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Jump To:   Guignons In France   St. Domingue Before 1802   The French Campaign   After the French   Looking for an Explanation  


The family of Dr. Louis Joseph Guignon arrived in the United States sometime in late 1805. The first documented presence I found is the baptism of Simon Amable Guignon in Philadelphia in February 1806 at St. Augustin's Catholic Church. The family consisted of Dr. Guignon, his wife, Marie Adelaide Guigne (or Guige), two daughters, Rosine (b. July 20, 1803) and another unnamed daughter, probably older, and two aunts, presumably Guignons. They had left France in 1801 or 1802 and had spent four turbulent years in St. Domingue (present Haiti). This monograph will examine the family's stay in St. Domingue at the height of that country's reckless birth--to the strains of the Marseillaise!--as the first Black republic in the world and the second oldest democracy in the Americas. We know a great deal about the history of that turmoil and some fragments about the Guignons' participation in it. It is a tragic and glorious tale--and the Guignons, though steadfast, were lucky to escape alive.


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Marie Adelaide Guigne (1776-1839)


The source of my information about the Guignons in St. Domingue is threefold: a written reminiscence by Maude Elvina Guignon, a great granddaughter of Dr. Guignon (1960); a printed biography of Emile S. Guignon, a grandson (Missouri: The Mother of the West. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1930); and oral tradition from Julia M. Guignon, my grandmother and wife of Emile S. (1942-48) (PDM 1). The history of the Guignons in Bordeaux derives from a monograph I did in 1980 (PDM 2). My information about San Domingue, Haiti is drawn from several general histories, published both close to the events of 1789-1805 and published recently (e.g. Mary Hassal, Secret History; or the Horrors of St. Domingue. Philadelphia, Bradford & Inskeep, 1808; Barskett, History of the Island of St. Domingo, London, 1818; Thomas O. Ott, The Haitian Revolution 1789-1804, University of Tennessee, 1973; and David Nichols, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Color and National Independence, Cambridge University, 1979).



The Guignons in France


We don' t know yet when Louis J. Guignon was born or exactly where, but I would put the date around 1770 and the place, with more confidence, as Bordeaux, France. We have strong evidence that the Guignons were Bordelaise (all family sources state this and my research in municipal records confirms it, PDM 2). Marie Adelaide Guignon, born about 1776, also appears to be from Bordeaux, (ESG and MEG). The Guignon family is traced back to the 16th century in Bordeaux, were declared "bourgeoisie" in the 17th, and were merchant-traders in the late 18th C. (PDM 2). During the late 18th C. the Guignons were negocians or merchant-traders dealing most likely in the coffee, sugar and other commodities coming from St. Domingue. This is confirmed by the reported birth house of Simon Guignon in Philadelphia in 1806 as belonging to Stephen A. Girard, who himself was such a merchant trader from Bordeaux, with strong connections to St. Domingue.


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Map of France from 1789 showing detail of the area around Bordeaux


Louis was a medical doctor and appears to have married before shipping overseas with the French Army and had at least one daughter in France. The approximate date of his departure with the French Army for St. Domingue would most probably be with the Leclerc campaign in December 1801 (MEG, ESG & PDM 1).  At some point after arriving in St. Domingue he sent for his family of two daughters, his wife and two aunts. After arriving in St. Domingue, they were subject to the fortunes of war and, as French (white), were under constant threat of death from the local armies of black rebels. After the defeat of the French Army in November 1803, the military and much of the French Creole population were expelled. The Guignons remarkably remained for another two years (1804-05), despite the strong hostility to French. Marie Adelaide, the two children, and possibly the aunts, were smuggled out of St. Domingue on an American ship bound for Philadelphia in October 1805. Somewhat later, Dr. Guignon left and arrived in Philadelphia in December or January of 1805-06 where the family was reunited.


These bare facts and reasonable conjectures need to be examined within the context of Haitian history for those years of 1802-05 to give them meaning.



