Wednesday, April 26, 2017
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Joel Barlow - A Connecticut Yankee in Poland

It is strange to find a monument to an American poet in the churchyard cemetery of a small village in southern Poland. What is it doing there and who is this man being commemorated?

Joel Barlow
His name is Joel Barlow, a Revolutionary War veteran born in Connecticut in 1754. His most well known poem is The Hasty Pudding (1793), a light-hearted ode to the New England dish. In addition to being a poet, he was at various times a teacher, publisher, editor, diplomat, lawyer and realtor. With his wife he headed for France in 1788 as the agent of an American land company. Barlow decided to settle there and became an honorary French citizen. He consorted with anti-monarchists and liberals at the time of the French Revolution. He became friends with Thomas Jefferson when the latter was U.S. Minister to France, and with Kościuszko, who lived in Paris for a few years. While in the French capital, the U.S. government hired Barlow as consul to Algiers, where he secured the release of more than 100 hostage American seamen in 1796. He and his wife returned to America in 1805, hoping to live out their lives in their homeland.

In 1811 President James Madison appointed Barlow American Minister to France to negotiate a commercial treaty with the Emperor Napoleon. With his wife and nephew Thomas he returned to Paris. But Napoleon was far away, pursuing his military conquest of Europe. Finally, in late 1812, Barlow was summoned to meet the Emperor in Wilno, Poland, recently "liberated" from Russian occupation by French troops.

A two week wait for a meeting was in vain. On December 5 with the French army in retreat from pursuing Russian forces, his invasion of that country an utter failure, Napoleon bypassed Wilno to the south. Barlow and his nephew also fled south and west ahead of the Russians. On December 18 they arrived in Warsaw and rested for four days before heading toward Kraków.

Already from the start of the evacuation from Wilno, Ambassador Barlow suffered from weakness and fever. It was a rough coach ride in extreme cold and on the road to Kraków he developed pneumonia. Still, he stopped along the way to take a freezing Polish soldier, Adam Piwowarski, into his carriage. During a stop in Żarnowiec on December 26, forty miles north of Kraków, a doctor was summoned. Joel Barlow was taken to the home of Mayor Jan Blaski, where he died in the presence of his nephew, and the French Minister of International Affairs Petry, who had also fled Wilno. Thomas Barlow wanted his uncle's body embalmed and taken to America, but was told it was inadvisable since the Russians were already in the area.

A funeral for Joel Barlow was held on December 28 and he was buried in the churchyard. Adam Piwowarski later paid for a marble tablet to be affixed to the wall inside the church entrance, commemorating the man who had saved his life. A few years later Barlow's widow had a gravestone set over his burial place at her expense. Decades later it had weathered away without a trace.

In the 1920s Polish American historian Mieczysław Haiman researched the death and burial. It was discovered that the graves in the Żarnowiec cemetery had been covered over with new earth many years earlier and new bodies interred over them. But with the help of older villagers, researchers determined the approximate location of Barlow's remains. There was some talk about exhuming the Ambassador's body and repatriating it to Connecticut, but finding it would have been very difficult. In 1995 the American Consul in Kraków helped raise funds for the restoration of the church tablet and it was reinstalled the following May. A ceramic portrait of Barlow was affixed to the wall above it.

Through the efforts of the American Center for Polish Culture and the Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired, especially Richard B. Parker who launched the campaign, a memorial stone was installed in the Żarnowiec churchyard. In June 1998 a dedication ceremony was held, which coincided with the 900th anniversary of the village. Bands and a chorus performed and speeches honoring Joel Barlow were given by regional dignitaries, the parish priest, Bishop of Kielce, the mayor, the American Consul in Kraków and Mr. Parker.

The memorial is six feet tall of pink rough-hewn limestone. Two biographical bronze tablets are attached to it, one in Polish and one in English. It is located in a nook along the cemetery wall. Two centuries later, Americans have not forgotten the sacrifice Joel Barlow made for his country.

Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal

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