The Protestant Reformation gave Europeans tough choices. The decision was whether to follow the doctrine of the established church or not. If not, you risked being charged with heresy. If you followed the wrong doctrine then there was God to answer to. It was a choice between your King and your immortal soul, a choice between being executed as a heretic in this life or an eternity in the fires of Hell in the next.
It’s been estimated that around 30% of people with British ancestry have at least one Huguenot hiding in their family tree. This is true for many Australians. People are often not aware of this because Huguenot surnames were often anglicised. Your own surname could be an anglicised French name and you might not realise it.
Warren Buffett is of Huguenot descent
(he pronounces his name buffet at home)
Although the Huguenot exodus was well over by 1788 when the first fleet arrived, there were many settlers that came to Australia with Huguenot ancestry. Jacob Bellet, a Huguenot silk weaver, was on the First Fleet, there was a Capt Edward Riou in charge of HMS Guardian in the Second Fleet, the wife of Lt Governor Sir John Franklin of Tasmania was the daughter of Huguenots. Cazneaux, La Trobe, Chauvel, Cazaly the list of famous Australians with Huguenot names is a long one.
For most people the search for a Huguenot ancestor can be quite hard. You might have to look at a list of anglicised Huguenot names or look for an ancestor with a Huguenot occupation. It can be a long and involved search. There are many Societies devoted to this that can help you. In Australia there is an Australian Huguenot Society. http://www.huguenotsaustralia.org.au/
The origins of the word 'Huguenot' have been lost but it was thought to have originally been a derogatory term used to describe French Protestants. Although they were a small percentage of the French population they were influential. At one time it was estimated that half the French nobility were Huguenot. King Louis XIV saw this as a big problem. In 1681 he billeted soldiers in the homes of Huguenots to force them to convert to Catholicism. The ‘Dragonnades’ terrorised and abused their host families. A satirical French cartoon of the time called them ‘Nouveau Missionaires’
There is a great website on the history of the Huguenots. It is called the Musee virtuel de protestantisme. The English translations can be a bit funny but it’s still well worth a look.
Huguenots had already been leaving France for many years but in 1685 King Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau. Protestant clergy were banished, their Churches were to be destroyed, the laity were to be forcibly converted to Catholicism and they were forbidden from leaving the country. To Louis surprise 200,000 Huguenot laity left the country anyway. They dispersed to all points of the world. 50,000 went to England, 10,000 to Ireland they went everywhere. The French word refugee entered the English language at this time.
This was a disaster for France as Huguenots tended to be skilled and very well educated. They had occupations like silk weavers, clock makers, silver smiths, furniture makers and workers in the textile industries. Some were professional men such as doctors. This caused a huge le exode des cerveaux (brain drain) which damaged France’s economy for many years. In today’s terms it would be like if Star Trek was banned and all the IT guys decided to leave the country. A very serious problem.
Finding a Huguenot ancestry in my own family tree was easy. This is not typical. My grandmother’s mother was Harriet La Grange (1878-1965) who was born and lived in upstate New York near Albany. We have always known that her surname was of Huguenot origin. All the Albany La Granges were thought to have descended from an Omie De La Grange (c.1624-1731) who probably arrived in the area in 1656.
Harriet La Grange (1878-1965)
There was a La Grange who arrived in America even earlier than Omie La Grange. His name was Captain François Léger de La Grange and he arrived in Florida in 1564. I have not found evidence that he is in my family tree yet but he is part of an interesting Huguenot story.
In 1562 the French Admiral Gaspard de Coligny (1519-72) decided to found a colony in the New World. France was eager to establish a presence there and Gaspard wanted to find a safe haven for his fellow Huguenots. He must have foreseen trouble brewing for French Protestants as shortly after this decision the French Wars of Religion began. An American colony would be good for France and good for Huguenots too.
Gaspard enlisted his close subordinate Captain Jean Ribault (1520–1565) to lead this expedition. In 1562 Ribault, with three ships and 150 Huguenot colonists, sailed across the Atlantic and established a new colony on Parris Island in present day South Carolina he called this colony Charlesfort. Two years later another expedition led by René Goulaine de Laudonnière (c. 1529–1574) sailed over and founded the French colony of Fort Caroline near what is now Jacksonville, Florida. The Charlesfort settlers decided to bail out after a year but the Fort Caroline colonists stayed on.
The Spanish were none too happy about having the French moving into their territory. It wasn’t that they were French so much as they were Protestants. They quickly established a colony they named St Augustine in September 1565 located about 60 Km south of Fort Caroline. Ribault hearing of this sent his ships over to force the Spanish out but a storm hit him just when he was ready to attack. He was forced back and most of his ships were wrecked off Cape Canaveral. Most of the crewmen of Ribault's ships managed to scramble ashore. Captain de La Grange was one of the survivors.
The Spanish, lead by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés marched overland to Fort Caroline and massacred everyone there except the women and children. Menendez then hunted down Captain Ribault, Captain La Grange and his surviving crewmen. After they surrendered he massacred them too. A sign was supposedly left at Fort Caroline that said ‘They were not massacred because they were French but because they were Heretics.”
Jean Ribault (1520-1565)
The French were shocked and offended by this event. I can imagine King Louis XIV when hearing of this saying something like: “Those Spanish pigs! (pronounced peeegs) How dare they massacre our heretics! We are Frenchmen! We can massacre them ourselves!”
Gallic pride was restored in 1568 when Captain Dominique de Gourgues arrived at the now Spanish occupied Fort Caroline, then renamed San Matteo, and massacred every Spaniard there. Touché.