Carolyn’s Online Magazine (#COMe)
WHO IS THIS WOMAN
I’M WRITING ABOUT:
ROSALIE de LEVAL
March is Women’s History Month
March 8 is International (Working) Women’s Day
This morning, March 8, when I decided to review a post on Rosalie de Leval, the main character in my novel-under-construction, ‘She Saw Her Promised Land,’ I didn’t realize the day was to celebrate women.
This historical novel began evolving in 2000 when I realized Rosalie, a.k.a. Madame, was a strong woman never written about.
Frederick S. Allis, Jr.* suggests that Rosalie played a minor chapter in the larger story of the French Revolutionary War emigration from France to the United States. Perhaps—but I contend she plays a more major role, becoming a land speculator dealing with Gen. Henry Knox and Col. William Duer —but then, you can read her character sketch below and make your own determination.
Madame Rosalie Bacler de la Val came to the United States in 1791 to escape the atrocities of the French revolution. In a very short time she entered the (business) world of land speculation in Downeast Maine, part of the Maine Territory of the State of Massachusetts. Gen. Henry Knox and Col. William Duer were purchasing 3 million acre land tracts from Massachusetts, and Rosalie was attempting to purchase up to 220,000 acres from them to develop a community to maintain the French culture for herself and other French emigres.
Only about 10% of the post-American Revolution land speculators worked independently. None, as far as I have encountered, were women—much less foreign émigrés. This identifies Rosalie as a strong and unique woman. In She Saw Her Promised Land Rosalie is placed in actual historic events and her character is developed through the context of actual historical documents.
My task is 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, Rosalie was not “into” romance, needing neither marriage nor a relationship with any man to determine her identity. For her, men were simply a means to an end. However, in her culture, in her times, they were also necessary evil if a strong woman 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 Jean Antoine Gontran Marzel de Leval 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 known for their Revolutionary War efforts and all major players in the Scioto Land grant fiasco and purchasing land in Maine known as 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.
She and her partner, Jean Baptiste de la Roche, climbed Schoodic Mountain ** to inspect the land she wanted to purchase.
After seeing and inspecting her promised land she completed a contract to purchase land she’d seen from atop Schoodic Mountain, laid out the plans for a colony where French émigrés could 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. This conclusion is affirmed in a letter she received from Capt. Benjamin Walker, inviting her to stay at his home in New York: The children shall not disturb you.
Nor are there references to relationships with other women. When she visited with Madame de Gregoire at Hull’s Cove, the feature of the visit was not that of woman to woman, but of French person to French person and businesswoman to businessman.
Her relationships with men were 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 Rosalie 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, Rosalie 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. Rosalie was unable to relate on a more personal level. Except for her reaction to 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.
Rosalie’s project turned sour when Col. Duer went bankrupt and Gen. Knox continued his poor financial management. Up to this time, the land speculators admired Rosalie.
The bankruptcy brought Madame’s work to a halt, since it undercut the inability of Gen. Knox and Col. Duer’s inability to pay the State of Massachusetts for the Penobscot Land Tract, a necessary action for them to receive the land deeds. Without this deed Rosalie couldn’t receive her deed from them, and thereby couldn’t complete the sales to her settlers. Nor could she develop her colony.
Rosalie was a risk-taker. Her contract to purchase the land was based on her selling small parcels to settlers, which would provide her money to pay Gen. Knox and Col. Duer and Knox. No sales, no deeds, no colony.
She 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. She ultimately lost her promised land. Her French colony never developed.
Rosalie 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 her. In fact, his personality was so disagreeable that Rosalie’s biggest business supporters, de la Roche and Benjamin Walker, did all they could to separate themselves from Rosalie.
Ultimately Rosalie appeared to achieve her underlying goals—wealth and power. She 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. Rosalie 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