St. Domingue Before 1802


Few people know that Napoleon conducted a war on American soil. Even fewer would know where or why. The where concerns our story: St. Domingue (Haiti). The why is less straightforward but it comes down to money and power. Today's Haiti (and it was Haiti during the Guignons' extended stay, 1804-05) was the richest colony of France, bar none. Canada is nearly 4 million square miles--Haiti less than 11 thousand. But St. Domingue brought in much greater wealth to France during its 100+ years (1697-1803) than Canada ever would. Its wealth was based on sugar and coffee and the slave-labor system that produced it. Looking at the population of St. Domingue in 1789, there were 500,000 slaves, 25,000 French and 30,000 gens de couleur, or mulattos (Barskett). Many of the slaves died annually from both diseases and from overwork. The dead were replaced with new captives from Africa. It was a combination of cheap labor and newly acquired tastes in Europe for refined sugar and coffee. Bordeaux became wealthy as the entrepot in Europe for the refinement and transshipment to other European locations.


But why then invade your own colony? The rub was that some local patriots took the French Revolution seriously. Thus, the decree from the National Assembly of 1793 in Paris abolishing slavery throughout French territory was, amazingly, implemented in St. Domingue. By this time a black leader had emerged who served as a model--not to say moderator--of freed blacks. His name was Toussaint Loverture. His military acumen served both sides well since he was able to reorganize the army, eliminate other black rebels and placate the French planter class. By the time he gained full legitimacy and control in 1800, he began to see value in complete independence from the distant mother country (Nichols).


France had undergone her own internal upheavals since 1793 and now was guided by the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. Having lost the Egyptian campaign in 1800, he was looking for another overseas venture to recharge the Revolution. France owned Louisiana, St. Domingue and Gaudeloupe in the Americas. If he could regain full control of St. Domingue, it would serve as both a base and as a bank account for further ventures in South America. At minimum, he wished to retain the colony's wealth and reinstate the slavery that produced it. But Toussaint Loverture stood in the way. He turned to his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, a veteran of many European campaigns. During 1801 a force of 20,000 soldiers was mustered at several ports and sailed in late 1801 for St. Domingue (Ott).



The French Campaign in St. Domingue, 1802-03


The French army arrived in January of 1802 and was dispersed strategically. Leclerc established his headquarters at Cap Francais, the capital in the north where most of the French Creole plantations were located. The town was burned on his entry in January 1802 but was rebuilt over the next months.


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1796 Map of St. Domingue with CAP Francais highlighted


Fighting revealed to the French military that black troops were as well trained and courageous as any veterans of European wars.  Victories were scored on both sides, but regular military tactics gave way to genocidal strikes that were to prevail until the bitter end in 1803. The rebel general Dessalines killed many whites to counter the French executions, under General Rochambeau, of blacks, both military and civilians. But by May enough victories had been wrested from Tousaint's rebel troops, and defections induced among other rebel leaders, including the brutal Dessalines, that a peace of sorts was negotiated in May 1802 (Ott).


But another enemy of the French was even more effective against its military: yellow fever. It is said that up to 10,000 troops died between May and July of 1802. Two thirds of General Leclerc's staff perished over the campaign, as did Leclerc himself on November 2, 1802. Very few medical supplies were available and men died horrible deaths, unaided if not untended. Dr. Guignon must have had a full taste of war beyond the wounded in this and later yellow fever epidemics. As new troops arrived, they were especially vulnerable to the tropical diseases until they had been "seasoned" for at least six months of exposure.


Fresh fighting broke out on October 14, 1802 after the leading rebel generals Dessalines and Christophe defected to black forces in the interior. The war ebbed and flowed over the next year as rebels pushed the French back to a few towns on the coast and then gave back much of the island by May, 1803. The entry of England into a war with France in that month changed the balance of power. British ships blockaded St. Domingue by July of 1803 and gave Dessalines, now the commander of all the rebel forces, a chance of squeeze the French back into Cap Francois in the north by October. Negotiations were begun in November between the French and Dessalines. Eighteen thousand French refugees, both civilian and military, left in December 1803 on twenty ships for Cuba (civilians) and Jamaica (military).


