Who Were The Huguenots?
Most simply, the Huguenots were French Protestants. While the term has sometimes been used to refer to any non-Catholics in France, Huguenots primarily were those individuals who adhered to the writings of John Calvin (AKA Calvinists) and the Reformed tradition of Protestantism.
- The term Huguenot dates back to about 1560 when the first French Protestant congregations were beginning to emerge.
- Other contemporary names for the Huguenots were:
- However, these terms tend to describe smaller groups within what we think of Huguenots today.
- Not all Huguenots were Calvinists, nor Genevans.
- The term ‘Walloon’ is seen primarily in Dutch/ New York references to the Huguenots who settled there and rarely among the settlements in Virginia and South Carolina.
- Huguenots are still around today, they are now more commonly known as ‘French Protestants’.
- Huguenots were (and still are) a minority in France. At their peak, they were thought to have only represented ten (10) percent of the French population. After the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and later Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (AKA Edict of Fontainebleau), that percentage diminished with many Huguenots emigrating from France for various parts of the globe.
1) Huguenots settled across the globe, including the Americas
Among the various places that Huguenots fled to were the colonies/settlements (English, Dutch, Swedish, and German) in North America. They also attempted to create settlements in Florida and Brazil. Unfortunately, those in Brazil and Florida were brutally destroyed (by the Spanish). However, most of the settlements in North America survived and flourished. In particular, three in New York, one in South Carolina, and one in Virginia.
2) Huguenots were an integral part of early New York settlements
Prior to either of the settlements in Virginia or South Carolina, there were three separate Huguenot settlements which sprang up in what is now New York State and New York City.
New York City
Around 1624, the first group of Huguenots arrived in the Dutch colony of ‘New Amsterdam’. They settled on what is now Long Island and are considered to be the first European residents of Brooklyn. In particular, the neighborhood of Bushwick. As such, they are considered to be some of the founders of what is now New York City. Later groups of Huguenots also settled on nearby Staten Island. These groups, while keeping some of their French ancestry, assimilated fairly quickly into the cultures of their English and Dutch neighbors.
It wasn’t until almost fifty years later that the next group of Huguenots made their way to New York, creating the settlement of New Paltz.
Cemetery and recreation of the 1717 Reformed Church on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York, USA.By Swampyank (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
New Paltz was settled in 1677 by Huguenot émigrés from The Netherlands and a few German duchies. Many of the founders of New Paltz had settled in Mannheim, Germany prior to sailing for North America. At the time of New Paltz’s founding, Mannheim was part of the Palatinate – one of several Protestant German duchies. The German word for Palatinate is Pfalz, which in the Mannheim dialect was pronounced Paltz – hence New Paltz. The Huguenots who settled in New Paltz stayed rooted in their culture somewhat longer than other Huguenot settlements. Huguenot Street Historic District is a living museum dedicated to their lives and history.
Statue of Jacob Leisler on North Avenue in New Rochelle, New York. By Anthony22 at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL) or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
New Rochelle was settled about ten years later by Huguenots artisans, craftsmen, and their families. This particular group fled from La Rochelle, France, and its surrounding environs. Hence New Rochelle. One of the main founders of New Rochelle was Jacob Leisler. He was of Huguenot heritage and a champion of the French Huguenots in New York. Despite being executed for treason in 1691 (and then absolved of those charges in 1695), he was considered a hero and memorialized in New Rochelle. Also of note, while many of the other Huguenot settlements assimilated with their non-French neighbors within a generation or two, the settlement (and later town) of New Rochelle stayed distinctly French in its culture, even well into the 19th century.
3) Huguenots were influential in antebellum South Carolina
In 1680, the first groups of Huguenots to reach South Carolina arrived. While they weren’t the first or the last group, they were one of the largest. This is due to the fact that five years after the initial immigration, The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (AKA Edict of Fontainebleau) was issued. This edict officially made Protestantism in France illegal, increased persecution of Huguenots in France, and sped up their emigration.
Many of these Huguenots and their descendants excelled in business, industry, and politics during the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming part of the elite class of South Carolina and later the South in general.
Several historical plantations in South Carolina were created and owned by Huguenot families, such as Bonneau Ferry Plantation, Brabant Plantation, and others along French Quarter Creek. Current as of 2014, the Huguenot Society of South Carolina has a list of several hundred known and/or claimed Huguenot ancestors who immigrated to South Carolina prior to 1787.
4) Huguenots were also influential in Virginian society
The last major settlement of Huguenots was in Virginia. Many of those who eventually arrived in Virginia were already immigrants to England from France.
While the English were sympathetic (to a certain extent) to their plight as fellow Protestants, the Huguenots were still French and not even Anglican. So in 1700, the English Crown agreed for the Huguenots to settle in Lower Norfolk County (part of what is now the city of Chesapeake in Virginia). However, upon arrival, the local leadership (AKA the Virginia House of Burgesses) instead sent them to settle a deserted Native American village (Manakintown) up the James River and west of what is now Richmond, Virginia.
Five years later, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act to naturalize those Huguenots still in Manakintown. However, less than half of the initial Huguenot population still lived in Manakintown at that point, the rest either having died or moved into the surrounding areas.
