A Lady of French Royal Blood in the Wilds Of South Carolina: Natalie Delage Sumter
When we hear the name Sumter, if we are reasonably knowledgeable of our country’s history, the first thing that pops into our minds is “Fort Sumter” (lately much in the news) where the first shots of the War Between the States were fired. Do we know how this landmark of history on the South Carolina coast got its name and the subsequent history of this most interesting family? Not likely. I certainly did not know it until I was asked to write a piece about the French Catholic daughter-in-law of the Revolutionary War hero, General Thomas Sumter, for whom the fort is named. It is he who gives his name to the “Fighting Gamecocks” of South Carolina because he was called so when a fellow soldier witnessed his tenacity in battle.
Before we get to Natalie, a little background on the Sumter family: “The General,” as he was always affectionately called after the American War of Independence, was a Virginian by birth who obtained a large tract of land in the South Carolina backcountry in what became known as the “High Hills of Santee” — the Santee being a river of the place, and the High Hills, while not particularly high, being beautiful rolling hill country a distance west of the more populated coastal areas, which are very swampy and low-lying, where Charleston is located.
The General served England in the Cherokee Wars. During the Revolution, and after it, he served his new country of the United States under four presidents. The subject always dearest to his heart was “states’ rights,” as he was of the strong opinion that the federal government should keep out of the business of the individual states.
His son, Thomas Sumter, Jr., more important to our story, also worked in the service of his country. Their large landholdings in the backcountry of South Carolina never made them wealthy. They were what could be called “land wealthy and cash poor.” This was a continuing problem for the younger Sumter and his large family all their lives. It was his wife, Natalie Delage, with her aristocratic French ancestry and her connections with the nobility of her home country, who helped to sustain them over the years. Here is her story.
Children of the Revolution
We have learned how Thomas Sumter, Jr. was a child of the American Revolution.
Natalie’s presence in this country was due to the hideous occurrences in France during that country’s Masonic Revolution of 1789 and later. Since the aim of the Revolution was to “destroy altar and throne,” any and all Frenchmen of noble blood were fair fodder for the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Those who could escape the country did so, or, as her mother and grandmother did, went into hiding. Thousands of French nobility escaped death fleeing to New York, Brazil, or other European countries, especially Spain. Some escaped only with what they could carry; others were able to convert possessions into jewels or cash and took what would sustain them during their absence from France.
Natalie, whose full baptismal name was Marie Louise Stephanie Beatrix Nathalie de Lage de Volude, came into the world a privileged child of the French royal court of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Her mother was a favored lady-in-waiting to the Queen. At her birth, her grandfather, Admiral d’Amblimont of the French navy, ordered a salute fired on board his ship anchored in Boston Harbor to herald the birth of his first grandchild Nathalie. It was October 28, 1782, and the French Navy was still in the area to assist the newly formed United States of America against a possible British attack.
The French Court was considered the most opulent in Europe. Natalie (as she later Anglicized her name) could trace her ancestry back more than a thousand years to the Capetian kings, to Charlemagne and to his grandfather, Charles Martel. One of her ancestors fought in the Battle of Tours in 734, another in the Battle of Tourelles with Saint Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans. Other royal ancestors included Eleanor of Aquitane and Henry II of England. One could say that there was no greater royal baby to be seen in any of the European courts than this little Nathalie.
The timing of her entrance into the world was shaky, however, for France was on the verge of revolution. Suffice it to say that the hungry masses were ready for change and the evil geniuses of the revolution that changed France and Europe forever were greedy for the fortunes and the heads of royalty. It was not safe to be of royal blood as the end of the decade of Natalie’s birth approached.
What happened to the nobility?
It is well known that many nobles lost their heads under the guillotine during the bloody Reign of Terror. It was not only nobility, but thousands of religious priests, brothers, and sisters also met their end on the sharp edge of that diabolical instrument. These holy men and women are not pertinent to our story, however, and are written of elsewhere on this website.
What is not well known is that thousands of royalty escaped the awful fate of the king and queen via self-exile. Our subject is one of these. While her mother traveled all over Europe giving aid and comfort to French exiles, Natalie and her sister Stephanie remained in the care of their grandmother in the city of Bordeaux. As the revolution intensified, Natalie’s father and grandfather, admirals both and royalists to the core, felt obligated to mount a failed defense of the monarchy at Aix-la-Chapelle. It soon became too dangerous for any nobility to function publicly in France and provisions were made to send the de Lage de Volude children to safety in foreign countries. While her father and grandfather accepted positions in the Russian navy, Natalie, now eleven years old, and her governess, Madame Senat, sailed from Bordeaux to New York to wait out the revolution.