The Guignons, oddly, were not among those who fled.



Haiti After the French Left: 1804-05


The French military had left an estimated 40,000 dead on St. Domingue soil. Thousands of French civilians had been killed or exiled. Still other hundreds of sick and wounded remained behind in Le Cap Francois hospitals. A significant colony of French civilians remained as well. These were some of the more resistant--or optimistic--planters who were loath of give up on their estates, however ravaged by war they were. Others were the petit blancs or non-landed professional groups such as clergy, doctors, engineers, traders and the like.


They had some reason to believe that they could participate in the new government. Dessalines proclaimed the Haitian Republic on January 1, 1804. The language of the Constitution, copied from texts of the French Revolution, supported the hope that, despite a ban on French ownership of real property, an accommodation could be worked out and their efforts for the new republic welcomed. This hope proved false. Dessalines followed shortly with an inflammatory decree against "perfidious" French presence in Haiti and, despite lack of popular support, undertook a campaign of extermination in April 1804. However, certain white inhabitants such as American merchants and certain classes of French who had "manifested humanity toward blacks"- were spared e.g. priests, surgeons and a few others.


The next three years of Dessalines' rule were a mixture of order and chaos in a land divested of its main export of sugar and plagued with the uncertainty of who among the victorious blacks would prevail in the long run. The still powerful mulatto leaders in the South and West resisted Dessalines' role. Finally, they assassinated him in October of 1806 and rule passed to Christophe, a black leader closer to the moderate Toussaint Loverture.



The Guignons' Four Years In St. Domingue: Looking for an Explanation


As French and military, Dr. Guignon was a persona non grata in St. Domingue--to understate the case considerably. Then, too, what were his wife and family doing there in the midst of a vicious war?  And why, heavens help us, did they stay behind when the French were unceremoniously driven from the island? The hostility of Dessalines toward the French had a very reasonable explanation: getting even for a century of atrocities committed against blacks.  Why risk massacre when the way lay open to escape?


To answer all these questions would require far more knowledge of the Guignons than we have. But there are some answers or reasonable conjectures for each of these conundrums.


First, as to the family's presence in a war zone, it appears that families did accompany military, at least officers, during this epoch. Further, the "invasion" of St. Domingue was not really a "war" against some sovereign country. St. Domingue was still, even under Tousaint's dominant presence, a colony with significant French presence. The short campaign (January-April) and the capitulation of rebel forces by May of 1802 made it appear that all was well. This would have been the time that families would have arrived from France to be with soldiers likely to remain indefinitely. An eyewitness tells of the many Creoles who returned with the hope of a reestablished French control in 1802. As described by Mary Hassal, an American with a Creole brother-in-law, life at Cap Francois was oddly normal with balls, social intrigues and gossip, interspersed with the most appalling massacres just outside the fortifications. 


Thus, sometime around summer of fall of 1802 would be the period most likely for the Guignon family to have arrived. There is the further fact of Rosine Guignon's birth on July 20, 1803 that almost demands that the family was already in St. Domingue by early Fall of 1802. Arrival after July of 1803 was made impossible by the British blockade.


Thus, Marie Adelaide arrived with an older daughter and two aunts.  The aunts seem to be Guignons. At least one shows up in Philadelphia after 1806 and is mentioned several times in later Guignon history. The only realistic place that the family settled would be Le Cap Francois in the north. We don't know much about Dr. Guignon's medical role, but there were two hospitals located in Ca Francois. Since he was trained in Bordeaux, we may assume that he got some education in tropical medicine, which appeared in the 18th c. in local French medical schools. He may also have been trained as a surgeon appropriate to an army career. He would have been extremely busy during the almost continuous military campaigns in St. Domingue 1802-03, as well as during the equally continuous fever epidemics.


