A Scholar of France’s Collaboration with Colonial Revolutionaries Visits the Origins of Her Research in Westchester
By Barrett Seaman–
A Tulip Poplar tree on the property of a country home her parents bought in France’s Burgundy countryside led Iris de Rode to a career as an historian. Last week, her curiosity about the tree and the aristocratic French general who planted it in Burgundy brought the Dutch-born scholar of the American Revolution to Westchester County—now an expert on Hudson Valley sites she had never seen before.
The house her parents bought in 1995 had once belonged to Gilbert de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette—yes, the Lafayette who led the French expedition that helped George Washington’s Continental Army win the Revolution at Yorktown PA in 1781.
The Tulip Poplar was a gift to Lafayette from his friend George Washington, who had two similar trees planted at his Mt. Vernon estate. Moreover, de Rode discovered, there was a matching Tulip Poplar in France, on the grounds of a nearby chateau owned by the Chastellux family, one of whose forebears, Francois-Jean de Chastellux, was also a friend of the first American president. He too was a general in the French army, serving under Jean-Baptiste, Comte de Rochambeau, whose collaboration with Washington on the banks of the Hudson marked a decisive turning point in the War of Independence.
Discovery of the Chastellux Tulip Poplar in turn led de Rode to a trove of letters in the basement of the chateau, which the Chastellux family graciously allowed her to examine and eventually publish. There were boxes and boxes of them, over 4,000 documents in all, previously unseen by historians. They contained detailed descriptions not only of military plans and actions but also of colonial American life. French officers, de Rode explained to a small gathering of members of the Dobbs Ferry Historical Society at their Mead House headquarters on Elm Street, were instructed to keep detailed diaries describing “not only what they do but what they see” while in America. Chastellux, a student of philosophy as well as a soldier, was particularly insightful in his diaries, chronicling how the colonists lived, what they ate, what were their religions and where they came from. He was in a sense, she acknowledges, an Alexis de Tocqueville before de Tocqueville.
Along with Lafayette and Rochambeau, Chastellux befriended many of the Founding Fathers, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Gouverneur Morris. His letters reveal how much he probed them on their ideas about democracy and their plans to practice it.
The trove of letters became the principal source for Iris de Rode’s 2019 PhD from the University of Paris on Chastellux’s role in the spread of enlightened ideas across the Atlantic. He himself would never get to see the French Revolution, as he died of a fever in 1788, a year before it began.
de Rode is currently finishing up an English language biography of Chastellux that will cover the relationships among the French generals and their American counterparts. That effort brought her back to the U.S. this winter, where she spent time at Mt Vernon before traveling to Westchester. Her visit here was at the behest of Constance Kehoe, president of Revolutionary Westchester250, an organization devoted to promoting the role of local colonists in advance of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Kehoe led de Rode on a whirlwind five-day tour of significant sites that included Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, the Odell House in Hartsdale, Verplanck’s Landing, as well as various battlefields and redoubts.
After a presentation at Dobbs Ferry’s Mead House, which featured an examination of a detailed map made by French cartographer Louis-Alexandre Berthier, de Rode visited the site of fortifications at the top of High Street above what is now the Metro North station, as well as hilltop lookouts and the intersection of Broadway and Ashford Avenue, where the American forces stood parade before beginning their long march to Yorktown and victory over the British.
The visiting historian also joined local students of the Revolution in panel discussions at Odell House, Rochambeau’s headquarters, and in Yonkers. At virtually every stop, she shared insights into those times as gleaned from Chastellux’s fulsome accounts, written some 240 years ago.
Besides men and arms, she observed, the French brought mapmaking and engineering skills the Americans did not have. At the same time the American and French officers maintained close relationships with each other, the enlisted men were kept apart—the French soldiers encamped east of the Sprain Brook; the Americans on the west. The reason: only two decades earlier, these two armies were on opposite sides in the Seven Years, or French and Indian War of 1756-1763.
A few days after taking leave of Westchester, de Rode shared her impressions of the America she had been writing about but until now had never seen. She was struck by the size and scope of the war in the county—how large the encampments and how long the distances were for the French and Americans to travel, mostly on foot.
The rich detail she absorbed from her visit convinced her to add a full chapter on what was called The Grand Reconnaissance, in which the French and Americans sized up the strength of the British forces based in Manhattan from their vantage in the Hudson Valley. “Going to the grounds made me realize its crucial importance for the decision-making process, and the success of the Franco-American cooperation.”
She was also surprised at how alive the collective memory of the revolution is in Westchester. Its elements, she said, “are still to be seen in the landscape and in the names of the streets and towns.”
“Furthermore,” said de Rode, “I was very surprised and happy to see that people are so engaged in their local history, with the historical societies, museums, and signs along the road. It’s wonderful to see the interest and the initiatives that make the story of the Revolution come alive today!”
Photos and additional accounts of Iris de Rode’s visit, including a video her keynote lecture, will soon be on Revolutionary Westchester 250s web site (rw250.org) and Facebook page.