Letters bring scholar to Demopolis

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 8, 2003

French scholar Eric Saugera has been in Demopolis for 13 months researching and writing two books. He lives and works in Laird Cottage downtown, sponsored by the Marengo County Historical Society.

Several years ago he discovered approximately 250 letters in the town of Bordou, France, connected to the Vine and Olive Colony that once existed in Demopolis (1817). One hundred of the letters were written by French exiles in America.

His goal is to publish the letters with his historical annotation. The book will concentrate on the founding of the colony and French colonist Jacques Lajonie, who had land on the Black Warrior River one mile from the Yacht Basin.

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In France there are maybe two or three books on the Demopolis colony, he said. However, through his research in both France and America he has unearthed enough interesting material to warrant a second book, a big book not only about the Demopolis colony but also about all the French exiles in the United States. "I’ll explain the political situation in France (at the end of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign)." He hopes to answer why the exiles chose America after being forced from France.

There were also exile colonies in Santa Domingo and Philadelphia. "The roots of this (the Demopolis) colony are in Philadelphia," Saugera said.

There have been articles previously written about the French exiles of the time, but no one has told the complete story. Most of the historical text about this colony is wrong is France. Saugera believes his books will give 99 percent of the story.

The books will take a least three more years to complete.

Saugera’s first visit to Demopolis was three years ago, and his current stay is his fourth visit.

After the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) and the fall of Napoleon, his military officers and family fled France to Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy but ultimately had to leave Europe for U.S., "the land of freedom," Saugera said.

The French soldiers thought they could grow olive trees in the Marengo County soil. "The idea came from the former counsel in Bordou, William Lee," he said. "He was very fond of Napolean, and he tried to help the French exiles."

Thomas Jefferson had promoted the introduction of olive trees into America, but the exiles didn’t realize how hard it would be to grow the trees. None of the vine and olive colonies tried in the south were successful, due to climate and soil. "The olive trees need a very dry soil. It is not the case with Demopolis….The temperature is too hot in the summer."

They quickly had to shift to cotton, corn, cattle and pigs.

Saugera said he now must concentrate on finishing his books on the French exiles. "I spend most of my time with my best friend, my computer," he said. However, he has had a little time to soak up American culture. He likes to watch "CSI Miami" and "Hack" on TV.

He quickly gained 20 pounds from eating American hamburgers.

His eldest daughter Valerie has lived in America for six years so he already had learned a lot about the states from her. Living in Demopolis has been a surprise however.

He admires the patriotism of Americans. "It’s impossible to see that in France….There is great respect for the army and for the police &045; not at all in France.

The concept of alumni and homecoming at American universities is unknown in France, he said.

Saugera also likes the custom of prayer before a meal.

Although he respects the United States, Saugera is not a fan of President George W. Bush or his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I follow the opinion of my country" in relation to the war in Iraq.