Meanwhile, Natalie’s mother, after two narrow escapes, sailed for America (or so she thought!). A fierce storm caught the ship and sent it off course where it landed on the coast of Spain. This brave woman spent the war years in Spain and Germany, where she eventually gathered her children about her — all but Natalie who had made it safely to America on another passage.
An Americanized Natalie
Just before the American Revolution, New York was a bustling city of 20,000 souls, about 2,000 of them Catholics. Remember that it was founded by Protestant Dutch and stolen from them by Protestant British; so the small population of Catholics is understandable. As for the French, there were a considerable number of French Huguenots who fled there as a result of the lifting of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685.
Not all of the new French were Catholics, but a considerable number were. There were the famous (such as the du Pont de Nemours) and the infamous (such as the likes of Talleyrand, former bishop of Autun). There was an interesting interplay between Frenchmen who supported the Federalists and hated the French Revolution and those who supported the republican ideas of the French Revolution, but not the violence, and lent their support to Madison’s and Jefferson’s republican ideas of government. Another group of Frenchmen thrown into the mix were those of the former plantations owners of Haiti who survived the slave rebellions there and fled to this country. (We wrote about these events in the article about Pierre Toussaint, A Tale of Two Toussaints.)
In any event, Madame Senat, Natalie’s tutor and governess, was a trained teacher. She thought that the city’s French population would appreciate an opportunity to have their children educated in the European manner. Perhaps, even some of the Americans would welcome this opportunity. She was right on both counts. Thus, Madame began to look for an appropriate place for herself and her two charges (her own young daughter accompanied her as well). During her search she was approached by a gentleman of the city who offered her a building he owned as both school and residence. He would use part of it as his office in the city while conducting his duties as United States Senator from New York. This gentleman was none other than Aaron Burr, recently widowed, who had a daughter, Theodosia, exactly Natalie’s age. Here was his solution to both the education and care of his daughter while he was at the capital city (first New York, then Philadelphia, then Washington, DC) tending to the young nation’s business. And here was Madame’s solution to her search as well.
While Burr has gone down in history as a bizarre and sinister man, toward his own daughter he was a loving and warm father. He loved Natalie as well and sustained the girls and Madame Senat during their eight years of exile in the United States. He cared greatly about their education and played a part in selecting the books they read and the cultural activities they participated in. In today’s parlance, he was a “hands-on” father. Burr was instrumental in helping Natalie overcome the longing for her own father — who died in 1799 of yellow fever in Puerto Rico — and for her mother and her sisters. Sadly, her younger sister Calixte died at the age of ten in Spain of unknown causes. Her family seemed to be falling apart.
Natalie needed support and consolation now; her great sustenance in these years was the spiritual strength afforded by her Catholic Faith. Madame Senat saw to it that she developed the habit of prayer and attendance at Mass as well as spiritual reading. Her naturally strong personality and rock-solid dependence on her Catholic Faith kept her steady in the face of the hardships she faced as a young girl and woman. In later years, her Faith was more expressive, but she had the undergirding of strength from it even as a young girl.
Politics, a voyage, and LOVE!
It is hardly necessary to say that politics in both France and the United States were somewhat unstable at this time — France because of the upheaval caused by the revolution and the United States because it was just beginning to tread the unknown waters of nationhood. The countries retained close ties due to the assistance that France lent to the struggle of the new nation against England.
Natalie’s foster father, Aaron Burr, had aspirations to the Presidency. When Thomas Jefferson became President, Burr, a rival of Jefferson’s in the same party, became vice-president. Burr did everything he could to undermine Jefferson who worked to make his rival as ineffective as possible. Burr then became senator from New York. Because of a personal insult made in public by Federalist Alexander Hamilton, Burr challenged him to a duel. The rest we know: Burr shot Hamilton who died the following day. This disgraceful event was the beginning of Burr’s public downfall. Although he was not tried for Hamilton’s murder, he was tried for treason because of his plan to establish an “empire” in the western part of the continent. Fears were that he would declare himself emperor. Although acquitted in this trial, Burr disappeared from public life and went down in history as one of the strangest figures in the early history of this country. He remained in touch with Natalie in later years and with his daughter, Theodosia. But we get ahead of our story.
