Defining Carolina

The Palmetto State’s Huguenot heritage

Despite their popularity today, coffee houses originated in the 1600s. The Carolina Coffee House in London served as the information hub for the colony, where letters and information passed back and forth between England and Carolina.

Image courtesy of the British Museum

On any map of South Carolina, there are a surprising number of French names: Bonneau, Huger, Horry, Laurens, Marion and Ravenel to name a few. For those who have ever wondered why there are so many French names scattered throughout South Carolina, the answer is the Huguenots.

The Huguenots were French Protestants, followers of John Calvin, who fled France seeking religious freedom in the late 17th century. Following 150 years of religious and political strife, the French monarchy abolished all protestant rights in 1685 which led to a mass migration known as the Huguenot diaspora. The protestant clergy was expelled from France, but everyone else was forbidden to leave and risked their lives to do so. Approximately 200,000 men, women and children escaped from France to friendly neighboring countries such as Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and parts of Belgium. Others escaped to England, Scotland and Ireland and continued on to British North America, especially to the Carolinas, Virginia, New York and New England. Some traveled as far as South Africa and South America.      

The Huguenots who chose to immigrate to the Carolina colony made the difficult decision to leave behind their relatives and homes in France, to risk the danger of a two-month Atlantic crossing and to create a new life in a strange country where they could have freedom of conscience. They made their way first to England, where their numbers rapidly overwhelmed the relief efforts established to help them. The entrepreneurial Lords Proprietors launched a successful public relations campaign to encourage Huguenot immigration to the Carolina colony. The campaign was based out of the Carolina Coffee House in London, where potential colonists met to read promotional literature, study maps and learn about Carolina, which was described in the most glowing terms. 

While not unaware that the promotional materials glossed over the difficulties and danger, the Huguenots were encouraged to immigrate to Carolina with the promise of land and religious toleration. The Lords Proprietors made what was, for that time, a revolutionary decision to grant all in the colony religious liberty, so long as the colonists acknowledged and publicly worshipped God. 

The first known group of 45 French Protestants arrived on the Richmond in 1680, just 10 years after the first English colonists arrived at Albemarle Point. South Carolina became the third largest Huguenot settlement in the British American colonies after New York and Boston. While their exact numbers are unknown, fewer than 500 Huguenots arrived in South Carolina prior to 1700, and fewer than 1,000 total arrived in the years before the American Revolution. 

The Huguenots were typically well-educated as reading the Bible was a bedrock of their faith, and literacy for both men and women was encouraged. Many left successful careers as merchants, artisans, craftsmen or weavers when they fled France. The property and possessions they were forced to abandon were forfeited to the French government. While a few arrived with some degree of wealth, the vast majority arrived in Carolina penniless or close to it. Approximately half of the Huguenots decided to remain in Charles Town, while the rest moved out into the wilderness to establish small settlements at French Santee, Orange Quarter, St. John’s Berkeley and Goose Creek. 

Huguenot merchant Jacques Boyd arrived in Charles Town in 1686, writing one of the earliest descriptions of the town. “I was surprised at the sight of Charleston [sic]. We found the approaches to it wonderful, because we were delighted to see land and a quantity of trees … The layout of the town astonishes me. A hundred houses dispersed from one side to the other, all scattered around. Even more, most of the houses are falling into ruin and the large part are houses for rent … We all remarked that the only two tolerable houses were two taverns.”

Formerly successful and urbane Frenchmen found themselves living in the wilderness. An unidentified Huguenot gentleman at French Santee wrote that it was necessary “to renounce at an early hour our ambition and our vanity, as this land, more than any other, requires from us. In leaving Europe, we still had our heads full of great lands and other extravagances that were not in season.” These experiences were not unique to the Huguenots. Life in early Carolina was a struggle for everyone, English and French alike, as they built a new life in the wilderness. Some have suggested that the smaller French settlements were meant to act as buffers between Charles Town and threats posed by raiding Spanish and French privateers and hostile Indian tribes. 

