Huguenot settlers in America, 1564 – 1784

Map of Florida, by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, 1564-5, engraved and published by Theodor de Bry in Brevis Narratio..., (Frankfort, 1591). Wikimedia Commons.

The appeal of America to Huguenot explorers looking for fresh opportunities in the New World is documented from an early date – witness the two French Protestant expeditions to Florida in the sixteenth century, 1562-5, undertaken with the encouragement of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, and during the second of which, the Huguenot artist and cartographer from Dieppe, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, 1533-88, reputedly drew the flora and fauna, as well as extraordinary depictions of the life and rituals of the region’s indigenous inhabitants. De Morgues, as detailed in an earlier post by Tessa Murdoch, was one of the few to return from that early voyage in 1564-5, the majority of René de Laudonnière’s expeditionary force having been massacred by Catholic Spanish rivals in the Americas, and from 1581 was a refugee in London, having joined a community of Huguenot craftsmen in Blackfriars. 

Later English records show that individual Huguenot refugees in England received travel grants from funds set up by James II, and subsequently, during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, from the Royal Bounty fund set up under William III, in order to sail to England’s nascent colonies in America. Initially, some early Huguenot settlers would have been among those crossing the Atlantic as indentured servants, engaged in the arduous work of draining swamps and clearing the land within the settlements of Jamestown (Virginia), and Carolina, named for the English monarchs James I and Charles II. But there were also wealthy Huguenot emigrants who prospered, and who, once naturalised as English citizens, bought land and slaves, becoming rich plantation owners in the new colonies. Although some remain anonymous, the New World interconnections of a specific group of Huguenot settlers are chronicled in great detail, namely those refugees who left England to settle in French Santee, near Charles Towne (modern-day Charleston), and whose histories have been meticulously researched, mapped and published by the Huguenot Society of South Carolina. The names of a considerable number of Huguenot refugees shipped as plantation settlers to Virginia, around the year 1700, are also to be found within the baptism records of both the legitimate and slave children born to them there, as published in the New Series of the Virginia Historical Society.

Some time later, at the latter end of the 18th century, it was, curiously, a Huguenot descendant resident in Germany who fell foul of the overturned political relationship between England and its former colonies resulting from the American War of Independence, 1775-83. This tale of one man’s inheritance, and subsequent loss of fortune without redress, unexpectedly came to light during the recent cataloguing of one of the numerous sets of family papers housed at the Huguenot Library, that of the De Bérenger family. 

Statue of General James Oglethorpe,
founder of Georgia, at Augusta Common, Augusta.
Wikimedia Commons.

 

Hector De Bérenger, Baron de Beaufain, was born in France in 1697, and having left with his family a few years later to flee religious persecution, settled in Germany. Hector went to university in Leiden, Holland, and, from there, on to Oxford and Cambridge. In 1732, this intrepid traveller left England for America with General James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia as a buffer province between Spanish Florida and Protestant South Carolina, and subsequently became the controversial main authority within the new colony. Hector de Bérenger decided to establish himself there, and in 1736 and 1738 was rewarded for his efforts by George II with substantial grants of lands in both Georgia, and South Carolina, where, by the time of  his death in 1766, he had diligently exercised for thirty years the office of Collector of Royal Customs, at Charlestown.

Hector died childless, but had made his nephew, Jean Henry de Bérenger, his sole heir. Jean Henry was a resident of Erlang (Erlangen), in Bavaria, southern Germany, a notable place of Huguenot refuge after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and had served under King Frederick II for sixteen years, including as his aide-de-camp during the Seven Years War, 1756-63, when Britain and Prussia were allies. In 1769, the Chancery Court in London issued a decree which was sent to Charlestown acknowledging Jean Henry as the rightful owner of his late uncle’s possessions, despite his not being English, nor residing in America. However, as a result of this decree, the American Congress would treat him as a loyalist during the subsequent War of Independence, seizing his lands and refusing to provide any assistance after the end of the conflict.

