Maria von Born’s life was one of the most extraordinary women of her time. She broke conventions and defied expectation as she drastically set the course of her own life from her birth in Prague to her life on the frontier to her career in Philadelphia and return to Central Europe. Her hardships encountered in fortifications dotted along the American Northwest Territory and in keeping her finances afloat, created a disaffection with her adventurous life in the New World. She found opportunity in the New World but also found remarkable difficulty. How she confronted and led her life, however, fascinates me without end.
I believe Maria von Born (or Countess Bassegli or Madame Rivardi as she was also known) is deserving a full-scale work devoted to telling the story of her remarkable life. In due course, I will publish a full-length biography of Maria von Born.
The Remarkable Story
In Prague on 25 August 1766, a baby girl was born who would lead one of the most interesting and dramatic lives of the eighteenth century. Her name was Maria Aloysia Anna von Born, but called “Mimi” by her affectionate parents Magdalena and Ignaz von Born. She was their first daughter and the jewel of her father’s eye, who himself shone brightly as one of the leading polymaths of the Habsburg Monarchy.
She came of age not in Prague, but in Vienna. Her father’s celebrity as a scientist earned them not only a lavish household but also a cosmopolitan elite. Aristocrats and the new bourgeoise flocked to the Born residence. “Mimi” developed amongst many notable guests from across Europe from Hannover to Cambridge, Sweden to the Spain. Her best friend, apart from her younger sister “Pepi” of course, was the celebrated novelist Karoline Pichler.
Already occupied a large presence amongst these contemporaries. Male visitors became smitten with her intelligence and vivacity. The naturalist, writer, and later revolutionary Georg Forster even confided to his fiancé that he had fallen in love with Mimi and the orientalist scholar Friedrich Münter spoke of the “ghost of [her] mind” after his stay. The poet Aloys Blumauer, her one-time prospective suitor, penned her numerous love poems.
Despite the scores of writers, thinkers, and radical poets lining to court Mimi, her hand fell instead to Count Tommaso di Bassegli, an enlightened scion of one of the oldest patrician families in the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik). Their marriage in 1787 broke the hearts of her former lovers; although one wrote the verse “So still can separation come to all | As we know your father with metals | The purest silver can be cut.” If the marriage seemed a shame to others, it certainly felt so to Mimi, who now became the Countess von Bassegli.
The Count and Countess moved to Ragusa where her husband’s family were not pleased with her ‘lower nobility.’ Indeed the Ragusan Senate tried to veto their marriage. Naples became a possible place of refuge for the young newly weds where Mimi hoped to become a lady-in-waiting to the Habsburg Queen Maria Carolina thanks to her father’s friendship with the Archduchess Maria Anna. Whilst these plans were hatching, the couple returned to Vienna before disaster struck in 1791. Her father, Ignaz, finally succumbed to his long-time illnesses following a mining accident decades earlier. With his death, the route to Naples seemed firmly closed and the Ragusan family beckoned Tomo and Maria back.
In April 1792, Maria made the fateful decision to abandon her husband Tomo, leaving him alone with their eight-month-old son. She fled with the help of the Countess Maria Anna von Dietrichstein, the Canoness of the Savoyard Collegiate Society in Vienna, who sheltered her from her husband and interceded with him on her behalf. Heartbroken and devastated, Tomo eventually returned to Ragusa where their son died shortly after his arrival.
A short time later, Maria left Vienna for North America. Some years before, she had met the Swiss-born military officer Johann Jakob Ulrich Rivardi at a ball in Vienna. Rivardi had been returning from the war against the Ottomans where he had helped the Russians beseige the fortress city at Ochakov (Özi). With the help of Rivardi’s family, Maria crossed the Altantic, first to the Caribbean where she and her husband befriended the architect and abolitionist William Thornton, the future architect of the US Capitol. Maria moved in with Thornton’s sixteen year-old wife Anna Maria Thornton and her French-born mother Ann Brodeau in Philadelphia.
In the new capital of the American Republic, Maria retained some customs from her upbringing. With her new ‘dames’ she spoke French and through the surrogate motherhood of Ann Brodeau (who ran a successful boarding school for girls in Philadelphia), Maria entered into the elite salon circles of the otherwise drastically different American city to Vienna.
Rivardi, a draughtsman by trade as well as a solider, sought to make a name for himself as a military engineer since most of the American forts lay in ruin and Congress was keen to rehabilitate them. His contacts through Thornton included President Washington who eventually landed him a commission within the US Army as an engineer.
Rivardi’s service, however, put him at the whim of his superiors. After two years spent overseeing the repairs to forts along the eastern United States, his brief reunion with Maria in Philadelphia drastically changed Mimi’s new life further: He was called to serve along the newly-acquired Frontier forts surrounding the Great Lakes. Maria relocated with Rivardi to Fort Clinton (nowadays West Point) along the Hudson River in New York. Along the way, the couple visited a Lutheran church in New York City to be married on October 26th 1795. For Johann this was his first marriage, but for Maria it was bigamous since her previous bond with Bassegli had not been annulled. For Maria, a Catholic, this was greatly distressing.
