Who were the Huguenots?

Courtesy of Findagrave

As any genealogical researcher with French ancestry knows, if you ever bring up those French forebears, the first question you’ll inevitably be asked is “Were they Huguenots?” But who exactly were the Huguenots? Where did they come from? And most importantly, why did so many migrate to America in the first place?

Quite simply, the Huguenots were French Protestants who observed the reformed (also known as Calvinist) form of Protestantism.[1] The rise and fall of the Huguenots in France occurred during one of the most convoluted and complex historical periods in European history. The roots of the Huguenot movement can be found in the rise of the Waldensians, a pre-Reformation sect that split from the Catholic Church between 1500 and 1545, and notably clashed with the royal families. It was in 1545 that King Francis I of France suppressed the movement, ordering hundreds of Waldensians to be massacred in Provence.[2]

Out of this suppression, a new movement arose in the Huguenots, who grew significantly in number between 1555 and 1561. The greatest portion of the movement’s followers came from the nobility as well as those who resided in cities in the south and west of France. The rise was incredibly rapid. In 1559, fifteen churches were represented at the first Huguenot synod; at the synod of 1561, more than two thousand churches were represented.[3] According to one estimate, at their peak in 1562, there were an estimated 2 million Huguenots in France compared to the country’s 16 million Catholics.[4]

In 1559, fifteen churches were represented at the first Huguenot synod; at the synod of 1561, more than two thousand churches were represented.

The term “huguenot” has unclear origins, and several hypotheses have been presented to identify the genesis of the term. One such theory is that it is a reference to Swiss politician Besançon Hugues. Another theory is that the term was derived from the Dutch Huis Genooten (meaning “housemates”), which described bible students who secretly gathered in each other’s houses.[5]

Efforts to maintain the power of the Catholic Church in France resulted in several bloody clashes throughout the nation. Between 1562 and 1598, there were eight civil wars in France collectively known as the Wars of Religion.[6] After thirty-six years of violence, King Henry IV put a temporary end to the conflicts when he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted Protestants the same rights as Catholics.[7] The Edict initially decreased the violence faced by the Protestants, but with the King’s death in 1610, tensions resurfaced leading to a series of small rebellions in southwestern France. Perhaps the most damaging act, however, was King Louis XIV issuing the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. This edict made Protestantism illegal in France, offering Huguenots the option of forced conversion or emigration.[8] It became clear to many Huguenots that France was no longer safe and, as a result, thousands departed in search of a more welcoming home.

Huguenot Migration

While the largest exodus of Huguenots left France during the seventeenth century, believers of Reformed Protestantism actually began their quest for a new homeland as early as 1555. In that year, the colony of France Antarctique was founded in Brazil and quickly became a haven for Huguenot exiles.[9] Those who did not have the desire or means to transplant to a new continent often opted to settle in neighboring Switzerland.[10]

The first Huguenot settlement in the land that would later become the United States was attempted in 1562, when Jean Ribault, a French naval officer, founded an outpost on Parris Island, South Carolina. Ribault returned to France for supplies shortly after the initial settlement, although he was prevented from returning by the ongoing Wars of Religion. Those who remained on the island eventually abandoned the outpost in 1563.[11] The following year, René Goulaine de Laudonniere launched another voyage to America, where he established Fort Caroline in modern-day Jacksonville, Florida.[12] Fort Caroline was an ill-fated endeavor for the French, as most of the settlers would eventually be executed by the Spanish who were enforcing their nation’s claim on Florida.[13]

All told, in the century between 1624 and 1725 approximately 4,000 Huguenots emigrated to America.

Despite the failures of the initial efforts of Huguenots to settle in America, renewed anti-Protestant violence would drive them to further attempts. All told, in the century between 1624 and 1725 approximately 4,000 Huguenots emigrated to America.[14] Many of those who uprooted were wealthy with specialized skill sets, and the loss of these industrious citizens was a significant blow to France.[15] Because of their high status and usefulness in the development of their communities, English authorities welcomed the Huguenots in their colonies.[16] There were several notable waves of Huguenot migration to the thirteen colonies, including:

1624: A group of Huguenots led by Jesse de Forest traveled to South America and eventually settled in New Netherland (later New York). Although he never actually set foot in New Amsterdam, de Forest was a crucial inspiration for the initial settlement of the future New York City in May 1624.[17]

1662: Many Huguenots from La Rochelle, France, sent a petition to the Governor of Massachusetts asking to be permitted to live in the colony. This petition was approved, and it is estimated that approximately 150 families settled in Massachusetts and integrated into many towns.[18]

1685: A Huguenot community was founded in Charleston, South Carolina. Today, Charleston is the home of the oldest continually-active Huguenot church in the United States.[19]

1700: At the start of the eighteenth century, several hundred Huguenots migrated from France and settled in Virginia after King William III of England offered them land grants in Lower Norfolk County.[20]

1720s: During this decade, a multitude of settlers arrived in the Delaware River Valley of New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.[21]

Notable Huguenots and Their Descendants 

Although their population was comparatively small in number, the Huguenots who came to America had a noticeable and often immediate impact. Several important founders in America were either Huguenots themselves or were direct descendants of these religious pilgrims. One such individual was Gabriel Bernon.

