By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
A few years ago on a visit to Dublin I passed a small Huguenot cemetery nestled beside a row of restored Georgian houses near St. Stephen’s Green in the heart of that city. It brought to mind the story of the emigration of French Huguenots to this country and their role in our own local history. In 1660, when the Dutch were attempting to stamp out Quakerism here, a number of French Huguenots settled in Flushing and introduced the industry of horticulture for which this area became famous.
“Huguenot” is a term attributed to French Calvinists or Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries. Many incorrect derivations have been cited as the origin of that name, but the most favored explanation derives from the fact that French Protestants from Tours met in the early days near the “gate of King Hugo.”
The story of the Huguenots harks back to the time of religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Protestantism had been introduced to France by 1520, and its tenets were accepted by many noblemen, intellectuals and the middle classes. The new religion was at first protected by royalty, but by the end of the reign of Francis I, and his successor Henry II, French Protestants were persecuted for their beliefs Despite this their numbers continued to increase.
By the time of Charles IX the religious intolerance and political strife it engendered led to civil war. Between 1562 and 1598 eight “civil” wars marked by several treaties of peace took place. Acts of treachery and massacres continued the unrest.
In 1598 Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes which granted the Huguenots almost complete religious freedom. With these new liberties the Huguenots became a strong political force in France. However, with the absolutist government Louis XIII, and especially Louis XIV, espoused, new persecutions of the Huguenots were instigated and once again civil war broke out.
On Oct. 18, 1685 King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. Louis XIV was particularly merciless in his persecution and featured a practice of harassing the Huguenots who refused to renounce their heresy, a practice called “dragonnade.” This was the billeting of the most rowdy dragoons in their homes and disregarding the soldiers’ misconduct. Given a free hand the situation led to obvious results. (Dragoons were mounted infantry who carried a carbine called a “dragon” because it spouted fire like the beast for which it was named. To “dragoon” today also means to persecute.)
With the evocation of the Edict of Nantes and the resumption of persecution, the Huguenots found life in France intolerable, and they emigrated to the Netherlands, Switzerland, England, Germany and to the colonies in America, almost 500,000 in number. This number included an important portion of France’s craftsmen, businessmen and scholars, as well as so many seamen that the French shipping industry did not recover for generations.
Though the legal enforcement of the Act of Revocation of the Edict of Nantes contributed to the mass emigration, it was the outrageous acts committed against the people and property of the Huguenots that led to the mass emigration and depopulated whole cities and regions of France.
In 1624 a group of Walloons, Hugenot refugees, so named by the Dutch, established the first permanent European settlement in Manhattan. Sponsored by the Dutch West Indies Company, these settlers were followed by other Huguenot refugees from the Netherlands and Germany, among them Peter Minuit and the Bayard family. In 1637 two Huguenot brothers, Hendrick and Isaac DeForest, started a settlement in Harlem which became a Huguenot center.
By 1650 Huguenots made up a fifth of New Amsterdam’s population. Among them was a Huguenot of German ancestry, Jacob Leisler, who became the city’s agent for settling Huguenot refugees. He is better known as the leader who sparked a period of unrest (1689-91) known as Leisler’s Rebellion, a divisive conflict which shaped bitter factionalism in city politics for decades to come.
Well assimilated by the 18th century, the Huguenot merchants among whom were Stephen DeLancy and Peter Jay, became civic leaders. Huguenot craftsmen, especially silversmiths, distinguished themselves as well.
Wherever they settled the Huguenots founded new industries or refined established ones. They also peopled armies and navies. When they came they did so in small groups and blended their skills into the community without friction, and were known for their energy and integrity. Thanks to Louis XIV’s lack of foresight America gained for its colonies the type of people needed for its future. Among them were the forebears of three presidents of the Continental Congress: John Jay of New York, Elias Boudinot of New Jersey and Henry Laurens of South Carolina. Also of Huguenot stock were the Bayards of New York and Bowdoins of Massachusetts.
Very little is made of the contributions of the French Huguenots who migrated to this country and it is time for us to recognize the debt of gratitude we owe to these early emigrants to Flushing for they are the ones who introduced horticulture as an industry. Their initiative was important for it brought us world-renown when a later horticulturist, William Prince, established the first commercial nursery in the country. From then on a heritage of outstanding nurseries and botanical gardens was established which continued to this day.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian, free-lance writer and a member of the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee. Reach her by e-mail at JBBAY@aol.com or visit her on the Web at members.aol.com/tmpnyc/bayside.htm.