On Some Heroic Huguenots
Today is St. Bartholomew’s Eve.
Funny — despite having worked on this post for several days, I was thinking to myself only yesterday that August doesn’t really have a holiday and that the calendar is a sort of desert between Independence Day and Labor Day. Yet, here we are. From the time of the Middle Ages, the Feast of the Apostle St. Bartholomew was celebrated on August 24, and it was a day with many happy associations. Traditionally, a late summer fair was celebrated in London on the day, from 1133 to 1855 — it was even the title and the setting of a play by Ben Jonson: Bartholomew Fair.
In modern times, the positive side of St. Bartholomew’s Day has been largely forgotten due to the Massacre that happened on this day in France in 1572. There were many wars of religion during the period of the Protestant Reformation, but for some reason the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre particularly captures the modern imagination. It may be that, unlike many or most such events in Western Europe, this persecution resembles recent atrocities that strike close to home, such as the Holocaust. You have a large majority (Catholic France) persecuting a small minority (the Huguenots, or French Protestants, who made up 10% of the country) strictly on the basis of religion. And you have the official sanction of wiping them out. The word genocidal is wrong in this case, since they were the same people ethnically, but it’s a similar concept. The people of France were whipped up into a frenzy of hatred, and the Huguenots who did not convert and betray their faith were either killed or otherwise mistreated or harassed. Many chose to leave. Historians differ widely in their estimates of the number killed in the actual Massacre, ranging from 5,000 to ten times that. In its wake, the number of Huguenots in France was drastically reduced. Future events (below) would reduce it still further, eventually finishing them as a cultural force in France. The carnage actually began on St. Bartholomew’s Eve (Aug. 23) which is why we post this today rather than tomorrow.
Ironically, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre happened at a time of official tolerance for the minority, and a wedding between both forces (the Protestant Henry III of Navarre and the Catholic Princess Margot, sister of King Charles IX) was still being celebrated. You can read a romanticized version of the court intrigues that led to the violence in Dumas’ novel Queen Margot, though as usual with him it is better entertainment than it is history. Likewise, the event is one of the story threads in D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance (1916), which I think is where I first became interested. This is one reason I so vehemently insist that I am not a historian (though no one listens). My main interest is stories.
At any rate: what’s it to me? My recent casual research has uncovered many Huguenots in my ancestry, one of the most surprising revelations of my exploration. They are a tiny but real part of my background, and also an illuminating new way to look at the familiar American story. For, like Puritans, Quakers, Jews and (ironically) Catholics, Huguenots came to America to flee religious persecution. Wonderfully the stories of these ancestors are quite well known, and have been ferreted out by others over the years. There is no single profile that fits all of them. They came at different times, under different circumstances, and settled in different parts of America.
Nathaniel Basse (circa 1589-1654) was of a Huguenot family which had moved to England a generation or two before his birth. His father Humphrey was a stockholder in the Virginia Company. Nathaniel made his first voyage to the colony in 1619 and moved the rest of his family there in 1621 on a 400 acre spread on the James River he called Basse’s Choyce Plantation. Basse served in Virginia’s General Assembly, the Governor’s Council, and as a justice in the courts. My (9th) great grandmother Genevieve Knight is said by many sources to be one of his ten children, but accounts differ and it is admittedly somewhat murky. Other sources say all of Basse’s children but one, named John, were killed in an Indian massacre, and other sources say he “died without issue” (although the latter source is a contested will). John’s tale, if true, is a ripping yarn, for he is said to have been raised among the Nansemond Indians as one of their own.
All of the folks described in this post are ancestors on my dad’s side of the family, except for one. John Paddoc (1550-1603) left Nord-Pas-de-Calais in 1580 and moved to Tullygovan, Ireland. Ireland was to be a refuge to many Huguenots. My (9th) great grandfather Robert Paddock born there in 1584. He emigrated to the Plymouth colony with his wife and family somewhere between 1631 and 1634. A line runs all the way from him to my mom, and then to me.
My (10th) great grandfather Robert Brasseur (ca 1597-1665) emigrated from Avignon to England around 1630. He shows up in Maryland land records in 1635, having arrived with his wife and seven children. As is well known, Maryland was a Catholic colony; Brasseur (sometimes Anglicized to “Brashear” and a dozen other spellings) moved to Virginia, where my (9th) great grandmother Margaret was born. She was to marry into an English family, the Jordans, and convert to Quakerism.
One of the most important guys on this page: my (11th) great grandfather Robert Vanquellin (1607-1698), from the Normandy region. After spending time on the Isle of Jersey, in January, 1665 he went to England. In April he departed for America in Philip Carteret’s ship, ”Philip,” with about thirty passengers. Robert then settled in northeastern New Jersey, under British rule (since Sept. 1664) of this part of New Netherland as it was in dispute for the next decade until full Dutch capitulation. (Contemporary New Yorkers may be aware of New Netherland’s openness to the Huguenots from certain nearby place names still in use. e.g., New Rochelle, NY and Huguenot, State Island). Carteret was to become Governor of New Jersey. Vanquellin was to be its Surveyor General. His daughter Anne married James Bollin, Secretary of the Province of New Jersey, also my (11th) great grandfather.
