A Fable Woven Wholesale

“All the rest is from one end to another a work of the imagination, a fable woven wholesale, a speculation upon the public credulity.”

— François d'Orléans, Prince de Joinville

We live in the information age. It is hard to imagine being in a world where knowledge is not instantaneously available at our fingertips. It is a simple matter to verify a quotation or disprove the assertions of a half drunk coworker who insists that the 9mm parabellum was first used in the Crimean war, and yet it was not always so. Conspiracies thrived in a vacuum of information where a smooth tongue and charming manner could easily overwhelm the limited knowledge of most rural residents. The remnants of one such conspiracy sit a few short miles from where I grew up, on the banks of the Fox River, just outside De Pere Wisconsin.

Wisconsin, or at least northeast Wisconsin, is infamous for the way in which it destroys the pronunciation of European words and names. De Pere is named for the Rapides des Peres, which I am told is French for, rapids of the fathers, so named for the Jesuit mission established by Father Claude Allouez in 1671. Neither the French nor the rapids survived, and the modern Wisconsinite pronounces the name of the town Duh-Pier, emphasis on the second syllable. Sic transit gloria mundi.

High on the west bank of the river is a road and above that a small park, which I recently decided to visit. It was a cold spring day. The wind tugged at the hem of my long coat causing it to billow wildly, while simultaneously threatening to send my cap spinning toward the river. Most of the riverbank is overrun with sprawling mansions, but here, just below the Wrightstown lock, both sides of the bank are clear, fields and forest stretching into the distance. If you ignore the black asphalt roadbed and the string of overhead powerlines, it is easy to gaze across the river and imagine that voyageurs and missionaries beheld the same vista when they first canoed down the Fox River in the late 17th century.

I wasn’t here for the view of turgid brown water swirling through the branches of toppled maples. My interest was in the park’s strange historical marker which had been erected in 1961. The name of the place was chiseled into a large asymmetrical block of limestone; “Lost Dauphin Park”; a name shared by the winding road which parallels the flood swollen river.

In my childhood, my brothers and I had often gone biking down this road, which we like everyone else in the area pronounced like dolphin, except without the L. Through trips to the history museum in Green Bay, I had come to understand that the road’s name was somehow connected to the story of the French Revolution. As a child, I was far more interested in stories about Napoleon, Wellington, and Nelson than in the history of one of the interminably numbered Louises of French dynastic succession. In spite of a decade spent riding around the hills and creeks of Brown County, I had never actually bothered to read the historical marker which the state of Wisconsin had so kindly erected for the enlightenment of passersby.

As I stood in the park on that cold spring morning, trying desperately to keep my hat from blowing into the river, I read the story of Eleazer Williams inscribed on the marker and decided that the time had come, once and for all, to answer the simple question of why. Why did northeast Wisconsin have a park and a road named for the “lost” king of France? The answer to that question, like so many other things in life, is of course complicated.

It is easy to forget, especially in our monolingual Midwest enclave, that the British were not the first Europeans to settle Wisconsin. The French have that honor. Their primary method of transportation was the rivers, which is why the French names, De Pere, Portage, Fond du Lac, and so on, tend to be focused around the river valleys. It is possible, if one is so inclined, to canoe all the way from Quebec City to the Gulf of Mexico with only one minor overland jaunt in central Wisconsin at the aforementioned Portage. Actually, such a trip is almost impossible these days because of a network of dams and locks, but in the early 18th century traders would venture up and down these rivers bartering trinkets for the furs so desperately needed for high fashion in Europe.

This all changed with the Seven Years’ War. Under the 1763 treaty of Paris, which formally ended the war, France lost nearly all of its North American colonies, with the exception of New Orleans and a few small islands off the coast of Canada. The British and Spanish became the masters of all the land bordering the Mississippi .