With things settling down in France, many of the nobility in exile were returning. Natalie was now nineteen and looking forward to seeing her mother, her sister Stephanie and her grandmother. Passage was arranged for her (without Madame Senat and her daughter because the ship was too small to accommodate them). Another passenger on the ship was the handsome, tall, and much older Thomas Sumter, Jr. who was taking the position of secretary to the American ambassador to the French government, Livingston. He was the son of the famous General Sumter of Revolutionary War fame, champion of states’ rights and scion of a family that owned 350,000 acres in the hinterland of South Carolina. Sparks began to fly between the French noblewoman and the American hero’s son. By the end of the twenty-six day crossing of the Atlantic, the two were deeply in love and planning a future together.
Without going into great detail, marriage between the two was a near impossibility. As a daughter of France from a long and noble bloodline, Natalie was expected to marry within her station, in a Catholic Church in her home country and with the expected formal marriage agreement, a French tradition. Here she was — wanting marriage with a near-perfect stranger of thirty-three, a Protestant at that, who had two illegitimate children already, and who would carry her off to the unheard of wilderness of South Carolina! The thought of it was preposterous. Her mother enlisted every known obstacle she could throw in their path to prevent this union. She wanted her daughter home in a civilized country, not in the sticks of South Carolina where she might never see her again.
Alas, love won out with the help of several intermediaries, including Ambassador Livingston. Very complicated arrangements took four months to accomplish. They were married in the Capuchin Church in Paris with the permission of the Archbishop on March 20, 1802. Their first child of seven, daughter Natalie Annette, was born the following January in Paris where Sumter and the Ambassador were busy working on the arrangements for the United States to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France.
Paris, London, and home to South Carolina
The young Sumters remained in Paris while Natalie recuperated from the baby’s birth. Thomas had decided that he could no longer work with the abrasive personality of Livingston and made the decision to return home to South Carolina. However, when Sumter was asked to take a diplomatic mission in London, they jumped at the chance to spend some time there while Natalie fully regained her health and the baby was a bit older and ready for ocean travel. This gave Thomas the opportunity to acquaint himself with local cotton merchants in England whom he knew were the best at processing raw cotton, the primary commercial crop of his lands in South Carolina. They spent a few short productive months in London and departed for America on October 2, 1803.
Although Natalie had lived eight years in New York, she had never been to her new home of South Carolina; she had never met her in-laws; she was not quite sure what life at the plantation of Home House in the High Hills would be like. One person that she was eager to see again was her childhood friend Theodosia Burr Allston, who lived in Charleston since her marriage into the Allston family of that state. Natalie looked forward with great anticipation to her reunion with Theodosia. The gentry of Charleston, and later of Stateburg which would be her home, greeted her like the royalty that she was.
The young Mrs. Sumter was to discover that there was only a handful of Catholics in the High Hills. There were a few French Huguenots who had come many years ago, but the primary established religion was Anglican. (In fact, The Carolinas are the least Catholic states of our country to this day.) If her children would be raised Catholic, she would have to petition the bishop to send a priest to the area and begin the Catholic parish herself! The closest Catholic Church was in Charleston, many days’ ride from Stateburg. Of course, in the 1500’s, with the arrival of the Spanish in the Carolinas, Catholicism was the first brand of Christianity to be practiced here (as we saw in Adam Miller’s series, Discovering a Lost Heritage). A number of priests ministered not only to the Spanish settlers, but also to the local Indians, until they were driven out by the English, who made Catholicism illegal. Indeed, despite the so-called “freedom of religion” guarantee, the first Mass celebrated here after Independence from Britain was in 1786 when an Italian priest, just passing through Charleston on his way to South America said Mass for twelve Catholics in a private home in Charleston. It was a tiny first step, but a step nevertheless. South Carolina was a part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore whose bishop was John Carroll. A real church was built in 1790 as Saint Mary’s Church. The slave rebellions in the 1790’s in the French colonies of the Caribbean brought a substantial Catholic population to Charleston. At any rate, because of discord among the priests and the congregation, the early days of the Church in Charleston were not very edifying.
Another thing that Natalie discovered was that the lady of the plantation was in charge of everything that her husband was not in charge of — including the medical treatment of sick slaves. Although the family was respected and influential, they never had enough money to pay the bills that running a large house and land holdings incurred. The Old General was now a member of the United States Senate, which made him very influential. Natalie began to think that a diplomatic post for her husband would help her own tedium and take care of her financial concerns for the plantation. Accordingly, Thomas, Jr. was appointed minister to the court of the prince regent of Portugal who was in residence in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil because of the upheaval in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. By the time they departed for Brazil, Natalie was expecting her fourth child. Another adventure was about to begin.
