The Huguenots’ Search for Religious Freedom: America’s Gain

by Carson Tucker

President, Michaux – St. James Foundation, Inc.

        She had never been so frightened in her 18 years. She was sealed in a wine cask, had been for 16 hours. It was suffocating, damp, and foul from her own body’s natural functions. She could hear very little, because the inside of the cask was padded thickly with pillows. Air could get in only through a narrow crack near the bottom. She stifled a scream when a hard thumping hit the side of the barrel. She realized that the French gendarmes were hitting the barrel with their rifle butts to make sure no one was hidden within. Then all was quiet and there was a sense of being suspended - - she knew she was being lowered into the hole of the Englishman’s ship. Total dark, damp, cold, and only the sound of scurrying rats as the ship put out to sea from France.

[    ]

        Why was young Suzanne Laroche Rochet, born at Cedent in the last quarter of the 1600’s, being spirited away from the only home she’d ever known.

        Because she worshipped God differently than the majority of French. She was a Huguenot; the majority was Catholic. Simply put, Huguenots were French Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries. Suzanne was a Calvinist, whose worship was very similar to Scottish Presbyterians. The name “Huguenots” had a double meaning: they were named for Roi Hugun (Royal Gate) where the Protestants of Tours assembled at night to worship. Broken down etymologically, the term literally means "oath companion".

        Why was Suzanne running a second time? (She’d been caught and sent back to the ghetto once before when her sister’s baby had cried in a goods wagon making for Protestant Holland). Why couldn’t she worship God her family’s way? Because King Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had for decades allowed a semblance of religious freedom in Catholic France. But why had Louis done this, and why did he authorize ghettoization, suppression, forced conversion, torture, and death to those who continued to worship as Protestants?

        He said it was because he had an obligation to uphold the one true religion, Catholicism. Historians say different: as the Sikhs in India, the Jews in Germany, these hard-working, middle-class artisans, who had mastered the secrets of trade, business & craft; and who became successfully and financially comfortable . . . elicited envy and resentment from their catholic neighbors. To quote Barbara Tuchman, these people were “too hard-working for their Catholic neighbors’ comfort.”

        16,000 Huguenots, perhaps 50% of the Protestants in France, attempted to flee, Suzanne was one.

        She was trying to get to Holland, where her intended, Abraham Michaux, who’d been born in Sedan in 1672, awaited in a protestant country which allowed freedom of conscience. Suzanne, whose code name during her escape was “night cap,” married (certified Holland marriage certificate) Abraham in Holland in 1692; they moved to England, where King William (of William & Mary) welcomed them, both because he loathed Louis, but also because he was enlightened enough to realize what England was getting in the way of talent at Louis’ expense. But before we totally leave Louis to his ongoing purges, let’s look at what historian Barbara Tuchman, in the March of Folly, has to say about Louis’ idiocy.

[p. 21]

        The ill effects [in France of the emigration] were soon felt. Huguenot textile workers, paper makers and other artisans, whose techniques had been a monopoly for France, took their skills abroad to England [and Germany, Holland, and eventually America]; bankers and merchants took their capital; printers, bookmakers, shipbuilders, lawyers, doctors and many pastors escaped. Within 4 years, 8,000 – 9,000 men of the navy, and 10,000 – 12,000 of the army, plus 500 – 600 officers, made their way to the Netherlands [Holland] to add their strength to the forces of Louis’s enemy William III, soon a double enemy when he became King of England three years later in place of the ousted James II. The Silk industry of Tours [remember where the word Huguenot came from?] & Lyons is said to have been ruined [by the out-migration of Huguenots] and some important towns like Reims and Rouen … lost half their workers.

Tuchman, p.21 – 22

        Perhaps we’ll give Voltaire “the last word”; Louis exhausted France’s economy and human resources. .. The persecution of the Huguenots was “one of the greatest calamities to befall France.”

        Back to our story. In 1702, the Michauxs sailed for Virginia [* Ford, Madox, Ford – The last of England]. A previous ship, the Mary Ann, had brought 207 Huguenots to Virginia. Colonel William Byrd I had negotiated to have the Huguenots come - - because he was a humanitarian. Not. It was because he, like King William, recognized the value of these experts at metal-working, milling, wine-making, textiles. And, oh yes, he used them as buffers between his English settlers and the still hostile Monacan [sign] Indians west of the Fall Line (in fact, Abraham Michaux, Jr., was killed by Indians).

