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Blog | Heritage

Agnes Salm-Salm, a genuine princess-adventurer from Brome-Missisquoi

Princess Agnes Salm-Salm (1840-1912) was a fearless and independent woman, a roving artist and entertainer, comedian and, especially, a princess that stayed close to the battlefields and far from the princely halls. As an adventurer, she played a role in the American Revolution, the Mexican Revolution and the Franco-Prussian War, in the time frame between 1862 and 1871. She became one of the most sought-after European princesses, writing her biography “Ten years of my Life” in 1875 under the name Agnes Salm-Salm.

This strange adventure began in December of 1841, in West Saint-Armand, in the county of Brome-Missisquoi, where Elizabeth Agnes Winona Joy was born. Abenaki by way of her mother, the young métise displayed a strong character. An adventurer at heart, she was in her teens when she left the family home to work as an equestrian artist in a traveling circus, around 1857. After several American tour stops, the circus set up in Washington, where she started performing a tightrope walking act, which brought her considerable media attention. In 1861, she took on a French-sounding stage name, Agnes Leclercq.

Theatrical star in New York for a genuine future princess

An undeniable star in Washington, Agnes Leclercq was swept up in the patriotic excitement surrounding the new American Civil War (1861-1865), writing in her memoirs: “Military enthusiasm was paramount in Washington. The ladies, of course, were not left untouched by the prevailing epidemic; in fact, they were more excited than the men, and not being permitted to enlist themselves they did their utmost to encourage the nascent heroes. Civilians had then little chance with them. Apollo himself would have passed unnoticed if he did not wear shoulder straps.”

But the prestige of the uniform became Cupid’s trap for Agnes in 1862. While touring a military camp of European officers who were there to take up the war effort for the Abraham Lincoln government, Agnes met a young soldier from the Prussian aristocracy, Felix Constantin Zu Salm-Salm. The love interest was mutual between the 22-year old artist and the 30-year-old soldier, who was from the Germany principality of Whespalie.

On August 30, 1862, a secret wedding was celebrated in an Irish Catholic church in Washington to avoid the Prussian families’ wrath. Soon, Felix and Agnes would share an adventurous life amid the frightful American war. Having become a real European princess, Agnes forsook her roving entertainer’s life to follow her soldier-husband on the battlefield. While women had no place in the war effort, the young princess decided to sign up as a nurse in the medical services of the federal army. Her courage on the battlefields and her devotion in the military hospitals forged a new legend as the “Fearless Princess”.

An adventurer in the Mexican Revolution (1865-1868)

At the end of the bloody civil war in 1865, Brigadier General Felix Zu Salm-Salm didn’t have a job, nor did he have an adventure to embark on with his young and intrepid princess. But neighbouring Mexico was the prey in a revolution led by Juárez against the emperor Maximillian. The two lovers plunged into this new Mexican adventure, without really realizing the magnitude of the revolutionary battle.

Picking the wrong side, Felix became Maximillian’s aide-de-camp but in April of 1867, Juárez’s troops overwhelmed and captured Felix with the Mexican emperor, sentencing them to be shot by a firing squad. Still madly in love with her German prince, Agnes travelled throughout Mexico to meet the new president Juárez, to negotiate a deal to spare the life of Felix and Maximillian. Brave in a country that was a prey to guerilla warfare and pillaging, Agnes managed to get Juárez to grant a pardon to her husband, with whom she set out for New York.

A real European princess (1868-1912)

In 1868, Agnes and Felix left America for Europe, with which she was unfamiliar. The couple arrived in the Schloss Anholt castle, a fief of the Salm-Salm principality in Westphalie (Germany). Well received by her in-laws, Agnes would again follow her husband in the war of 1870 between France and Prussia. This time, despite Agnes’s efforts to stay close to him, Felix was killed in the Battle of Gravelotte in France, on August 21, 1870. Felix left her a posthumous love letter, lamenting the sorrowful death that now separated them. The lovely Agnes would never return to America, because she became the darling of the princely European courts. She died, heirless, on December 12, 1912, in Karlsruhe, Germany, but not before requesting that her ashes be sent to Saint-Armand in Québec, a wish that was never carried out.

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