign émigrés. This identifies Madame as a strong and unique woman.
The novel I am working on is historic romance. Madame the heroine in the first half of my work, will be placed in and developed through the context of actual historic documents. It is my task to demonstrate that her identity is not an extension of the men in her life, but is a result of both her gifts and her flaws.
The truth be known, Madame was not “into” romance, needing neither marriage nor a relationship with any man to determine her identity. Men were simply a means to an end. However, in her culture, in her times, they were also necessary evil if a strong women wanted to achieve her goals.
Whether she was married in France or simply had a relationship with the man identified on documents as “her husband” is unclear. What is clear is that she had a relationship with Jean Antoine Gontran Marzel de Leval, one that provided her with a power of attorney which enabled her to purchase land in the United States and may have provided her with an ultimately worthless deed for twelve hundred acres of Scioto (Ohio) land.
He was also likely the father of her daughter, Saraphine.
In the United States, the persons Madame connected with were necessarily male, since that was the gender of the land speculators. Within three months of arriving in the country, she had developed a relationship with William Duer, Henry Knox and Henry Jackson, all major players in the Scioto Land grant fiasco and the Penobscot Tract purchase. She was also involved with the Netherlands ambassadors to the United States, father Herre Van Berckle and his son and Franco Van Berckle.
That she had plans to enter land speculation prior to her leaving France is implied by her intelligence, business acumen, and the speed with which she entered the playing field. After inspecting the land with her partner, Jean Baptiste de la Roche , she completed a contract to purchase land they had viewed from atop Schoodic Mountain, laid out the plans for a colony where French émigrés find refuge, and successfully sought settlers. All her actions awaited her receipt of the deeds. These actions were outside the images and ideas of what women were expected to be in the 1790s.
Throughout the material available on Madame, little reference is made of her maternal instincts. In fact, this lack was demonstrated by the few references to her daughter, and a statement in a letter sent to her by a potential hostess: The children shall not disturb you.” Nor is there reference to relationships with other women. When she visited with xxx at Hull’s Cove, the feature of the visit was not that of woman to woman, but of French person to French person.
Her relationship with men was founded on business, and her willingness to submit to them to get what she wanted. Was the statement “she was the mistress of Colonne and many other men” a sign of the lengths she would go with this submission?
The business outfit seemed to fit Madame well. Perhaps she was viewed by society as individual and eccentric, but her strong goals were met with self-direction and tunnel vision. She was gifted in her ability to cut to the chase and get to the business at hand, in spite of having a language barrier.
On the surface, Madame presented a persona with high self-image, worthy of the best in life, needing to be in control of her destiny. In reality, her drive compensated for a lack of self-esteem and the uncertainty, hyper-intensity of normal emotions, and deep depression typical of refugees in a strange country. Madame, attempting to control and sublimate these reactions, threw herself whole-heartedly into her land-settlement project.
Her interpersonal relationships were mainly business-related, and the higher-echelon persons she interacted with, recognizing that her settlement interests were necessary to increase the value of their surrounding land, spoke of her with admiration. But it was her business efforts that they admired. Madame was unable to relate on a more personal level. Except for the occasion when she received a letter from France informing her that her sister and several friends had fallen victim to the guillotine, the only emotion she allowed to get out of hand was her volatile temper.
Madame’s project turned sour William Duer went bankrupt and Henry Knox continued his poor financial management. Up to this time, the land speculators admired Madame. However, these two events
The bankruptcy brought Madame’s work to a halt, since it undercut the Knox and Duer’s ability to pay the State of Massachusetts for the Penobscot Land Tract, a necessary action for them to receive the land deeds. Without the deeds, Madame could not complete the sales to her settlers, nor could she develop her colony.
Madame was a risk-taker. Her contract to purchase the land was based on her selling small parcels to settlers. She depended on these sales to pay Duer and Knox. No sales, no deeds, no colony.
She had invested $16,000, found settlers, and fulfilled all the necessary business demands, yet her project was doomed to fail. She was at the bottom of what could be viewed as a pyramid scheme, and she was the biggest loser. Her land was ultimately sacrificed, and her French colony never developed.
Madame married Franco Van Berckle, a weak man, at a time when she recognized she could not keep up the fight alone. Quite possibly this was more of a business arrangement than a romantic relationship. However, her husband was unable to financially rescue Madame. In fact, his personality was so disagreeable that Madame’s biggest business supporters, de la Roche and Benjamin Walker, did all they could to separate themselves from Madame.
Ultimately Madame appeared to have achieved her underlying goals—wealth and power. Madame spent the latter part of her life in British Guiana, living the high life, wife of a governor and owner/part owner of several plantations. She died a highly respected member of that country.
Madame moved from her desire to accomplish her goals in her own right, to accomplishing them in the typical manner—through marriage and male connections. However, her actions, worked through her gifts and flaws, qualify her for being a role model to women throughout the ages. Had she been born in the early 21st century, she would be a woman who could break through the proverbial “glass ceiling.”
*William Bingham’s Main Lands 1790-1820; Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Volume XXXVI, edited by Frederick S. Allis, Jr. Boston, 1954