        They founded their town on the James. We still have Manakin Towne on Huguenot Trail. They were the Subletts, Flournoys, Trabues, Dutoys, the Chenaults, Salles, Lefevres, Michels, Frenchs, Stigons, Ligons, Sabots, Chastains (your Ruth Doumlele lives on Chastain Lane) and, of course, the Michauxs (I live near the village of Michaux, right here, named for Suzanne and Abraham). In 1783, there were more French names in Powhatan than in any other Virginia County.

        They became the ferrymen, bridge builders (the bridge from Goochland to Powhatan is the William Walthall Michaux Bridge), weavers, artisans, millers, and farmers. They became renowned for the quality of their cattle and milk. They created the first private educational system, before the English even thought of public education. They worked the mines of Midlothian. They were justices of the peace. The Michaux’s had 12 children. Their descendants included patriots such as (Jacob) in the Revolutionary War; they represented Virginia in the Constitutional Convention (Joseph). Seventh generation Joseph died in Confederate uniform during Lee’s Retreat 3 days before Appomattox. You want to well up in tears? Stand at his grave at Michaux Grant up the road here in Powhatan and think what that must have meant to his family & to his Mom, 19 years old, dead, 3 days before the end.

        But the great success of the French Huguenot settlements was that they, in the final analysis, failed.

        Richard Couture (name sound French?) in his Powhatan: A Bicentennial History has to say:

[p. 47]

        In the final analysis it was probably fortunate that Manakin Towne did not remain as the center of alien culture, for in the process of assimilation into the larger English population, the French Huguenots enriched the civilization of Virginia. . . [Their contribution] was the influence [of individual Huguenots and their families and culture and skills] which their descendents exerted on many [aspects] of Virginia life [for generations, not just a town]. . .

        In spite of [Manakin Towne’s] brief existence [on the banks of the James River in Powhatan] and its failure to develop in accordance with the plans of its French Huguenot founders [and their English hosts], the story of Manakin Towne . . . [is] the struggle of a religious minority . . . [seeking] in Virginia the freedom which was denied them in their own nation. It illustrates the essentially sound policy adopted by the Virginia Government toward a group of refugees from a nation which was traditionally hostile to England. [Does this begin to sound like the America we’re proud of?]

        And I can’t resist this quote from Marion Harlan’s Autobiography. It’s another gift of the Huguenots:

"As we started up the lane, the handsomest man I had ever seen

stepped forward to help my mother. Tall, young, dark as a

Frenchman, (having Huguenot blood in his veins) and with a

marvelously sweet smile."

        Let me close with this story. I found it as a yellowing newspaper clipping in Mom’s jewelry box. It’s by Ernie Pyle, the renowned newspaper man killed by a sniper near the end of World War II. Here’s the story. In 1943 a young Virginian followed his lieutenant in a charge on a barricaded stone house on the battlefield south of Monte Cassino. A short burst of machine pistol cut the lieutenant down. His squad went on to clean out the German soldiers and then returned to their dead officer. As they picked him up, his arm fell forward and they all froze as they heard the fizz of the detonator of a primed grenade in the lieutenant’s hand. The young Virginia private yelled, “Grenade!” and fell on top of his lieutenant and the grenade, which detonated, tearing apart the lieutenant and desperately wounding the private. Rushed to a field-aid station [MASH] nearby, with extensive stomach and chest cavity wounds, he was operated on by an officer under fire. The young private lived.

        He would receive the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. So would the doctor.

        The young Virginian private was my father, who lived to produce me. The thoracic surgeon was Dr. Richard Michaux, a Powhatan Huguenot, who had a marvelously sweet smile.

        Dr. Michaux, OB-GYN, died at the end of August last year at 96. I suspect many of you knew him. He would have been here today with me as exhibit #1, with his marvelously sweet Huguenot smile. He sent his greetings.

** This story of the Huguenots was presented at the Powhatan County Historical Society's Spring meeting on March 16, 2008 **