Grazing the western banks of a meandering river in northeast Wisconsin lies a small, 19 acre, rather unassuming tract of land. Although founded as a state park in 1947, this quiet plot of land does not contain the natural wonders, observation towers, or monuments of other state parks. It doesn’t have cars lining up to enter its gates or waiting lists for reservations.
What this park does have, however, is a history as unique and extravagant as any other. A history which boasts of tales of a bloody revolution, an escaped prince, and if the former landowner’s claims are true, was once the homestead of none other than King Louis XVII, son of Marie Antoinette, and the rightful heir to the French Royal Crown.
How could it be that a French King could come to live in the Wisconsin wilderness in virtual obscurity? That is the question many were asking in the mid 19th century, and many of them came to believe it to be true.
The story begins in 1792 with the French Revolution in full force. King Louis XVI was stripped of his powers and imprisoned. Also imprisoned were his Queen, Marie Antoinette, their 12-year-old daughter, and 7-year-old son, the “Dauphin,” or heir to the throne. By 1793 both the king and his queen had been executed by guillotine, making the Dauphin a king at 8 years old.
By 1795, the now boy-king was succumbing to the horrors of captivity. Abused, starved, and forced to live in wretched conditions, his body soon developed a wrath of tumors, lesions, and open sores. The official accounts state the boy died in captivity of tuberculosis at age 10.
Fast forward to 1841, when a former American spy, Indian agent, and missionary living in Green Bay named Eleazer Williams dropped a bombshell – he was the “Lost Dauphin,” smuggled out of captivity in Paris as a young boy and secretly brought to America!
Williams life was as eccentric as it was unbelievable:
Raised by Mohawks in Canada, he claimed he had no memory of his life prior to age 12, though he knew he was adopted as a child. After leaving the tribe to be schooled in Massachusetts, Williams went on to spy for the Americans during the War of 1812.
Williams later became a religious leader among the Oneida under the Diocese of New York, and was astonishingly successful in not only converting the tribe to Christianity, but also leading their migration west. Under his leadership, the Oneida and Stockbridge Indians settled on lands near Green Bay. Williams soon married and settled on a homestead along the Fox River, where he dreamed of creating his own Indian Empire.
Over time, the Oneida felt Williams abandoned them, and he was ostracized by the tribes, and the diocese.
Then, in 1841, an amazing occurrence: the Prince de Joinville, son of the newly restored King of France (and cousin to the Dauphin) arrived in Green Bay and met privately with Eleazer Williams. Nobody knows exactly what was spoken about during this meeting, but according to Williams, this is when he was informed of his royal blood. Here he was told that as a child in captivity he was smuggled out, another sick child used as a stand-in, and brought to America where he was adopted by a Native family – his Mohawk parents. Williams was also asked to sign away his right to the throne in exchange for an array of riches. He refused.
The exiled Indian agent was now a national celebrity. Soon, newspaper and magazine articles spread his story, as did several books supporting his claims.
In due time, however, his popularity began to wean. Before long, dozens more came forward throughout the world also claiming to be the Lost Dauphin, draining his credibility. Rumors had been swirling in France since the Revolution that the boy-king had somehow escaped captivity, providing an opening for pretenders and opportunists.
Shunned, Williams eventually moved to New York, dying alone in 1858.
The mystery and debate over the “Lost Dauphin” would carry into the 21st century, when in April, 2000, DNA taken from a small, dried-up, and hardened human heart, said to have been ripped from the dead boy after his death and secretly saved for 200 years, apparently proved the Dauphin did indeed die in prison. Still today there are those who dispute the DNA tests, clamoring for their favorite imposter.
Although officially not a state park anymore but still on state-owned land, Lost Dauphin Park, along Lost Dauphin Road, is what remains today of Eleazer Williams’ failed empire.
Was this the homestead of a lost King? Almost certainly not. It is, however, hauntingly serene; the landscape, to the informed visitor, tragically beautiful. It is said that echos and energies of the past still remain here, continuing to call out to anyone that will believe him.
Scott Wittman is a professional Historical Landscape photographer, writer, researcher, and traveler. More of his work can be seen at www.scottwittmanvisual.com.