Huguenots in Virginia

Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, ending the French king's toleration of Protestants. Many of those French Protestants chose to stay in France and convert to the Catholic faith, but others fled to other countries that welcomed Protestants.

At the same time, English kings were struggling with their own choice of religion. Charles II was ostensibly a Protestant, but his brother and successor, James II, was overtly Catholic. (In 1688, James II would be ousted in the "Glorious Revolution" and replaced by a clearly-Protestant William and Mary.) However, Parliament was dominated by Protestants throughout this time, and England welcomed the French Protestants knows as Huguenots.

In England, the Huguenots were treated as temporary refugees, waiting until the policies in France changed again. In the New World, however, the colonies tried to recruit the Huguenots as permanent settlers. Virginia was land-rich and people-poor, and Protestant refugees were prime targets for expanding the local population.

It was hard to recruit the Huguenots, but Virginia did have some success.

One Huguenot traveler in Virginia during 1686 considered the colony to be too foreign for his taste. Durand de Dauphine fled France, rather than recant and profess to being a Catholic. While in France, he had already read propaganda from Carolina advertising why it was a good place for settlers. After fleeing to England, Durand de Dauphine determined that he preferred taking a chance and examine Charleston in the southern half of the Carolina colony, rather than live in exile in the big city of London.

He knew he was not the first to choose Carolina over Virginia - "All the French who have gone over have settled in the south."1 He also knew that the climate was different from France - "It is unhealthy for Frenchmen, which does not surprise me, for the southern provinces of Virginia four degrees further north are also very unhealthy."2

Murhy's Law certainly applied to the trip - in the end, after 19 rough weeks of sailing, Durand de Dauphine finally passed New Point Comfort and arrived at the North River separating Mathews and Gloucester counties on September 22, 1686. The idea of settling in Virginia was attractive to the French refugee:3

"The land is so rich & so fertile that when a man has fifty acres of ground, two men-servants, a maid & some cattle, neither he nor his wife do anything but visit among their neighbors. Most of them do not even take the trouble to oversee the work of their slaves, for there is no house, however modest, where there is not what is called a Lieutenant, generally a freedman, under whose commands two servants are placed. This Lieutenant keeps himself, works & makes his two servants work, & receives one-third of the tobacco, grain, & whatever they have planted, & thus the master has only to take his share of the crops."

Durand de Dauphine had accumulated capital in France and managed to escape with money. He could have afforded to pay for the passage of an indentured servant, entitling him to 50 acres of land, or purchased land and slaves to work it. He considered the English to be lazy, noting that clothes were imported rather than woven in Virginia, where "not one woman in the whole country knows how to spin."4.

He also considered it wasteful to plant without ploughing, when the coastal soils were so free of stones. Durand de Dauphine thought the French Huguenots, accustomed to working hard to pay Louis XIV's heavy taxes, would thrive in Virginia:5

"...were I settled there, provided I had two servants, a plough with two cows & another with two horses, I could boast of accomplishing more work than anyone in the country with eight strong slaves."

The Virginia Governor, Francis Howard of Effingham, and William Fitzhugh both failed to convince Durand de Dauphine to return to Europe and lead fellow Huguenots back to Virginia. Governor Howard promised to enlarge the standard 50 acre per person land grant (for those who paid their own passage across the Atlantic) to 500 acres for Durand de Dauphine, but the Frenchman noted:6

"I would have to settle further back & be among the savages, who, he added, are not greatly to be feared, but there is some inconvenience owing to the fact that only small boats can sail up the rivers in the back country so one could not trade by water. For this reason, as there are vast tracts of land for sale very cheap, very good & among Christians, he advised me to buy there, rather than further away."

The Governor did promise that the French Protestants could have their own ministers, rather than be required to attend Anglican services:7

"...& as for the pastors, provided that from time to time they preached in English & baptized & married the other Christians who might be among the French settlers, he would give benefices to two or three, & they would be required to read the book of common prayers when preaching, except when they preached to French people only, they could do as they were accustomed in France."