How the Guignons lived is unclear. According to the Cap Francois eyewitness there seemed to be plenty of common commodities, not to say luxuries for sale, even if housing may have been scarce (Hassal). One of the two hospitals was apparently well endowed and perhaps the family lived on the grounds. The town was the main commercial port for the country and commercial shipping continued to be present through thick and thin. This offered a continuing source of supplies that sustained the city beyond what was available from the countryside.


Why did the Guignons not leave with the main body of French refugees in December 1803?  As military, Dr. Guignon should have evacuated with the Army. There was the problem of his family, of course, but they could have gone with the civilians. Some military were left behind in the hospitals and this most probably explains the Guignons stay beyond December 1803. Were they also deceived by Dessalines' false promise of amnesty like the Creole planters? Very possibly, but how did they manage to escape the almost total destruction of the French community at the Cap in April of 1804? Again probably the exemption of certain white (French) persons from the death decree included Dr. Guignon, along with priests and other humanitarian types.


The two years between the departure of the French in 1803 and the Guignons' own escape in 1805 cannot have been anything but nerve wracking and perilous. Dessalines had a genuine hatred of whites (French) and continued at intervals to kill the remaining French. At some point, Dr. Guignon must have realized that he could do little to protect his family. While the accounts differ somewhat on how they escaped (MEG, ESG and PDM), there is agreement that Marie Adelaide and family left first, probably in October 1805.  Because Dessalines had prohibited the departure of any citizen of Haiti and sanctioned severely any who participated in such departure (Barskett), the exit was clandestine. The story involves the family being smuggled aboard an American vessel in sugar hogsheads, barrels of about 100-gallon capacity. Hassal recounts other accounts of such escapes. Dr. Guignon left shortly thereafter, perhaps in November. The family was to rendezvous in Philadelphia.


There is confusion about how the family and Dr. Guignon got back together. In the account by Emile S. Guignon, the family arrives in Charleston, S.C. after a series of adventures only to discover Dr. Guignon sick in bed at a local hotel.  The story I heard as a youth has Dr. Guignon proceeding to Philadelphia, only to discover that the ship carrying the family had been lost at sea. Miraculously, however, the family arrives in Philadelphia after having been rescued at sea and taken to Charleston to await another ship.


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1786 French Map of the Atlantic showing the Guignons' travels to reach Philadelphia


The story ends in Philadelphia with the birth of Simon A. Guignon on February 16, 1806. The house where he was born is said to have been that of Stephen A. Girard, a wealthy trader, originally from Bordeaux, whose American ships served Haiti. The connection seems plausible between Girard and the Guignon family because both were from Bordeaux and both families were merchant-traders. It may have been aboard one of the Girard ships that either the family or Dr. Guignon escaped.


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Simon Amable Guignon (1806-1891)


From the story of the Guignons in St. Domingue/Haiti it seems clear that they left with little save the family members and the clothes on their backs. How they felt about those years in St. Domingue is uncertain. But in the accounts I heard and read there is no word of bitterness. It was all quite neutral. Dr. Guignon was, after all, a "guest" of the newly inaugurated Haitian government. He was designated as one of those French who had shown "humanity" to blacks. He and his family had escaped death many times over those four years--from ocean voyages, from deadly fevers, from execution.  But those experiences of overwhelming human suffering surely left their mark. One of the traits that Hassal noted among the French, both in St. Domingue and in exile in Cuba, was that they bore their sufferings and privations with equanimity and good humor (Hassal). So also the Guignons appeared to be calmly steadfast in all of this.


The supreme irony for Dr. Guignon is his death in a cholera epidemic in 1822 out in mundane Kaskaskia, Illinois. After passing through four years of yellow fever, malaria, not to say brutal warfare, cholera may have appeared an easy test of his own strength and his devotion to the sick and dying.


Last Updated July 2000


Jump To:   Guignons In France   St. Domingue Before 1802   The French Campaign   After the French   Looking for an Explanation