On 5 July 1688, Gabriel Bernon of La Rochelle arrived in Boston aboard on the ship Dolphin. Bernon had fled from his native France to escape religious persecution in response to the Edict of Fontainebleau.[22] After encountering other refugees in London, Bernon devised a plan to create a Huguenot community in the town of Oxford in Worcester County, Massachusetts. In 1688, Bernon traveled to New England with his wife, three daughters, and son, as well as forty others for whom he paid passage.[23]

Although Bernon was the major financial backer for the settlement at Oxford, he and his family never actually lived the community. On 25 August 1696, John Johnson (Jenson) was killed in his home along with his children Andrew, Peter, and Mary, leading to a series of further attacks by Native Americans, which ultimately caused Oxford to be abandoned. After the downfall of the Oxford community, Bernon departed his home in Boston for Rhode Island, where he would remain until his death in 1736.[24]

While Bernon’s effect on the French population of the Massachusetts Colony was significant, another Huguenot who settled in Boston would have an even more widespread effect on American history. Apollos Rivoire was born on 30 November 1702 in Riancaud, France, to Isaac and Serenne (Lambert) Rivoire. At about the age of 13, Apollos arrived in Boston, where he would eventually apprentice under John Cony as a goldsmith.[25] Apollos Rivoire is remembered by history thanks to the accomplishments of the third of his twelve children. On 21 December 1734 in the North End of Boston, Apollos (now using the name Paul Revere) became the father of a son whom he named Paul.[26] While Revere‘s accomplishments leading up and during the Revolutionary War are well-documented and he is often associated with American patriotism, few are aware that he is the son of a Huguenot immigrant.

For a period of more than 100 years, from 1624 until the mid-1720s, there was a fairly significant migration of French Protestants to the United States. Many of these transplants would go on to play large roles in the shaping of the ever-growing colonies. Many Huguenots who chose to make the British colonies their home are the ancestors of some of the most prominent men and women in American history, including John Jay, Henry Laurens, Boston’s noted Faneuil family, and Pierre Minuit, the man who orchestrated the purchase of the Isle of Manhattan.[27] It is undeniable that although the number of Huguenots who settled in America was fairly small, the role they played was significant.


[1] Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Royal French State 1460-1610 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 149.

[2] Ibid., 291.

[3] The Huguenot Society of America, “Huguenot History.”

[4] Philip Benedict, “The Huguenot Population of France, 1600-1685: The Demographic Fate and Customs of a Religious Minority,” American Philosophical Society 81: 5 [1991]: 164.

[5] O. I. A. Roche, The Days of the Upright, A History of the Huguenots (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1965).

[6] Ladurie, The Royal French State 1460-1610, passim.

[7] “Edict of Nantes,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Edict-of-Nantes.

[8] Modern History Sourcebook, “Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, October 22, 1685,” https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1685revocation.asp.

[9] Bill Marshall, France and the Americas, 3 vols. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 1: 27.

[10] Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1952), 111-12.

[11] Carl Ortwin Sauer, Sixteenth Century North America: The Land and the People as Seen by the Europeans (Berkley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1975), 196.

[12] “A Foothold in Florida,” Fort Caroline History, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/timu/learn/historyculture/foca_foothold.htm.

[13] “Explorers and Settlers of Fort Caroline,” Fort Caroline History, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/timu/learn/historyculture/foca_explorers.htm.

[14] Claude W. Calvin, The Calvin Families: Origin and History of the American Calvins, with a Partial Genealogy (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1945), 15.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Protestant Museum, “The Huguenot Refuge in America,” https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/le-refuge-huguenot-en-amerique/.

[17] Jonathan Gill, Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America (New York: Grove Press, 2011), 14.

[18] Protestant Museum, “The Huguenot Refuge in America,” https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/le-refuge-huguenot-en-amerique/.

[19] “The Charleston Community,” The Huguenot Church of Charleston, https://www.huguenot-church.org/charleston-community.html.

[20] Chester Raymond Young, Westward into Kentucky: The Narrative of Daniel Trabue (Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky Press, 2014), 39; The Library of Virginia, “Virginia Naturalizations, 1657-1776,” https://web.archive.org/web/20081217223209/http:/www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/notes/rn9_natural1657.pdf.

[21] Calvin, The Calvin Families, 15.

[22] Rhode Island Historical Society, “Gabriel Bernon Papers,” Catalog number: MSS 294, Historical Note.

[23] Town of Oxford, Massachusetts, Huguenot Fort Information Board, https://www.town.oxford.ma.us/sites/g/files/vyhlif4836/f/uploads/fort_information.pdf.

[24] Find A Grave Memorial, Gabriel Bernon, Memorial ID No. 19231732, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/19231732/gabriel-bernon.

[25] William Richard Cutter, Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1908), 87.

[26] Ibid., 88.

[27] Protestant Museum, “The Huguenot Refuge in America,” https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/le-refuge-huguenot-en-amerique/.

Zachary Garceau

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.View all posts by Zachary Garceau