Maria found herself confined to life at the fort and in the role as an officer’s wife. Her life was now marked by the absence of urban society; her accustomed pastimes now replaced with a political uproar brought on by allegations and infighting among the officers, including several charges laid against Rivardi. She showed no signs of losing her aristocratic trappings, however. Upon the birth of their first son Ulrich in early 1796, Maria requested Johann to order the release of all the fort’s prisoners to mark the birth of their male heir, as was a common royalist custom under the ancien regime in Europe. This request embarrassed him in front of his men and engineering cadets saw him as “henpecked” by his haughty wife.
The presence of wife and child brought Johann further tribulation in his military career. The Jay Treaty concluded that year meant the United States took ownership of more dilapidated forts further northwest than West Point. Rivardi, as a seasoned engineer by that time, fell into the running to go an improve the newly acquired fortifications. From his petitions against such a move, we learn Maria was “exceedingly unhappy” but for her the situation deteriorated.
In the summer of 1796, Rivardi received his orders to proceed westwards to the frontier. Johann, Maria and little Ulrich began arduous journey northwest; their destination was Fort Mackinac, a small garrison on Mackinac Island straddling the gulf between Lakes Huron and Michigan. For the United States, the fortification represented the farthest most distant outpost on the frontier; for the Rivardi family the dismal spot represented their new home.
The journey to reach such a destination was arduous and difficult for any traveller in the eighteenth century let alone a sickly depressed mother and fledgling infant. First a stagecoach traversed the hundred miles of rough paths between Fort Clinton and Albany and then the nearly three-hundred miles onwards to Fort Oswego on the banks of Lake Ontario before a small boat took them across to Fort Niagara and another vessel ferried them across Lake Erie to Detroit. So far the seven hundred mile journey northwest had taken nine straight weeks and for Maria and Ulrich it must have been taxing.
Their passage, however, was only halfway complete and the final trek up across to the tip of the Michigan peninsula still lay ahead since Lake Huron had already begun to freeze. As they arrived on 18 November 1796 at Fort Lernoult overlooking Detroit, however, Rivardi discovered that control of Fort Mackinac had been given over to another officer and instead he took subcommand of a legion of artillery cadets in Detroit.
Although in many ways a merciful development, the young family now lost the income from Rivardi’s more senior position as a post commander. As a result the family fell increasingly into debt. As the lakes began to thaw, Rivardi requested transference to command Fort Niagara, their former stopover and somewhat less remote. On August 7th 1797, the US Army granted the request and the family relocated to Fort Niagara.
When they arrived in November 1797, Ulrich had spent his first year of childhood at Detroit and Maria became pregnant again, this time with their second son Lewis, who she gave birth to at Niagara. For Maria, not only was the dangerous journey even more perilous during pregnancy but she also faced the continual struggle against disease and malnutrition that came as standard with fort life on the frontier.
The fort was entirely cut off during Winter. There were few medical supplies and the fort had problems procuring a doctor. In 1799, Johann wrote to his superior, Alexander Hamilton, “My anxiety is by no means increased at this Moment by Mrs Rivardi’s Situation,” which referred to her fourth pregnancy on the frontier where she gave birth in 1800 to their final child named Marie.
All three of their surviving children were born and raised in American military establishments along the frontier; a world away from the upbringing of their mother in the city palaces of the Habsburg Monarchy. Their lives were threatened by sometimes similar issues like hard winters, economic hardship, food shortages but also by uniquely American factors like the numerous encounters with Native American nations who sometimes clashed with the military encroachment on their lands. Throughout it all, Maria seemed to bear the brunt of the hardship. Exhausting travel, childbirth and childrearing all exacerbated her discomfort on the frontier.
During their second year at Fort Niagara, she faced the prospect of losing Johann for many months at a time since he was frequently sequestered to travel to Fort Detroit and Fort Mackinac to conduct a general survey on the state of the fortifications. His protests to his Hamilton made clear Johann’s concern and attachment to Maria as well as her continuing unhappy condition:
“I am the only Officer in the army whose wife has no relations in America. I cannot not possibly, except in Actual War, separate myself from her and my children particularly as her health is do delicate and as She is deprived of the Comforts she has been used to enjoy.”Johann Rivardi to Alexander Hamilton, 21 March 1799
Hamilton, the orphan, showed absolutely no compassion for Johann as a father and husband in his rather scolding reply and warned him “with an assurance to you that I shall apply a particular attention to the affairs of your post.” In June 1800, he was relieved of position at Fort Niagara; the order ended the almost-exact five year period which the family survived, grew, and struggled on the American frontier. Johann’s new posting to Fort Mifflin (nicknamed the “Mud Island Fort”) relocated them to outcrop in the middle of the Delaware River south of Philadelphia.