The Sumters left their home in the high Hills in early July, 1809. Amazingly, they did not return to that home in the American South until 1821, almost twelve years later. Getting to Brazil was no mean task. Natalie’s pregnancy slowed their journey to New York where they would seek passage to the South American continent. Thomas made a stop in Washington, D. C. to visit President Madison. In Pennsylvania, they stopped for an extended time until the new baby, Paul Thomas Delage Sumter (called Delage his whole life) was born. Natalie needed time to recuperate before embarking on an extended sea journey with four little ones. They finally set sail on March 4, 1810. They voyage was a long one of eighty-five days. Yes, eighty-five days.
Thomas and Natalie found that housing was hard to come by given the great influx of Portuguese into the colony to follow the court of Prince Joaô. Although it took a while to find a proper house and settle in, Natalie loved the Brazilian sunshine, the sea, the mountains and the beautiful flower gardens that bloomed year-round. Being of royal French blood, she adored the royal life with the fancy dresses and courtly manners. To her delight, the Portuguese prince brought many French artists, teachers and artisans who gave the court a gentle and very European atmosphere. Three more children were born to the Sumters during their Brazilian sojourn, a girl and two more boys. The Brazilian daughter was named Pauline Beatrix, but was always known as “Brazilia”.
Sadly, Natalie received news during this time that her dear childhood friend, Theodosia, was lost at sea traveling from Charleston to visit her disgraced father in New York. She was mourning the loss of her only child, Aaron Burr Allston, shortly before. Amid her delight in her Brazilian home and large family, Natalie suffered this loss with tremendous sadness.
One of the troublesome aspects of the time in Brazil (to this writer) was the attempt on the part of the United States and the European powers to keep Brazil a colonial possession because Britain and France did not want another great sea faring power to develop. With her vast untapped resources, Brazil had the potential to become a power in her own right, and the colonial nations did not want competition from a potential giant.
Finally, in 1821, the Portuguese throne moved back to Lisbon, and Natalie, Thomas and their seven children returned to Home House in Stateburg. It had been quite an adventure!
An extended visit to France
No sooner had they arrived in South Carolina than Natalie began planning a trip to France. She longed to see her mother. Her daughter Natalie Annette (Nat) was approaching marriageable age and she wanted a Catholic, French, and well-to-do husband for her. She was also thinking of the next two girls, Stephanie and Mary, not yet old enough for marriage, but surely not too soon to begin looking! How wonderful if they would have the same opportunities that she had growing up in the French Court. Mr. Sumter would take some convincing, of course. She would take the two youngest children with her and Nat, leaving the others home with their father. She had hopes that the boys would be educated at the Catholic school in Emmitsburg, Maryland, when the time came, but how to pay? That was always a problem for the Sumters.
Imagine! Only two of their seven children had been born in South Carolina. The three who had been born and grew up in Brazil were more fluent in Portuguese than in French or English. It was indeed an international family. Natalie finally persuaded Thomas that she, Nat, and the two youngest, Brazilia and Sebastian would spend some time in Paris with her mother. In truth, she was more at home in Paris than at Home House. They departed Charleston on June 14, 1823. The monarchy had been restored in France (though substantially diluted by the Revolution), and court life was again lively.
Natalie Annette was promised to and eventually married a French count, Gabriel de Fontenay. It was this Sumter, Natalie Annette, whose offspring would remain in France. Later Stephanie (known as Fanie) would meet and marry an Italian/French/American count, a man named Binda, who worked as a diplomat and owned a trading company out of New York. In truth, Binda seems to have been a bit of a con artist. Poor Mary Sumter sickened and died during her visit to France, probably from the effects of a bout of scarlet fever which had weakened her health some years before. The family stopped in Madeira after leaving France and remained there a year and a half so that Fanie’s health might improve in the semi-tropical climate of the beautiful island. Except for the brief stop in South Carolina after leaving Brazil, Natalie had been away from Home House (and her husband) for seventeen years!
Her sons Delage and Francis were at Mount Saint Mary’s School thanks to the financial support of the royal family through connections with Natalie’s mother. Mary’s death in France was a terrible blow to Natalie and it took her months to recover from the resulting depression. She eventually did and resumed her duties as mistress of the plantation of Home House. There was much work to be done in the house and on the grounds. What was more troubling was the political unrest brewing resulting from the differences between the Northern and Southern factions of the Congress. The old General had been a strong states’ rights supporter and talk of secession was beginning to bubble.
