The Lafayette Trail Traces a Noteworthy Path
By Joanna Wendel
The Marquis de Lafayette played a major role in the American Revolution and helped build an enduring friendship between France and the United States. Across the country, dozens of cities, counties, and streets bear Lafayette’s name. Broadway fans know him as a major character in Act I of the musical Hamilton.
Today, many people may not realize how popular and influential Lafayette was during his lifetime. The Lafayette Trail, a nonprofit organization founded by Julien Ilcher, is working to promote Lafayette’s legacy by installing a national network of trail markers that trace his “grand tour” of the United States between 1824 and 1825. Ilcher hopes to introduce Lafayette’s story to a new generation, highlighting his role in French-American relations and his commitment to the ideals of liberty, human rights, and the abolition of slavery.
A Bold Frenchman
Lafayette, as he became known in the United States, was born Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert due Motier de La Fayette in 1757. By 1775, he seemed poised to enjoy a quiet life at the French court, with a large inheritance, a wife, and a position as a captain of dragoons.
However, Lafayette found himself captivated by the turmoil unfolding in the American colonies. During a dinner with the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III, Lafayette learned of the colonists’ demands for liberty, and of their efforts to organize a Continental Army under George Washington. He resolved to aid the colonists in their struggle, later recalling that “My heart was enlisted, and I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.”
Against the wishes of his family, Lafayette—who was only 19 at the time and had no previous combat experience —set sail in early 1777, landing in South Carolina and making his way to Philadelphia. He quickly learned English and became close friends with Washington. After sustaining a leg wound during the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette was given command of his own division, and went on to fight in several key battles.
In the winter of 1778, Lafayette returned to France and persuaded Louis XVI to send troops to aid the colonists. Lafayette returned to the colonies in 1780, befriended Thomas Jefferson, and ultimately played a major role in the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, which effectively ended the Revolution.
In the 1780s, Lafayette became involved in the anti-slavery movement in France. During a return visit to the United States from 1784 to 1785, Lafayette spoke publicly in favor of the “liberty of all mankind,” and even urged Washington to free his slaves (without success). He continued to lobby for the abolition of slavery for the rest of his life.
In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to return to the United States for a grand tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. Lafayette planned to stay for only four months, but the tour lasted 16 months and included stops in all 24 states.
During his stop in Boston, Lafayette laid the cornerstone for the monument to the Battle of Bunker Hill. When Lafayette passed away in 1834, he was buried under soil that he had brought back from Bunker Hill to Paris, fulfilling his wish to be laid to rest under both French and American soil.
The Lafayette Trail Project
Ilcher, a native of France, conceived of the Lafayette Trail in 2017 while working at the French consulate in Boston. Initially, he focused on retracing Lafayette’s path through New England, but later expanded the scope of the project to cover all states visited during the grand tour.
The Lafayette Trail began as a virtual map. More recently, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, the foundation has begun to install physical trail markers at sites that Lafayette is known to have visited. 17 markers have been installed so far, but eventually, Ilcher hopes to install at least 175.
The organization is focused on installing more trail markers, and Ilcher is currently recording a video series called “Follow the Frenchmen.” The foundation is also preparing for the bicentennial of Lafayette’s tour in 2024, which they plan to commemorate with lectures, reenactments, and other events.
For more information about the Lafayette Trail, please visit the foundation’s website.