Smarting from their defeat, the French were eager to bankroll and support the rebellion that broke out in the British colonies twelve years later. Little did they imagine that by supporting American independence, they were sowing the seeds of their own future revolution. While there was growing discontent over the burdensome taxes, raised in part to fund America’s fight for independence, few in France believed that it would amount to anything. This feeling of indifference is seen in a letter dated May 25th, 1788. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, French general and beloved hero of the American Revolution writes:

“The affairs of france are Come to a Crisis, the More difficult to Manage as the people in General Have no inclination to Go to Extremities—liberty or death is Not the Motto on this Side of the Atlantic—and as all classes are More or less dependant, as the Rich love their Ease, and the poor are depressed By Want and ignorance, the only Way is to Reason or persuade the Nation into a Kind of Passive discontent or Non obedience which May tire out the Levity and Undo the Plans of Governement.”

George Washington, who had not yet been elected president, was considerably less sanguine in his response: “I like not much the situation of affairs in France. The bold demands of the Parliaments and the decisive tone of the King, shew that but little more irritation would be necessary to blow up the spark of discontent into a flame that might not easily be quenched.”

History tells us that Washington was correct, the flames of revolution would soon consume all that Lafayette held dear. Nearly four years after crowds stormed the Bastille, the French king, Louis XVI, was executed by the revolutionary government. Ten months later, his widow Marie Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine. This left only the young Louis-Charles, heir apparent and former Dauphin of France, and his older sister Marie-Thérèse alive and imprisoned.

Unlike his parents, young Louis was not executed in public spectacle. He died of what was almost certainly a combination of tuberculosis, malnutrition, and exposure. Because his death in 1795 took place in the dark corridors of the Temple prison, rumors sprang up almost immediately. Was it possible that the boy who had died in prison was not Louis-Charles? Could royalist sympathizers have swapped him for a dying beggar? Once the revolution was crushed, would he return to take his rightful place as Louis XVII?

The royalists can be forgiven for not taking the revolutionary government’s word that the young prince was dead. Marie-Thérèse, imprisoned elsewhere in the temple, had not been asked to identify the body. The body was interred in a common grave. Few people had seen the young prince in the months preceding his death. In light of these irregularities, how could anyone be truly certain that the coffin buried in 1795 contained the body of the prince?

Nearly, twenty years elapsed between the death of Louis-Charles and the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. This defeat established Louis XVIII, younger brother of Louis XVI and uncle of Louis-Charles, posthumously declared Louis XVII, on the ancestral throne of France. Hardly had the House of Bourbon regained the crown, before people began to appear, claiming that they were the “Lost” Dauphin, miraculously spirited away from death; and that they, not the pretender Louis XVIII, deserved the throne.

Enter Eleazar Williams, one of the last and also least likely of the Dauphin claimants. Eleazar Williams was born to Thomas Williams (An Iroquois Chief also known as Tehoragwanegen) and his wife Mary Ann Williams (Konwatewenteta) in 1788. He was raised in Canada and studied at the Congregational seminary in Long Meadow Massachusetts. He and his father both fought on the American side in the war of 1812, where Eleazar was injured at the battle of Plattsburg in 1814.

Eleazar Williams: Wikimedia Commons Eleazer Williams C. 1853
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the war, in the early 1820s, he left New York and moved to Wisconsin where he worked as an Episcopalian missionary with the Oneida tribe. In 1821, he helped the tribe obtain lands near Green Bay, one of many Native American relocations which took place in the early years of the American republic. He received a 4800-acre land grant from the federal government adjoining the reservation he had helped purchase. In 1823 he married Madeline Jourdan a native of green bay. In 1826 he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopalian church. (Up until this time, he had been working as lay minister.) He regularly traveled between Wisconsin and New York, preaching and helping to negotiate treaties on behalf of the Oneida tribe.