Natalie’s physical health never seemed robust again after Mary’s early death. Their financial problems at Home House, the death of the old General and her own husband’s declining health all were difficult for her to manage. She never again felt strong physically. Cotton prices dropped drastically, another worry for all of the state’s planters, and to top it all off, the institution of slavery, so necessary for the survival of the plantation system, was beginning to be questioned.
Educating Her Slaves
The issue of slavery — as well as that of secession — is a complex one. Both have been covered in previous articles on this website. The fact is that the entire economy of the Southern states depended upon slave labor on the plantations of cotton, sugar, and other commercial crops. The North was happy to take the high tariffs paid by the Southern states while at the same time finding fault with the way the crops were planted and harvested. The breaking point was not far away. For our subject, it was Natalie’s belief that all humans, slave or free, black or white, or any other shade, should be educated, particularly in spiritual matters. If her slaves could not be free in this world, she wanted to assure their freedom to know Christ and the Church so that they could save their souls. Many states, including South Carolina, after one or two rebellions made educating slaves illegal — the thinking being that the more educated a slave, the more apt he was to incite insurrection. Natalie, her husband and Bishop England of Charleston ignored these laws and held formal classes to teach the free Blacks and the slaves the basics of the English language, the Catholic Faith and the liturgy so that they could attend Holy Mass. They taught them to read, and know the basic catechism and, when it was available in their isolated hinterland, insisted that they attend Mass. Natalie held formal religion classes outdoors on their spacious grounds every Sunday afternoon. Attendance was mandatory and only excused because of illness.
As she aged and began to take on more and more responsibilities of managing Home House, Natalie’s spiritual life increased. Her Bible and her devotional reading took up a great part of her day. Her favorite devotion was Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, though she spent much time with Saint Augustine. A sweet custom that she and her mother agreed upon and continued for fifty years was the reading of a particular chapter of Imitation each night, the same chapter together, so that across the vast Atlantic they could be one spiritually with Our Lord. An educated woman, her large library of nearly 1000 volumes included histories of her home country, books her grandfather wrote on naval tactics, works in Italian, English, French Greek and Latin. She was an inveterate recipe collector, both for food preparation and herbal medicinals, since it was her job to act as doctor to their fifty slaves.
Thomas’ death in 1840 at the age of seventy-two thrust more responsibility upon her. Daniel Webb, a slave who had been with them since he was bought by the Old General in 1775 at the age of fourteen, was the person upon whom Natalie relied most. He had served the Sumter family for four generations as both slave and free man. Daniel lived to be one hundred and six years old and is buried near the Sumter family in their burial ground. Natalie knew she could rely on his loyalty and devotion to herself and her offspring. An emancipated slave family to which Natalie had become close was the Ellison family. William was able to purchase his freedom and his family’s; he bought land from the Old General and raised high quality cotton with the help of sixty-three of his own slaves. Ownership of slaves by free Blacks was not uncommon in the plantation economy.
The Growth of the Church
Although there was much prejudice in this part of the South against the Catholic religion, through the years that Natalie spent there Catholicism gained a toehold, then a foothold, and finally began to flourish. She played no small part in that growth. She was persistent with the Bishops until, finally, a parish was created in Columbia, much closer to Stateburg. Before her death she donated Sumter land for the small parish church of the Assumption of Our Lady. Her beloved religion which she believed was the only way to heaven, was finally beginning to gain adherents in the High Hills of South Carolina. Of her children, only the youngest, Sebastian, left the Faith for Anglicanism when he married an Episcopalian girl. This youngest child was a survivor of the War Between the States and returned to the High Hills with only the clothes on his back and his old horse. There to greet him was none other than Daniel Webb, ever faithful, who had hidden twenty-seven bales of seed cotton from the invading Yankees during Potter’s Raid. Sebastian was able to get Home House back in agricultural production after the war.
Natalie’s legacy in both her country of birth and her adopted one is a proud one. Her sons and grandsons on both sides of the Atlantic became soldiers, officers, and statesmen. One of her Carolina grandsons raised a large family with a former slave woman (whom the law prevented him from marrying). Consequently, the great number of descendants of the Sumter family includes all-white and mix-race children. Given Natalie’s lack of racial prejudice, she would no doubt be proud of that fact.
That this pampered child of a long line of French royalty would become the mistress of a cotton plantation in the wilds of South Carolina was probably unthinkable. It certainly was to her own mother. Yet, despite the difficulties, the grinding poverty, and the uncertainty of life on what was the Southern frontier, she retained her dignity, her composure and most would say her beauty. Most importantly, she retained her Catholic Faith. Without that, she surely would not have survived.