History of Demopolis explored by Frenchman

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 11, 2004

DEMOPOLIS – Much has been said of Demoplis’ confederate and civil rights history – even its Native American history – but very few know of its French history, or the fact Demopolis was founded in 1817 by French settlers. That, however, is the subject of a book being written by Frenchman Eric Saugera.

Saugera has spent the last two years here in Demopolis researching its rich French history, after discovering a personal link to that past in France.

“I discovered years ago many letters written from the U.S. to France,” the author said. He said the letters were written by French settlers to family and friends back home, and described life in the wilderness that was Alabama.

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Saugera said the colonists were primarily French officers who had been banished after Waterloo.

“Many of them came to the USA, the land of freedom,” he said. “The U.S. gave them many acres of land in the Alabama territory.”

He said conditions of that donation included planting olive vines, so the colony was known as the Vine and Olive Colony.

“I found about 250 letters written from Demopolis, New Orleans, New York and other settlements in the U.S.,” he said. “Many of them wrote about the founding of the Vine and Olive Colony, which was here in Demopolis. They wrote of bears and wolves and snakes, and life here in Demopolis.”

Though much has been written in the past of these settlements, Saugera said his book is different because it is more personal, it is based on the private thoughts of those earliest settlers.

“These letters give us an understanding of life of the colony in Demopolis from the inside,” he said. “(The letters) are the best private documentation about the colony that exists.”

What he has found interesting, Saugera said, is the similarities between what the colonists described and modern-day life in Demopolis.

“The view of the U.S. by the French two centuries ago is not that different from today,” he said. “The first thing they noticed was Americans were very interested in money. They wrote that Americans speak always of money, it is always on their minds. It is still that way now.”

He said one settler wrote that in America, “if you want to be rich, don’t be a farmer, be a lawyer.” “Now, rich people are the lawyers,” he said.

Diversity of religion was another aspect of American life that Saugera said amazed those early settlers.

“They were amazed by the number of different sects – Catholic, Baptist, Methodist – and today there are 58 different churches in Demopolis,” he said.

The French native said he is probably most disappointed by the lack of French influence visible in Demopolis.

“The memory of the French has disappeared from Demopolis,” he said. “There is nothing obvious to tell you it was once a French settlement. They stayed just a few years, but they were very important because they founded Demopolis.”

Saugera said while most of the early settlers wished to return home, he is sad to say goodbye to Demopolis.

“I think they had a very hard time. Many of the French officers were accustomed to a great life with lots of money, and all of a sudden, poof, Demopolis,” he said. “I am not anxious to return, I like it here.”