In 1841 an event occurred which set in motion William’s eventual claim to be the lost prince of France, François d'Orléans, Prince de Joinville paid a visit to America. De Joinville was the son of Louis Phillipe I, the ruling monarch of France. He was a distinguished French Naval captain; earlier that same year he had commanded the ship that returned Napoleon’s remains from Elba to France. The purpose of the American visit was ostensibly exploration, and also the organization of rapid steamer packets to transmit news and mail between America and France.

De Joinville landed in New York on September 20th and began making his way west. On, or about the 19th of October, de Joinville met Eleazer Williams on a steamer travelling between Mackinac and Green Bay. The two struck up an immediate friendship, owing largely to Williams knowledge of French history in the new world. Over the next several years letters and books would be exchanged between the two men. De Joinville remained in Green Bay for only one short day, waiting to obtain horses for the next leg of his journey, before departing to continue his journey west before finally returning to New York via a southerly route through Illinois.

Less than six months after the prince’s visit, Williams’s fortunes began to decline. The 4800 acres granted him by the federal government were seized under a writ of Fieri Facias issued by the Brown County treasurer, for an apparent failure to pay taxes. The only property which he still held was the small 40-acre parcel on which his house was located. In spite of the loss, he continued to preach, farm and travel.

In 1846, he made his first bid for recognition as a scion of the royal family of France. Supplying information to Stephen Williams, (the resident genealogist of the Williams clan in North America) he claimed that his great-grandmother was Eunice Williams. Eunice was a minor celebrity in new England history; after being captured by the Iroquois she chose not to return to freedom, remaining instead with her Iroquois husband. Her daughter Sarah was Eleazer’s Grandmother. In the 1846 edition of “Family of Williams in America” Eleazar’s claim to royal heritage came not from his parents, who he admits were of Iroquois descent, but rather through his wife Madeline Jourdan, who he claimed was a “distant relative of the King of France.”

It is difficult to say what exactly prompted Williams’s story to change from being a relative of the king of France by marriage, to being the lost king of France himself. However, the timing of this change suggests a likely cause. In 1848, France underwent yet another revolution; Louis Phillipe I abdicated, and the people elected Louis Napoléon Bonaparte to the Presidency of the French Republic. The throne of France was open once more.

Early in 1849, Williams began his public crusade to be recognized as the legitimate heir to the Bourbon throne. He claimed that he was Louis-Charles, that he had been brought to America by a M. Belanger, and that he was entrusted to Thomas and Mary Williams for safe keeping. The singular proof of this story was the fact that he, ulnlike his eleven siblings, did not have a baptismal record at Caughnawaga. The story first appeared in eastern newspapers but by the end of the year it had spread from Wisconsin to Alabama and was even appearing in English newspapers. The tone of these early articles is largely ironic, with titles such as “A Curious Pretension ”. Overall, they tend focus on the strangeness of the fact that an American clergyman of Indian ancestry was claiming to be the lost dauphin.

It is probable that the entire story would have simply faded away if not for John Hanson’s February 1853 Putnam Monthly article, “Have we a bourbon among us?” This twenty-two-page exposé made the startling claim that purpose of de Joinville’s 1841 visit to the United States was to find Williams, and inform him that he, Eleazer Williams, was in fact the son of Louis XVI. At which point, the prince presented Williams with a document.

“The purport of the document,” Williams writes, “was this: It was a solemn abdication of the crown of France in favor of Louis Philippe, by Charles Louis, the son of Louis XVI., who was styled Louis XVII., of France and Navarre, with all accompanying names and titles of honor according to the custom of the old French monarchy, together with a minute specification in legal phraseology of the conditions, and considerations, and provisos. upon which the abdication was made. These conditions were in brief, that a princely establishment should be secured to me either in this country or in France, at my option, and that Louis Philippe would pledge himself on his part to secure the restoration, or an equivalent for it, of all the private property of the royal family rightfully belonging to me, which had been confiscated in France during the Revolution, or in any way got into other hands.”