In 1777, Jean Henry’s agent, David Rhind of Charlestown, was obliged to abandon both his own and De Bérenger’s properties, after having declared himself a loyal subject of the King of England. He dutifully took all the title deeds to the lands and the latest accounts of both plantations, as well as additional money left from the estate, and sailed to Holland. Unfortunately however, the ship sank, and all the documents were lost at sea.

Section of a draft petition from Jean Henry De Béranger
of Erlang to King Frederick II of Prussia, 23 April 1786.
Huguenot Library, F/BR/5/45.

 

In April 1786, Jean Henry petitioned his former employer, Frederick II. The King helped him by getting in touch with his ambassador in London, Count Lusi, asking him to help De Bérenger petition the English King, George III. Count Lusi delivered the petition to William Pitt, Prime Minster, but it seems that despite his promises, no reply from Pitt was ever received.                                    

Section of a draft petition from Jean Henry De Bérenger of
Erlang to George III, King of Great Britain, 29 May, 1786.
Huguenot Library, F/BR/5/49.

 

In 1788, De Bérenger discovered that according to an act passed by Parliament, loyalists who had lost possessions during the War of Independence could claim indemnities, prompting him to come to London, with his son, that same year. However, his claim was presented later than the stipulated deadline and consequently, the commissioners refused to accept it. Eventually in 1791, he was informed that since he had never fought for Britain, he was not eligible to receive any indemnities. In 1792, running out of options, he decided to publish an account of his tribulations, to bring to public attention the manner in which he had been treated - in particular by Pitt. He therefore had copies printed of all the petitions he had sent in German, English and French to demonstrate the multiple steps he had taken to try to secure his inheritance. He was eventually given fifty pounds as an indemnity to pay his expenses and to return to Germany, which he accepted, in order to publish his account there. In today’s money, this sum would be worth around £8,000.                                                                                

Published letter from Jean Henry De Béranger of Erlang to
William Pitt, Prime Minister of Great Britain, 13 February 1792.
Huguenot Library, F/BR/5/87.

 

The petition copies, covering a period of twelve years, 1780-92, and written in three different languages, were sent to some of the most prominent people of the time, including four Kings: George III, Louis XVI, Frederick II and Frederick William II. They were also sent to Queen Charlotte, wife of the incapacitated George III, as well as to the statesman, Benjamin Franklin, and future American President, George Washington. These petitions were generally preceded by others, sent to ambassadors, members of the nobility or others in positions of power at Court, in order to request their support in writing to the various dignitaries. 

 

Section of a draft petition from Jean Henry De Béranger
of Erlang to Benjamin Franklin, Minister of the United States,
23 March 1784. Huguenot Library, F/BR/5/23. 

 

This substantial group of documents was discovered due to a decision taken by the Huguenot Society Council to have the family collections catalogued to item level; previously hidden within a single reference, they throw significant light on a tumultuous period of Anglo-American history, in which Huguenot descendants resident in other countries, could also be inextricably caught up.

 

Barbara Julien

Micol Barengo, Librarian                                                                                                                    

 

Further reading

De Bérenger family papers, Huguenot Library: Manuscript petitions from Jean Henry de Bérenger, 1780-92. F/BR/5/23, 45, 49, 85, 86, 87.

Records of the Royal Bounty and Connected Funds, Huguenot Society Quarto Series, 51 (1974). 

F. Lestringant, Le Théâtre de La Floride, (Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2017). 

 O. Stanwood, ‘Between Eden and Empire: Huguenot Refugees and the Promise of New Worlds’, The American Historical Review, vol. 118 (5) (Washington, 2013), pp. 1319–44.   

S. Baldwin Bates and H. Cheves Leland, French Santee, A Huguenot Settlement in South Carolina, 2nd Edn (Baltimore, 2022). 

R.A. Brock (ed), Huguenot Emigration to Virginia and to the Settlement at Manakin-Town, Collections of the Virginia Historical Society, New Series, Vol. 5 (Richmond, Virginia, 1886).                                                                                                                           

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