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Why Did So Much of Napoleon's Family Come to America?

After Waterloo, the French emperor tried, unsuccessfully, to flee to the U.S. But his Bonaparte relations made quite an invasion.

Few things are as closely linked as the Bonapartes and France. But the famed emperor’s family also had strong connections across the Atlantic. No fewer than five of Napoleon’s seven siblings—and very nearly the “Little Corporal” himself—either lived in the United States or had children who did. Generally sharing Napoleon’s restless ambition, military prowess and knack for drama, these American Bonapartes even included a member of President Teddy Roosevelt’s cabinet.

Get to know the American branches of the Bonaparte family tree:

Jerome Bonaparte

Jérôme Bonaparte. (Credit: Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Jérôme Bonaparte (1784-1860)

Jérôme, the youngest sibling of Napoleon, became the first Bonaparte to step foot in America, in 1803, the same year his brother nearly doubled the size of the United States by authorizing the Louisiana Purchase. At a party in Baltimore shortly after his arrival, Jérôme danced with Betsy Patterson, the daughter of a prosperous local merchant. Sparks apparently flew when his naval uniform hooked onto her gown, and they wed that December, much to the chagrin of Napoleon, who annulled the marriage and refused to let a pregnant Betsy disembark when the couple sailed back to Europe in 1805.

Initial protests notwithstanding, Jérôme acquiesced to Napoleon’s demands, dutifully marrying a princess and serving as king of Westphalia, in present-day Germany. Betsy, meanwhile, returned to Baltimore with an annual pension of 60,000 francs, a substantial sum at the time. Cut off from the Bonapartes, she nonetheless continued regarding herself as essentially royalty, even telling her son with Jérôme that he should “never degrade himself by marrying an American.”

Alas, their son did marry an American, and he had two children of his own. The oldest, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II, served in both the U.S. and French militaries, whereas the youngest, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, a lawyer, joined the presidential cabinet of Teddy Roosevelt. As secretary of the Navy and then as attorney general, he gained a reputation as a trustbuster and supporter of African-American rights, and he also established a force of special agents that would become the FBI.

Jérôme and Betsy’s line of American descendants would last for just one more generation. Their sole great-grandson died childless in 1945 after fatally tripping over the leash of his wife’s dog in New York City’s Central Park. Their only great-granddaughter, on the other hand, married a Danish count and purportedly raised her children overseas.

Joseph Bonaparte

Joseph Bonaparte. (Credit: Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844)

Napoleon’s eldest sibling, Joseph, went incognito following his brother’s downfall and escaped to the United States in summer 1815. After living briefly in Philadelphia, he bought Point Breeze, a massive estate on the banks of the Delaware River in Bordentown, New Jersey. Flush with cash, particularly once his secretary retrieved a box of buried treasure from Switzerland, he also purchased an even bigger property in upstate New York, with a lake at its center that is now called Lake Bonaparte.

At Point Breeze, Joseph housed an immense collection of artwork, furniture and books, as well as royal jewels from Spain, where he had been king from 1808 to 1813. “His library was the largest library in the U.S.A.,” says Munro Price, a professor of international history at Bradford University in England and author of Napoleon: The End of Glory. “It was 8,000 volumes, and the Library of Congress, at that point, was 6,500 volumes.”

Charming and refined, Joseph purportedly got along well with the local townspeople, who helped save his valuables when a fire rushed through the estate in 1820. At the same time, he hosted a steady stream of Napoleonic exiles and dignitaries, such as Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette and future First Lady Louisa Adams. Some evidence suggests Joseph may have even declined an offer to sit on the throne of Mexico, which was then seeking independence from Spain.

After Napoleon’s death, in 1821, the allied European powers loosened travel restrictions on the Bonaparte family, prompting several members to set off for the United States, with Point Breeze as the usual first point of call. Joseph’s two daughters—though not his wife—arrived in 1821 and 1823, and he soon had American-born grandchildren running around the estate. Various nephews came as well.

Despite being embraced by the populace and surrounded by family, Joseph’s private letters show he never felt completely at home in America. “He liked the Americans, he thought they were nice people,” says Shannon Selin, author of Napoleon in America, a work of historical fiction. “But he found it culturally underdeveloped.” Within a few years, his daughters had returned to Europe, and in 1832, Joseph joined the exodus. He twice went back to Point Breeze but left for good in 1839.

His genes, however, lived on in the United States. With his wife overseas, Joseph acquired an American mistress, Annette Savage, who bore him two daughters. The first died young in a tragic garden accident. But the second produced five offspring with an unsuccessful businessman, who was so enthralled to be marrying a Bonaparte that he reportedly took to imitating Napoleon’s mannerisms.

