The Vine and Olive Colony was an 1817 settlement of colonial French expatriates near present-day Demopolis.
The settlers were mythologized as noble heroes of the Napoleonic wars in Albert J. Pickett’s 1851 history of Alabama’s beginnings, but their story is somewhat less romantic. In fact, none of the colonists were of noble birth, and the plan by which they were to establish orchards of grapes and olives in western Alabama was ill-conceived at best. Although the Vine and Olive Colony can be described as a failure, many of the French colonists who remained successfully integrated into the plantation-agriculture system of their American neighbors. Today, the myth of the Vine and Olive Colony remains an important facet of Marengo County lore.
The romantic version of the Vine and Olive Colony is based in American mythology about the frontier and the “can-do” spirit of the pioneers. In 1817, the story goes, exiled French military aristocrats loyal to the recently-deposed Emperor Napoleon founded the Vine and Olive Colony at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers. The settlement was so named because the immigrants had been granted the lands by the U.S. Congress under the condition that they plant them with grape vines and olive trees. The French set about their task enthusiastically but with little or no agricultural competence. Thus, their settlement in Marengo County was only briefly an oasis of sophistication on the frontier. More comfortable in a battle or ballroom than behind a plow, they soon faltered. The wilderness eventually broke their will, and they returned to France, leaving their lands to sturdy American pioneers. Subsequent retellings have added new details, but have not changed the story’s main lines.
Photos courtesy of: Alabama Department of Archives and History