In the following years, many of the original group’s descendants intermarried with their English neighbors and assimilated into the general culture, leaving most of their French roots in the past. According to The Huguenot Society of America, several important individuals in American history are descendants of Huguenots, including George Washington. (Apparently, his mother was of Huguenot descent.)
There are still several references to them in the Richmond area as well as a small but active congregation on part of the original land grant. The Huguenot Memorial Bridge crosses the James River on the western edge of Richmond, connecting with Huguenot Road south of the river. There is also a Huguenot High School within the city of Richmond.
5) Huguenots are still around today (technically)
While Huguenots (and their descendants) in general have integrated into the cultures of their respective homelands, the faith still exists and adherents (including descendants) can still be found in numerous countries across the world including France, the United States, and Australia. In particular, there are still active congregations in Charleston, South Carolina, and Midlothian, Virginia, as well as many other places. The Huguenot Society of America itself is based in New York City with congregations across the nation.
Additional Information For Genealogists and History Buffs
- The Huguenot Society of America (New York, New York) – Founded in 1883, it is one of the oldest historical societies dedicated to the history of the Huguenots. They have a physical library that contains collections on Huguenot history, genealogy, and other related subjects. Access to the library is by appointment only and their collections are generally not digitized. They also have college scholarships for descendants of Huguenots, grants for projects related to Huguenot history and culture, and sporadic events, newsletters, and bulletins.
- Historic Huguenot Street (New Paltz, New York) – Probably one of the more organized historical societies dedicated to Huguenot history. The society has been around since 1894 and has educational programs, research facilities (the Schoonmaker Library is where their genealogical resources are located), events and even shopping (I’ve linked a couple of books from their online shop down below). If you are curious about Huguenot history in America or any Huguenot ancestors, this is definitely one of the places I’d recommend visiting. It does cost money (roughly $15 a person), but given that most historical and living history sites do charge and the cost includes a guided tour, it isn’t an exorbitant fee.
- Huguenot Society of South Carolina (Charleston, South Carolina) – Founded in 1885, the Huguenot Society of South Carolina now boasts over 2,000 members in the United States and overseas. It is dedicated to ‘[preserving] the memory of the Huguenots, [promoting] a better understanding of the values and culture of the Huguenots, and [maintaining] genealogical records of the immigrants to this country and their descendants.’ They have a scholarly journal, Transactions of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina, which is published annually, as well as a library containing over 4,500 items of research material dating back to the 1600s. While it costs money to do research there if you are not a member of their society ($10), their collections are online, so any researcher can make sure that the library has what they are looking for, prior to their visit. They also have an online shop with plenty of Huguenot jewelry, books, and other items of interest.
- The Huguenot Society of the Founders of Manakin in the Colony of Virginia (Midlothian, Virginia) – A smaller society founded in 1922 and dedicated to the ‘memory of French Protestant Refugees who settled at Manakintown and in the Colony of Virginia prior to 1786.’ They also have a small research library located at their headquarters in Midlothian, Virginia. Similar to the library in South Carolina, there are research costs ($25 for prospective members, $75 for non-members), but the library is an excellent place to find genealogical information if you have Huguenot ancestors who specifically settled in Virginia. Along with the library, the society also hosts 3 scholarships for students (1 for graduate and undergraduate students, 2 for high school students) and a shop offering a small selection of books (including genealogies) and Huguenot jewelry. Also of interest to anyone who may visit, the society is connected to a still active church and their headquarters are on the grounds where the original church was built in 1700. Lastly, their website is home to this gem: a list of historical Huguenot buildings in the surrounding counties.
- Huguenot and New Rochelle Historical Association (New Rochelle, New York) – A small subset of the Westchester County Historical Society. While the association itself doesn’t have a website, there is contact information on the link provided above and the Westchester County Historical Society has publications (including a quarterly journal, The Westchester Historian) that would likely include history and information on the Huguenots at New Rochelle. Another resource for local history and possible genealogy information is the New Rochelle Public Library which houses a large local history and archival collection.
- The Huguenots in France
- The Huguenots
- Tracing Your Huguenot Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians (My review forthcoming)
- Huguenot Heroes in America: How Religious Persecution in France Built a Better United States
- The Huguenots: The History and Legacy of the French Protestants and Their Religious Conflicts with the Catholics
- Huguenot Refugees in Colonial New York
Either way, have a wonderful day and stay tenacious!
- Hans J. Hillerbrand, Encyclopedia of Protestantism: 4-volume Set, paragraphs “France” and “Huguenots”
- Roth, Eric J. “”where Ye Walloens Dwell”: Rethinking the Ethnic Identity of the Huguenots of New Paltz and Ulster County, New York.” New York History 89, no. 4 (2008): 346-73.
- “History of the Society,” Huguenot Society of South Carolina, accessed May 26, 2017, https://www.huguenotsociety.org/heritage/history-of-the-society/.
- “The Huguenot Society,” Huguenot Society FMCV -, accessed May 26, 2017, http://huguenot-manakin.org/manakin/society.php.