Lucien Bonaparte

Lucien Bonaparte. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Lucien Bonaparte (1775-1840)

As with Jérôme, Napoleon strongly disapproved of his younger sibling Lucien’s choice of a bride. But unlike Jérôme, Lucien stuck with his wife, preferring to live with her in self-imposed exile than become a monarch like his brothers. In 1810, Lucien and his family set sail for the United States, only to be intercepted by a British warship and brought to England, where he was forced to remain until Napoleon’s first abdication. After Waterloo, Lucien tried again to reach the United States, but the European powers refused to grant him the necessary passports.

Lucien ended up living out his days in present-day Italy. Although he never made it to America, at least two of his children did. One son, Charles-Lucien, married Joseph’s daughter Zénaïde, and the couple spent about five years at Point Breeze. Considered one of the premier ornithologists of the 19th century, Charles-Lucien published a four-volume work on American birds and befriended John James Audubon, a fellow American of French descent. Another of Lucien’s sons, Pierre, also visited Point Breeze, as well as New York City, where he gained a reputation for rowdiness and once reportedly stabbed a dog. Pierre would later shoot a journalist to death in Paris.

Louis Bonaparte. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Louis Bonaparte. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Louis Bonaparte (1778-1846)

Like his brother Lucien, Louis went to Italy post-Waterloo and never visited the United States. Louis’ son, Louis-Napoleon, on the other hand, found himself there unintentionally. Wishing to reestablish the Napoleonic Empire, he had attempted a coup d’état in 1836 but was quickly captured and shipped off to Norfolk, Virginia, by the French monarchy. He didn’t particularly like it, writing that the “United States believed themselves to be a nation…[but] were, and are still, only an independent colony.” After just a couple of months in America, spent mostly in New York City, Louis-Napoleon returned to Europe to be with his dying mother, never to return to the States.

Another failed coup attempt followed in 1840. But in 1848, a revolution ushered in France’s Second Republic, and Louis-Napoleon won the presidency in a landslide election. “He’d not been in France for years,” Price says. “He was pretty well a foreigner. It just shows you how potent the [Bonaparte] name is.” Louis-Napoleon later became emperor and ruled France until 1870 as Napoleon III.

Caroline Bonaparte

Caroline Bonaparte. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Caroline Bonaparte (1782-1839)

Napoleon’s youngest sister, Caroline, married one of his top cavalry officers, Joachim Murat. During the height of Napoleon’s powers, the pair ruled as king and queen of Naples, but they eventually broke with Napoleon in a futile attempt to keep their throne. After Waterloo, Murat was executed, and Caroline was exiled to Austria.

Both their sons, meanwhile, went to the United States. Arriving in 1823, Achille Murat would spend most of his adult life in Florida, where he fought in the Second Seminole War, married George Washington’s great-grandniece, purchased dozens of slaves and engaged in a number of quixotic business schemes. A hothead and an eccentric, he apparently hated bathing and once lost the tip of his finger in a duel.

His brother, Lucien Murat, by contrast, settled in Point Breeze and had four children there. Though he returned to France in 1848 after his cousin, the future Napoleon III, took power, Lucien Murat still has American descendants, including the actor René Auberjonois. “They grew up in palaces,” Selin says of the second generation of Bonapartes, such as Achille and Lucien. “That was snatched away from them, but by then they were aristocratic in their interests and habits” and generally believed themselves entitled to “some kind of a political destiny.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte of France, 1769-1821. (Credit: Imagno/Getty Images)

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

After Waterloo, Napoleon’s French base of support evaporated, and foreign armies rapidly closed in on Paris. Knowing that his enemies would kill or imprison him, the abdicated emperor himself turned his sights to America. “The USA was a safe haven, ideologically and practically,” Price says. “It’s clear he would have had a very positive reception.”

In addition to applying for passports to the United States, Napoleon began studying the geography and ecology of the New World, and reputedly plotted to smuggle over millions of francs. He then fled to the French Atlantic coast, where ships awaited to take him to America. After dithering for days, however, Napoleon ultimately surrendered himself to the British, who were blockading the coast, rather than chance a humiliating capture. “It seems extraordinary that he’s so indecisive because there’s no question he could have escaped,” Price says. “But he was not prepared to run the risk to his dignity.”

Napoleon hoped the British would allow him a peaceful retirement. After all, as Selin points out, Britain was “the only one of the major Allies that he hadn’t actually invaded.” Alas, they instead shipped him to the island prison of Saint Helena, where he would die, six years later, of what was likely stomach cancer. During his exile, Napoleon occasionally imagined what could have been. “My great mistake was to turn to the English and to wind up on Saint Helena,” he told a friend. “If I were in America, everything would go well, whereas here, everything goes badly. It’s all an error.”

Napoleon’s genes wound up in America anyway. The fallen emperor’s illegitimate son Charles Léon Denuelle had a son who purportedly joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

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