The upcoming movie Napoleon brings to the forefront one of history’s most legendary figures, Napoleon Bonaparte. As the film reignites conversations about Napoleon’s impact on European history, there remains an aspect to his life that remains unexplored: the tale of his family’s American connections.
The MyHeritage Research team delved into MyHeritage’s massive treasure trove of close to 20 billion historical records to unearth the fascinating story of the Bonapartes’ ties across the Atlantic.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio in 1769 under the name Napoleon Buonaparte in the newly French island of Corsica. His family was of Italian origin and had lived in Corsica since the end of the 15th century. The Bonapartes were notaries and lawyers and were allied to ancient noble families. His father Carlo Maria Bonaparte studied jurisprudence in Rome and Pisa. In 1777, he was Corsica’s representative and on two occasions, was received in an audience at Versailles by King Louis XVI. That’s when Napoleon joined a military school for the French nobility.
The tragic romance of Jérôme Bonaparte and Elizabeth Patterson
Napoleon had four brothers and three sisters. His youngest brother, Jérôme, was 15 years his junior. While Napoleon was First Consul, Jérôme entered the navy and became a lieutenant in 1801 at just 16 years old. His missions took him to Santo Domingo, Martinique, before he arrived in the United States.
In the summer of 1803, Jérôme Bonaparte crossed paths with Elizabeth Patterson, the lovely daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant. Betsy, as she was called, was known for her beauty and wit.
Betsy and Jerome, aged 19 and 18, fell deeply in love, and got married on December 24, 1803 in Baltimore. However, their passionate romance was met with resistance: Jérôme, still considered a minor, failed to obtain his family’s consent. Napoleon, not very happy with his little brother’s union, asked him to return to France so that the marriage could be annulled. The affair caused a stir and the French ambassador in Washington was removed.
A year later only, Jérôme and a pregnant Betsy made the trip to France. They intended to plead their case with Napoleon. When they arrived at the French port, on Napoleon’s orders, Betsy was prevented from disembarking. Jérôme and Betsy never saw each other again.
Betsy ended up taking refuge in England and gave birth on July 7, 1805 to a son, Jérôme Napoléon.
Meanwhile, back in France, Jérôme found it difficult to get along with his brother, who had since became Emperor of the French. In addition, his marriage to Betsy had since been annulled. He was sent back to the navy, and during this time, he married a German princess.
Catherine of Württemberg, daughter of the King of Württemberg, niece of the Empress of Russia Maria Feodorovna and a cousin of Queen Victoria, was Jerome’s new wife. Six days after their marriage in August 1807, Jérôme became king of Westphalia, a small German kingdom east of the Kingdom of Prussia.
Jérôme was nicknamed König Lustig, “the funny king,” since he was young, impetuous, carefree, and infatuated with his power. Their first son, born in 1814, was also named Jérôme Napoléon, just like his American half-brother!
The Bonapartes in the United States: no less illustrious than their European relatives
Meanwhile, Betsy returned to Baltimore with her son, then 4 months old. Loyal to Jérôme, she never remarried and always proudly maintained her connection to the Bonaparte family.
The original Jerome Napoleon grew up into a fine man. His mother wanted him to marry a European princess, but he was not very interested. After studying law at Harvard, he married Susan May Williams, a wealthy heiress from Baltimore. They had two sons more than 20 years apart, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles Joseph Bonaparte.
Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte grew up and spent his life in Baltimore. In 1860, according to the U.S. Census from that year, he was living as a “gentleman” with his wife, mother-in-law, youngest son Charles Joseph and many servants.
Both of Napoleon’s two great-nephews had brilliant careers. The eldest, Jerome Napoleon, was an officer in the American army before becoming a colonel in the French army under Napoleon III.
Charles Joseph, who, like his father, studied law at Harvard, was Secretary of the Navy in 1905 and then Attorney General in the cabinet of President Theodore Roosevelt. Charles created the Bureau Of Investigation (BOI) in 1908, predecessor of the F.B.I. Charles was married, but died childless in 1921 at the age of 70.
From West Point to the French army of Napoleon III
Jerome Napoleon, the eldest son of Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte and Susan May Williams, was born on November 5, 1830 in Baltimore. He was a cadet at the prestigious United States Military Academy West Point, where he graduated in 1852. Two years later, accompanied by his father, he made a life changing visit in Paris to meet Napoleon III, who — as a son of Louis Bonaparte — was also a nephew of Napoleon I.
The American cousins were well received. This somewhat concerned the sons of Jérôme Napoléon and Catherine de Württemberg who obtained through a family council that their half-brother and his sons had the right to bear the surname Bonaparte but could not inherit from their father. Jérôme, former king of Westphalia, was 68 years old at the time.
This did not prevent their American nephew, Jerome Napoleon, from having a long career in the French army of Napoleon III, who had already granted him French nationality and the rank of second lieutenant. He participated in the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Only after the death of his father, in 1871, did he return to the United States. Back in Baltimore, at age 41, he married a young widow, Caroline Appleton.
The couple had a daughter, Louise Eugenie, the following year.
Their son Jerome Napoleon Charles was born in Paris in 1874. The family enjoyed life in the French capital for a few years before being called to the bedside of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.
Louise Eugenie Bonaparte married a Danish count, Adam von Moltke-Huitfeld, in 1896 and went to live in Denmark. Her brother married as well, but he had no children.
Jerome Bonaparte died on September 3, 1893 in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts.
The Bonaparte legacy: triumphs and trials across two continents
The historical records uncovered by the MyHeritage Research team piece together the fascinating tale of Napoleon’s descendants, and their lives that bridged two vastly different worlds. Amidst the backdrop of political upheaval and a world on the brink of transformation, Elizabeth and Jérôme’s love story evolved into a family saga. Their son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, represented both American industriousness and European nobility, and their descendants had a strong impact on U.S. history.
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Source: My Heritage