When I read The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien, I was surprised to find that Niagara Falls was visited by tourists as early as 1804, by people such as Jerome Bonaparte and his wife, as well as Aaron Burr’s daughter and husband. As a follow-up to my post about Niagara Falls, I asked Ruth if she would be kind enough to tell us more, and today she has written this guest post.
Thanks, Pat, for inviting me to be a guest on your blog.
Pat asked me to talk a little bit about the role Niagara Falls plays in my historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. The novel tells the story of the Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy American merchant, and Jerome Bonaparte, youngest brother of Napoleon. The two met in Baltimore in September 1803 and impulsively married by the end of the year. In 1804, they went on a wedding trip—first to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.
At the time, France and Britain were at war. British warships were stalking the waters outside New York Harbor, hoping to catch Napoleon’s baby brother and make him a hostage, so Jerome and Betsy were unable to sail to France as they wanted. During their trip, the Bonapartes had met Aaron Burr, who told them about his daughter Theodosia’s trip to Niagara Falls. (Theodosia Burr and her husband Joseph Alston were the first couple ever to honeymoon at the falls.) Jerome decided he wanted to see such an impressive sight before he left the United States.
Although it’s hard to believe now, Niagara Falls was still a pristine wilderness at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The following excerpt portrays Jerome and Betsy’s arrival at the falls.
On their ninth day out from Utica, they began to hear a low thrumming sound ahead of them. The further they rode, the louder it grew until it was a dull roar, like the distant sound of violent waves crashing on shore. “That must be the falls,” Jerome said. “Burr said that you can hear their thunder for twenty-five miles or more.”
They did not reach the falls that night or even the next day, although the sound increased continually. Their tenth night out, as Betsy tried to fall asleep, she felt the noise vibrate inside her as a physical presence, and she wondered how anyone ever got used to the roaring.
Early the next day, they reached the Niagara River. Riding on the northeast bank, they passed a place where the river divided to flow around a huge, heavily wooded island. Immediately beyond it, the river was about two miles wide, but the rocky gorge through which it ran quickly narrowed.
The crashing water was deafening. Jerome gestured with his arm and led the way to a high point, where he dismounted. Betsy followed and saw that they were on a promontory overlooking two gigantic waterfalls. The near set of falls featured tons of water plummeting from a wide precipice. The more distant and even wider set of falls was curved like a horseshoe. The waterfalls were much taller than she had imagined; they looked to be more than twice the height of the Presidential Mansion. The cascading water churned and foamed, creating a thick white mist that rose for hundreds of feet.
Jerome led their horses away from the promontory’s edge and tied them to a tree in a grove twenty feet away. Returning to Betsy, he slipped his arms around her waist from behind.
The air was filled with a cool spray, and the thunderous sound enveloped them. Mesmerized by the sight of the tremendous stream racing toward the precipice, Betsy felt that it symbolized the way she and Jerome were caught in the onrush of forces beyond their control. As she gazed upstream, she saw a dark shape moving in the water. A young deer struggled in the river, trying frantically to swim to shore, but the forward crush of the water was too powerful to escape. The animal swept over the edge of the falls and disappeared. Horrified, Betsy hid her face against Jerome’s chest.
Was that to be their fate? By defying Napoleon, were they flinging themselves over a cataract to their own destruction?
Thank you, Ruth. Those who would like to know more about this story can purchase The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte at Amazon, in both print and ebook editions.