As the dawning Jeffersonian era ushered in, so did a new angst over foreign officers and Major Rivardi was honourably dismissed and given a meagre pension in 1802. The new revolutionary Swiss republic also deprived them of any further income from former familial property and they were in a sense trapped financially in the United States. Under these circumstances, Maria lead the family from ruin.
In 1802, Maria founded ‘Madame Rivardi’s Seminary for Young Ladies’ in Philadelphia. The school offered Americans a cosmopolitan education in a European continental style, probably modelled on Maria’s own aristocratic tutorage but also from her experience with the successful boarding school of Ann Brodeau when she had first arrived in the city some ten years prior.
As the school’s reputation rose young girls from all across the United States and beyond attended; from Baltimore, New York, New Haven, Burlington and Alexandria as well as form the cosmopolitan elites of the South or the daughters of the refugee planters from the Caribbean who all desired a refined education and they were more often or not the daughters of the most illustrious families in the United States.
Although there were at least three other so-called ‘French-style’ schools for women operating in Philadelphia at that time, Maria’s soon became the “byword for quality female education and had to shift its quarters several times to accommodate an ever-increasing student population.” Maria petitioned her own funding subscriptions to not only the city establishment but also to the republic’s elites like the Washingtons, Morrises, and then President Thomas Jefferson.
I take the liberty of presenting to you the plan of an Institution, which has, I hope, distinguished itself already during several years and is still susceptible, of being considerably extended & improved… I may perhaps consider this more as a national, than as a local Establishment—I may profess at least that it is my ambition to render it such.Maria Rivardi to President Jefferson, 6 January 1807
One such instance revealed again how Maria never quite lost her aristocratic flavour nor accepted the democracy she found herself within when she pressed Dolley Madison, one of her contacts, for support for the school and to lobby on Maria’s behalf her husband and then President James Madison for his support. Dolley firmly replied that he simply “did not possess the same qualities as a king.” After years on the frontier and returned to Philadelphia, Maria created a microcosm of the enlightenment and cosmopolitanism, but coaxed from the strict Viennese orthodoxy of schmoozing.
Life continued to be difficult however. In early 1808 Jacob died while recuperating in the Carribean, attempting to overcome his old wounds from the Ottoman war. He left behind huge debts, three children not yet of age, and of course his grieving wife who had forgone so much of her life to join him in the New World. For the next seven years, Maria continued to run her school, raised her children and attempted to pay off her husband’s debtors.
Her eldest child Marie helped her with the seminary business, whilst Maria successfully apprenticed her middle child, Ulrich, to a merchant in New Orleans and entered her youngest son Lewis into the military academy at their former home at West Point. Where Maria succeeded in caring for her children’s’ futures alone, she failed in providing for her own. The debts she inherited from her husband finally caught up with her in 1812 and for three successive years she staved off financial ruin and bankruptcy.
However her luck expired in 1815 as rumours circulated that Maria wished to relocate back to Europe and rid herself of her precarious life. Her creditors imprisoned Maria in a debtor’s goal for several weeks in March 1815 where her daughter accompanied her voluntarily but “lost her senses” in the squalid conditions. Upon their release in July 1815, Maria secure patronage for their passage back to Europe; setting out for Vienna via the port of Hamburg.
Maria’s departure ended the twenty-five years she spent in the United States. She had lived through almost all imaginable aspects of American life for a European immigrant and more; from the salon-like culture of Philadelphia, to the wild frontier of the forts, to success and failure in business. She lived through two wars, the Quasi War and War of 1812, and survived multiple pregnancies in some of the most difficult circumstances.
The Vienna she rediscovered was also a very different place; gone was the enlightened cosmopolitanism of the eighteenth century of which she and her family had been at the centre. In its place was a tightly controlled police state which had just hosted the powers of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. She remained with her mother in Vienna for several years, pretending that her daughter Maria was in fact one of her former American school pupils. All the time, she was weary of anyone discovering her American past.
Faced with reduced prospects, she attempted to regain her dowry paid to the Bassegli family as a means of financial income. Tomo had died in 1806 shortly after his father, and the new familial head Count Paolo di Bassegli-Gozze contested Maria’s claims in court. The ensuing legal battle lasted many years before she ultimately lost any right to reclaim her dowry worth thousands of florins.
In the 1820s, she was joined by her eldest son Ulrich who used his trading business in New Orleans and spiritual role within the Baptist Church to travel to Europe. Her daughter meanwhile married an Italian count which allowed Maria to relocate from Vienna after the death of her mother in 1818. By all accounts, she never saw her second American son Lewis again.
Itinerant and nomadic, Maria’s last years straddled France and the Italian peninsula. In Livorno, she sought to educate the scions and scionesses of English nobility; in Paris, she sought to recapture the elegant atmosphere of eighteenth-century Vienna infused with her Philadelphian friends who passed through. It was a half-life and Maria maintained two identities with those she encounter: the Countess Bassegli, née Born, on the one hand; and the widowed Maria Rivardi, on the other.
She died in Nice in 1830.
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