The Lords Proprietors promised the Huguenots the rights of Englishmen, but most did not become naturalized English citizens until 1697. Voting in a block, their small numbers were often enough to sway the outcome of Carolina elections. This often made them unpopular with the English. One of the Englishmen once wrote, “Shall the Frenchman who cannot speak our language make our laws?” From the beginning, however, the Huguenots made no effort to remain apart. They did not want to be seen as foreigners but fellow Carolinians. The Huguenots quickly acquired the language and customs of the country that received them. They intermarried with the English families and put down deep roots in Carolina. In their wills, a few Huguenots made provisions for their confiscated French properties in the event that they were ever returned to their descendants, but they did not expect to ever return to France. Carolina was their chosen home. 

While the Huguenots integrated into life in the colony, they also cared for their own. English explorer John Lawson reported in his Voyage to Carolina that the French settlers on the Santee were “one Tribe or kindred, every one making it his Business to be assistant to the Wants of his Country-Man, preserving his Estate and Reputation with the same Exactness and Concern as he does his own; all seeming to share in the Misfortunes, and rejoyce at the Advance and Rise of their Brethren.” The Huguenots of Carolina prospered as the colony grew, becoming planters or re-establishing their former careers as merchants, traders and artisans. Their children, some born in France and some in Carolina, followed in their footsteps. 

The Huguenots assimilated into life in the colony, and the four Huguenot settlements and French churches outside of Charles Town died out by the mid-1700s. It was difficult to find clergy for the rural churches, and the Church Act of 1706 legislated that the French congregations had to become Anglican, although they could still hold their services in French. Once most of the congregation spoke English, the French churches could no longer have a French-speaking minister. Following the primary wave of Huguenot immigration between 1680 and 1700, two later groups of French and Swiss Protestants came to South Carolina and founded Purrysburg in 1732 and New Bordeaux in 1764. 

The most visible reminder of South Carolina’s Huguenot heritage is Charleston’s French Church, the only one that did not become Anglican under the Church Act. As time passed, few worshipers could understand the services conducted in French, and the size of the congregation dwindled. In 1828, the elder surviving church members joined with a group of younger Huguenot descendants to translate the French liturgy into English. This revived interest in the church led to the construction of the present church building in 1844 and1845. Now formally known as the French Protestant (Huguenot) Church of Charleston, the church has an active congregation and is the only independent French Protestant Church in the United States that has not joined another denomination. 

There was a great revival of interest in the Huguenots in the late 19th century, leading to the founding of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina in 1885. The Society’s mission is to preserve the history of the Huguenots and promote a better understanding of their principles and values. Located in Charleston, the Society has one of the largest libraries of Huguenot history and genealogy in the United States. The Society also maintains monuments at the locations of the six Huguenot churches and settlements in South Carolina. Charleston’s Huguenot Church represents the seventh. 

The industry, hard work and resourcefulness of the Huguenots helped lay the groundwork for South Carolina’s success as a colony in the 18th century. A large part of the Huguenots’ success came from their ability to integrate into the colony, but that is also what makes their influence hard to quantify. Judith Giton Manigault wrote an eloquent letter to her brother describing the hardships her family suffered. She ended her letter writing, “God surely gave us good grace to have been able to withstand all sorts of trials. I believe that if I wished to make you a full list of all our adventures, I should never have done. Suffice it, that God has had pity for me, and has changed my lot to one more happy.” Perhaps the Huguenot’s greatest gift was their faith and their determination not just to survive but to thrive.

Editor’s Note: The following sources were used in researching this article. Susan Baldwin Bates and Harriott Cheves Leland, French Santee: A Huguenot Settlement in Colonial South Carolina (Otter Bay Books, 2015). The original letter is in the library of The Royal Society in London. Molly McClain and Alessa Ellefson. “A Letter from Carolina, 1688: Huguenots in the New World.” Transactions of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina (2011). The original letter is in the Twickel Castle Archive in Delden, Netherlands.Bates and Leland, French Santee.