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 her remarkable life. The entry below comes from a draft manuscript I’ve written to start telling this story. I would like to find ways of publishing excerpts or analyses but ultimately with an eye to writing her biography further down the road and within the next few years.
In the meantime I am still tracking down the few precious sources connected to her life. Whilst her husband has many letters still existent from his dealings with many famous names (such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington), Maria’s writings are altogether harder to trace. I am keen to hunt these down and build the story from her perspective and not just her husbands. This hunt will no doubt involve scouring through archival depositaries from Croatia to Michigan. It is a task I have enjoyed and look forward to completing.
The Remarkable Story
In Prague on August 25th 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 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 von Bassegli, an enlightened aristocrat from the Republic of Ragusa (nowadays Dubrovnik). Their marriage at St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna broke the hearts of her former suitors, 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, now the Countess von Bassegli.
The Count and Countess moved to Ragusa where her in-laws were not pleased with her ‘lower nobility.’ Naples became their refuge where Mimi became a lady-in-waiting to Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples. After few years, however, Maria lived separately from her aristocratic husband and during a visit in Vienna, came across the thirty-four-year-old Swiss-born military officer Johann Jakob Ulrich Rivardi at a ball. The pair eloped together with the help of Mimi’s close friend, Countess Maria Anna von Dietrichstein, and escaped to France in 1791.
Count von Bassegli back in Ragusa must have begun to wonder about his wife at the same time he heard news about the revolutionary terror breaking out in Paris, where unknown to him, the runaway couple now found themselves. The only safe place away from scandal and tumult, they came to believe, was the United States of America.
When exactly Maria arrived in the United States is uncertain. She certainly visited the island of Tortola on her voyage where she and her husband befriended the architect and abolitionist William Thornton, the future architect of the US Capitol. Maria most likely lived 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.
Although the couple had escaped scandal in Vienna and violence in Paris, it does seem striking that they separated once they arrived in Philadelphia for two whole years; 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 eventually landed him a commission within the US Army as an engineer.
This was testament to Maria’s strong will not to follow her lover and instead forge her own and more comfortable path in her new surroundings – a trait which she kept throughout her whole life. She embraced the wave of ‘Republican Motherhood’ which enabled such women to partake in the new nation’s trajectory.
Their reunion in 1793 after two years apart drastically changed Mimi’s new life further. She relocated with him to Fort Clinton (nowadays West Point) along the Hudson River in New York. Her life was now marked by the absence of other women; her accustomed societal pastimes now replaced with a political uproar brought on by allegations and infighting amongst the officers.
Maria found herself confined to life at the fort and in the role as an officer’s wife. On one solitary occasion she left with Johann when 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.
She showed no signs of losing the aristocratic trappings otherwise. 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.
Yet she had become the furthest and first Austrian woman to travel such a distance from her homeland and was in every way a pioneer.
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 November 18th 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 tribes 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,
21st 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,
6th 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 suddenly leaving 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 absolutist capital of a Holy Roman Empire and in its place was a tightly controlled police state which now oversaw a smaller Austrian Empire and played host to the powers of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. She remained in Vienna for two years before she moved first to Trieste in 1817 to meet with her son Ulrich who moved with his American trading firm there. Apart from her sons, she reneged her American life and shortly began to sign her name as Maria Bassegli again. She became a Countess again and ended her days in Italy and France where she died as a new wave of revolution broke out in 1830.