Another unsuccessful recruiter was Nicholas Hayward, who had purchased a large tract from Lord Culpeper. His land was valueless unless he could get settlers to purchase it or pay him rent. His brother Samuel Hayward formed a company with two other London speculators, Richard Foote and Robert Bristow, plus a local Virginian George Brent, and together they planned to establish Brent Town/Brenton and populate it with French-speaking Protestants. Durand de Dauphine noted, while visiting William Fitzhugh at his Bedford estate east of modern-day Fredericksburg:8

"A gentleman who lives in the neighborhood of the Colonel, having heard of our arrival, came over. He told us that three or four of them had twenty-five thousand acres of land for sale in this same county, six or seven leagues from the place whee we were, & others who lived in London & were very honest men, had been commissioned to offer lands at a reasonable price to any Frenchman wishing to come, & even advance money to help build houses for those who had no funds, as well as corn for their sustenance during the first year."

Fitzhugh also desired to settle Huguenots on his lands, but the Northern Virginians were unable to recruit enough French-speaking "early adopters" to make their area a desirable location for less-adventurous settlers.

Manakin Town, upstream of Richmond
Manakin Town, upstream of Richmond
Source: Library of Congress, 1751 Fry-Jefferson Map

Both North Carolina and Virginia landowners sought to recruit boatloads (literally) of Huguenots. At the end of the 17th Century, King William III rejected the proposal of William Byrd I to establish a new community near Richmond, and instead authorized Huguenot refugee settlement near Norfolk on lands owned by cout physician Daniel Coxe. However, when the French Huguenots reached Virginia in 1700, Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson directed them to settleabove the Fall Line at the former Monacan town of Mowhemencho, on a grant of 10,000 acres.

Nicholson cited the confusion regarding the Virginia-North Carolina border as one reason for ignoring the king's direction, but clearly William Byrd I was able to use his influence to overcome the king's oders. Virginia officials took advantage of the Chesapeake Bay being the point of entry for immigrants, to ensure the nerw workers stayed in Virginia rather than ended up in North Carolina.

Lieutenant Governor Nicholson, like Governor Spotswood later, saw immigrants as a potential buffer to be placed between existing colonial settlements and the threatening Native Americans on the western frontier. The Huguenots in 1700 expected to settle near the Atlantic Ocean, where they could manufacture cloth and other trading goods. Instead, the immigrants ended up being dispatched to new lands beyond existing English settlements and forced to earn a living as farmers:9

"The Falls of the James was in 1700 the last outpost of western settlement in Virginia. Between that point and the site of the Monocan Indian village lay some twenty-five miles of virgin and virtually trackless forests, a green and silent wall of loneliness which would separate the French from their closest neighbors..."

"Although the danger from Indians was probably slight, for no tribe lived in the immediate neighborhood, the fear of possible plunder and murder died slowly. As late as June of 1702 the council ordered the Henrico County military officers to 'visit the French Settlement . . . once every week to charge them not to leave their habitation nor to straggle into the woods any distance from their settlements.'"

Huguenot Bridge over James River, upstream of Richmond and downstream from Manakin-Sabot
Huguenot Bridge over James River, upstream of Richmond and downstream from Manakin-Sabot
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Huguenot Bridge reconstruction (photo by Trevor Wrayton, VDOT)

John Fontaine



1. Durand de Dauphine, A Huguenot Exile in Virginia, or Voyages of a Frenchman exiled for his Religion with a description of Virginia and Maryland, (Gilbert Chinard, editor), The Press of the Pioneers, New York, 1934, p. 102
2. ibid, p. 103
3. ibid, p. 112
4. ibid, p. 113
5. ibid, p. 117
6. ibid, p. 143
7. ibid, p. 144
8. ibid, p. 159
9. James L. Bugg, Jr., "The French Huguenot Frontier Settlement of Manakin Town," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1953, pp. 359-392 (last checked October 23, 2011)

Religion in Virginia
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