Now we come to another phase. In 1685, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, a decree which revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had declared a policy of relative tolerance for the Huguenots. Thus a new period of persecution began, resulting in a new wave of Huguenot immigration to the American colonies.
Virginia was to be an early focal point during this phase. In 1698, a settlement with the hilarious name of Manikintown (which would be an excellent title for a Twilight Zone episode) was founded on the James River west of what is now Richmond. Several of my ancestors moved here.
My (7th) great grandfather Pierre LeGrand arrived there from Normandy with his wife and five children in September 1700 on the second shipload of emigrants aboard the galley ‘Peter and Anthony’ of London. LeGrand was a land surveyor.
My (8th) great grandfather Francois Benin (1679-1710) is stated by some sources to have been born in Tartigne. Purportedly a Huguenot, he is said to have fled to the Dutch-Belgium border, and from there to Bristol, England where he married Ann Elizabeth Debonette, another French Huguenot exile in 1704. The Benin (Benning) family migrated to Virginia with the Guerrant family. Francois is believed to have died around 1710; his son, Antoin (Anthony) was born around 1705 and is believed to have been orphaned while a small child. He is described in some documents as an “unlearned and tyrannical man”.
Another (7th) great-grandfather Abraham Michaux (1672-1717) came from the Ardennes region. His wife Suzanne Rochet Micheaux was the youngest of the three daughters of Jean Rochet to be smuggled out of France and into Amsterdam, Holland following the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. According to one story, “she, her two sisters, a cousin and her baby were trying to escape when the baby began to cry and the guards were alerted and found the young women. The three Rochet sisters were returned to their father, but the Church took a very hard stance on the daughter’s education and Jean Rochet feared they would be removed from his home and sent to live with the nuns. Before too long the two older daughters made successful escapes to Amsterdam, but fearing the climate was still too dangerous, they had left Suzanne behind. Before they left France, however, the sisters and their father had determined that they would send for Suzanne when they felt the time was right, but fearing the letter would fall in the wrong hands, they had worked out a code. They would tell their father that they thought ‘it would be perfectly fine to send the little nightcap which we had left behind.’ Finally, the letter arrived. After several unsuccessful attempts to get Suzanne out of France, her father had her hidden in a large cask, or hogshead, which was entrusted to friendly sea-captain, who had the cask placed on board the ship. When the ship had sailed and they were safety past the guards, the cask was opened and Suzanne was lifted out of her narrow, dark, chamber and was brought to safety in Amsterdam. She is still known in the annuals of French Huguenot history as ‘Little Nightcap.'”
Micheaux married Suzanne on 13 Jul 1692 in the French Church in Amsterdam. On 20 August 1702 Suzanne Rochet Michaux became a member of the Huguenot Church of Treadneedle Street, London, England. They pressed on to Manikintown a few years after that.
The last of Huguenot ancestors (and I believe the last of my French ancestors) to arrive was my (7th)great grandfather John Noblett (1690-1748). Like most of these stories, his journey embraces several countries and more than one generation. His father Peter Noblett (1677-1719). moved first to England from France his with parents around 1684, joining distant relatives. Then they moved to Ireland, to a Huguenot community near Dublin. He married Marie Godfrey in 1698. In 1721 John and his brothers left Ireland with a group of Quakers to settle in York, Pennsylvania. They arrived on the ship Querrier (or Gauffier,) at Grandy’s Point located on Cape May below Philadelphia. It was there they indentured to work for someone to pay for their passage. John, the oldest of the brothers, upon disbarking was informed that William Plumstead of Sugartown had paid his passage. He was obligated to work for three years before he could claim any land of his own. His term of indenture to Plumstead ended in 1725. Noblett first appeared on the tax rolls as a resident citizen of Newton Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, during the tax year of 1729. He married Ann Brereton, another child of Huguenot exiles who’d come over from from Dublin. Their daughter Mary (1746-1811) is my last full French ancestor (that I know of). She married into a Quaker family, the Stouts, whom we wrote about here, and moved with a large group to North Carolina.
The Huguenots assimilated more completely than nearly every other America immigrant group to the us, including other French immigrant groups like the Acadians/Cajuns and the Quebecois. Even relatively assimilated immigrant groups like the Germans had retained their own church denominations and culture. By contrast, after about a century, the Huguenots ceased having a separate church (with the exception noted above). Most converted to other faiths. In some ways, their only footprint here became certain French surnames that continue to pop up, especially in the South. I’m a “Never Forget” kind of guy, so today I choose to remember them.