Huguenots and Thanksgiving

Huguenots and Thanksgiving Day

Kenneth C. Davis, NYT 11/26/08

To commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date
would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice
Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New
World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French
settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our
foundational myth, but the record is clear.

Long before the Pilgrims sailed in 1620, another group of dissident Christians
sought a haven in which to worship freely. These French Calvinists, or Huguenots,
hoped to escape the sectarian fighting between Catholics and Protestants that had
bloodied France since 1560.

Landing in balmy Florida in June of 1564, at what a French explorer had earlier
named the River of May (now the St. Johns River near Jacksonville), the French
émigrés promptly held a service of “thanksgiving.” Carrying the seeds of a new colony,
they also brought cannons to fortify the small, wooden enclosure they named Fort
Caroline, in honor of their king, Charles IX.

In short order, these French pilgrims built houses, am ill and bakery, and
apparently even managed to press some grapes into a few casks of wine. At first,
relationships with the local Timucuans were friendly, and some of the French settlers
took native wives and soon acquired the habit of smoking a certain local “herb.” Food,
wine, women – and tobacco by the sea, no less. A veritable Gallic paradise.

Except, that is, to the Spanish, who had other visions for the New World. In 1565,
King Philip II of Spain issued orders to “hang and burn the Lutherans” (then a Spanish
catchall term for Protestants) and dispatched Adm. Pedro Menendez to wipe out these
French heretics who had taken up residence on land claimed by the Spanish – and who
also had an annoying habit of attacking Spanish treasure ships as they sailed by.

Leading this holy war with a crusader’s fervor, Menendez established St. Augustine
and ordered what local boosters claim is the first parish Mass celebrated in the future
United States. Then he engineered a murderous assault on Fort Caroline, in which most
of the French settlers were massacred. Menendez had many of the survivors strung up
under a sign that read, “I do this not as to Frenchmen but as to heretics.” A few weeks
later, he ordered the execution of more than 300 French shipwreck survivors at a site
just south of St. Augustine, now marked by an inconspicuous national monument called
Fort Matanzas, from the Spanish word for “slaughters.”

With this, America’s first pilgrims disappeared form the pages of history. Casualties
of Europe’s murderous religious wars, they fell victim to Anglo-phile historians who
erased their existence as readily as they demoted the Spanish settlement of St.
Augustine to second-class status behind the later English colonies in Jamestown and

But the truth cannot be so easily buried. Although overlooked a brutal first chapter
had been written in the most untidy history of a “Christian nation.” And the secretarian
violence and hatred that ended with the deaths of a few hundred Huguenots in 1566
would be replayed often in early America, the supposed haven for religious dissent,
which in fact tolerated next to one.

Starting with those massacred French pilgrims, the saga of the nation’s birth and
growth is often a bloodstained one, filled with religious animosities. In Boston, for
instance, the Puritan fathers banned Catholic priests and executed several Quakers
between 1659 and 1661. Cotton Mather, the famed Puritan cleric, led the war cried
against New England’s Abenaki “savages” who had learned their prayers from the
French Jesuits. The colony of Georgia was established in 1732 as a buffer between the
Protestant English colonies and the Spanish missions of Florida; its original charter
banned Catholics. The bitter rivalry between Catholic France and Protestant England
carried on for most of a century, giving rise to anti-Catholic laws, while a mistrust of
Canada’s French Catholics helped fire many patriots’ passion for independence. As late
as 1844, Philadelphia’s anti-Catholic “Bible Riots” took the lives of more than a dozen

The list goes on. Our history is littered with bleak tableaus that show what happens
when righteous certitude is mixed with fearful ignorance. Which is why this
Thanksgiving, as we express gratitude for America’s bounty and promise, we would do
well to reflect on all our histories, including a forgotten French one that began on
Florida’s shores so many years ago.

North America
Main article: The Huguenot Society of America (from Wikiapedia)
Barred from settling in New France, many Huguenots nevertheless moved to North
America, settling instead to the Dutch colony of New Netherland (later incorporated into
New York and New Jersey), as well as to the Thirteen Colonies of Great Britain and
Nova Scotia. A significant number of New Amsterdam’s families were of Huguenot origin,
often having emigrated to the Netherlands in the previous century. The Huguenot
congregation was formally established in 1628 as L’Église française à la Nouvelle-
Amsterdam. This parish continues today as L’Eglise du Saint-Esprit part of the
Episcopal (Anglican) communion still welcoming Francophone New Yorkers from all over
the world. Services are still conducted in French for a Francophone parish community,
and members of the Huguenot Society of America.

Huguenot immigrants founded New Paltz, New York, where is now located the oldest
street in the current United States of America with the original stone houses, and New
Rochelle, New York (named after La Rochelle in France). Louis DuBois, son of Chretien
DuBois was one of the original Huguenot settlers in this area[14]. A Huguenot
settlement on the south shore of Staten Island, New York was founded by Daniel Perrin
in 1692. The present day neighborhood of Huguenot was named after Perrin and these
early settlers.

Some Huguenot immigrants settled in Central Pennsylvania. There, they assimilated
with the predominately Pennsylvania German settlers. Surnames of Huguenot origin
found in the area include Forry, Free, Laucks, Lorah, Motter, Rank, Ronk, Ranck, and

Some of the settlers chose the Virginia Colony (John Broache is one on record), and
formed communities in present-day Chesterfield County and at Manakintown, an
abandoned Monacan village now located in Powhatan County about 20 miles (32 km)
west of downtown Richmond, Virginia, where their descendants continue to reside. On
May 12, 1705, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act to naturalize the 148
Huguenots resident at Manakintown. [15]

The Huguenot Memorial Bridge across the James River and Huguenot Road was named
in their honor, as were many local features including several schools, including
Huguenot High School.

Many Huguenots also settled in the area around the current site of Charleston, South
Carolina. In 1685, Rev. Elie Prioleau from the town of Pons in France settled in what
was then called Charlestown. He became pastor of the first Huguenot church in North
America in that city. The French Huguenot Church of Charleston, which remains
independent, is the oldest continuously active Huguenot congregation in the United
States today. L’Eglise du Saint-Esprit in NY is older, founded in 1628, but left the
French Reformed movement in 1804 to become part of the Episcopal Church in

Most of the Huguenot congregations in North America merged or affiliated with other
Protestant denominations, such the Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church,
United Church of Christ, Reformed Churches, the Reformed Baptists and the Mennonite

American Huguenots readily married outside their immediate French Huguenot
communities, leading to rapid assimilation. They made an enormous contribution to
American economic life, especially as merchants and artisans in the late Colonial and
early Federal periods. One outstanding contribution was the establishment of the
Brandywine powder mills by E.I. du Pont, a former student of Lavoisier.

Paul Revere was descended from Huguenot refugees, as were Henry Laurens who
signed the Declaration of Independence for South Carolina, Alexander Hamilton, and a
number of other leaders of the American Revolution.


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