Williams, according to his account, refused this generous offer being unwilling to “sacrifice my honor”. Later in the article, Hanson records a conversation between himself and Williams, in which Williams concludes. “The prince [de Joinville] cannot deny what I say, and my impression is that he will keep entirely silent.”

“But silence will be equivalent to confession.” Hanson says.

“It will be so.” Williams agreed.

This was a powerful argument, in Williams’s favor. What other Dauphin claimant had a prince of the royal house of france travel more than five thousand miles to declare his legitimacy, even if Williams had failed to, “retain this document … or take a copy of it.”

Contrary to William’s expections, de Joinville did not remain silent. He was in England when he discovered that his visit to America had been suborned by Williams’s narrative. His response was simple and damning. “All which the article contains… which treats of the revelation which the Prince made to Mr. Williams, of the mystery of his birth, all which concerns the pretended personage of Louis XVII, is from one end to the other a work of the imagination, a fable woven wholesale, a speculation upon the public credulity.”

Undaunted, Hanson continued to campaign on Williams’s behalf, eventually writing two books which purported to prove through affidavits, documents, and circumstantial evidence that Williams truly was the Dauphin.

Eleazer Williams moved back to St. Regis New York around 1850, leaving his wife and children behind in Wisconsin. He spent the rest of his life impoverished, appealing to the American government for pensions due him because of his military service. He also appealed for aid as the last surviving relative of Thomas and Mary Williams, suggesting that if nothing else, he certainly was an opportunist. He died in 1858, never recognized as the rightful king of France. He was buried in Hogansburg New York.

By the early 20th century it was generally agreed, even among the widely dispersed contenders for the title of Dauphin, that Williams’s claim was more spurious than most. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Green Bay’s historical society would occasionally remind people that just twelve miles down the river was the home of a man who claimed to be the rightful king of France. In 1943 the Daughters of the American Revolution put up a plaque which said, “This tablet marks the landed estate of Eleazer Williams who served in the United States army during the war of 1812 and who was reputed to be Louis XVII dauphin of France.”

In 1947 the episcopal church, against the wishes of the Franklin County historical society of New York approved the request to reinter Williams’s remains in Wisconsin. One year earlier, nineteen acres of the original Williams land grant were donated to the state of Wisconsin with the intention of creating a park. This park would be named for the “Lost Dauphin”. The plans included restoring the Williams’s homestead and furnishing it in the style of an early 19th century American cabin. After years of delays, the park and cabin were finally opened in 1954. Two years later, County Trunk D, the road which parallels the west bank of the Fox River, and on which the park is located, was renamed Lost Dauphin Road. The future seemed bright.

Unfortunately, like its eponymous Dauphin, the park was doomed to misfortune and neglect. Miles outside the nearest town, and with no full time attendant, it became the subject of continuing vandalism. By 1997, the state of Wisconsin, unable to manage the upkeep, donated the park to the town of Lawrence. The cabin, which had been seriously damaged by fire, was torn down.

The saga was finally brought to an end on April 19th, 2000, when French researchers performed DNA testing on what were believed to be the dauphin’s remains in the Basilica Saint-Denis in Paris. The testing proved beyond a doubt that Louis-Charles Dauphin of France died in his prison cell in 1795. The story made global headlines. The Green Bay Press Gazette ran a front-page story “DNA debunks Dauphin Tale Local historians didn’t believe the legend anyway”. But of course, as history shows, that lack of belief never stopped the people of Wisconsin from repeating and embellishing the legend. And even now, 19 years later, the park’s historical marker still hasn’t been updated. It stands, as it has for more than fifty years, overlooking Lost Dauphin road, asking passersby if Eleazer Williams might not be the lost prince of France after all.

De Joinville believed that the story of Eleazer Williams deserved nothing but indifference. In this he was wrong, mankind can never remain indifferent to the siren song of romance. The story of the Lost Dauphin is, and will forever be, part of Wisconsin’s romantic past, even if that romance is built upon imagination, speculation, and fables.