Huguenots are French Calvinists. The origins of the term “Huguenot” is uncertain, but historians believe it comes from the Swiss-German word Eidgenossen, meaning “confederates,” in reference to the Genevan rebellion against the Duke of Savoy in the sixteenth century. The French Reformed church was formally founded in 1559 with the underground meeting of the first national synod in Paris. In the 1560s the Huguenot church reached a peak in terms of the number of congregations and followers (nearly two million) and political and economic influence.
However, the Wars of Religion (1562–1598) put an end to this phenomenal growth and permanently weakened the Huguenot church. It was during this tumultuous period of French history that Huguenot privateer and explorer Jean Ribaut led a small group to Parris Island, South Carolina, where they founded the short-lived settlement of Charlesfort (1562–1563). The Edict of Nantes (1598) restored peace to the kingdom and guaranteed the Huguenots religious and civil rights while reaffirming the preeminence of Catholicism.
Throughout the seventeenth century, the Huguenot church went through a period of decline and became increasingly peripheral to France’s economic, political, and religious life. This marginalization accelerated in the 1670s and 1680s, when Louis XIV (1643–1715) made religious reunification one of his priorities. At first Huguenots were locally challenged in court about the legitimacy of their churches and banned from certain guilds. Daytime funerals and psalm singing outside the church were outlawed. Violence soon followed legal harassment when, starting in Poitou in 1681, provincial governors were authorized to use military force to obtain conversions.
These campaigns, called dragonnades, ravaged major Protestant provinces and Huguenots converted by the thousands. Believing that the Huguenot church had become an empty shell, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in October 1685, thereby outlawing Calvinism in France. The Huguenots, who by then numbered nearly 800,000, faced a painful choice. They could remain in France and convert to Catholicism (or resist royal policy at the risk of being imprisoned, sent to a convent [women], or the galleys); or flee the kingdom. The majority, about 600,000, chose to recant their faith in the hope of practicing their Calvinism in secret, and a significant number, between 160,000 and 200,000, fled France. A small minority, less than 10,000, refused to recant or leave and were imprisoned, executed, or committed to life sentence in the galleys or to the convents.
The Huguenot migration to South Carolina is part of a larger diaspora, traditionally known as le Refuge, which stretches from the late 1670s to the early 1710s. An overwhelming majority of Huguenot refugees opted to settle in France’s Protestant neighboring countries, where French Reformed churches had been founded by Huguenot and Walloon (Belgian Calvinist) refugees in the late 1500s. About 60,000 Huguenots emigrated to the Netherlands, 50,000 to England (5,000 of whom eventually moved to Ireland), 40,000 settled in the German States, principally in the Rhineland and Prussia, and about 25,000 relocated in the Swiss Cantons. While the decision to flee was conditioned by a multiplicity of factors, such as age, education, financial resources, and the availability of familial networks, the choice of a destination was often dictated by geographic proximity, and in some cases, influenced by promotional literature.
A small number of Huguenots chose to settle overseas. About 2,500 relocated in British North America; New York (800), Virginia (700), South Carolina (500), and New England (300), and a few, about 300, in Dutch South Africa. In the eighteenth century additional groups of Huguenots and Swiss Calvinists settled in South Carolina where they founded the Purrysburg (1732) and Hillsborough (1764) townships, the latter sometimes referred to as New Bordeaux.
The Lords Proprietors originally intended to draw Huguenots to South Carolina to develop silk, wine, and olive oil production, while peopling their colony without weakening the mother country. Between 1679 and 1686 the proprietors had six French promotional pamphlets published in cities, such as London, The Hague, and Geneva, where large numbers of refugees congregated. These tracts presented an Edenic portrait of South Carolina in emphasizing its fertile soil, bountiful rivers, healthy climate, and balanced political system. Huguenots were attracted to Carolina primarily by the promise of cheap land, commercial opportunities, and religious freedom.
Except for the arrival of a small group in 1680, the majority of Huguenots settled in the colony between 1684 and 1688, while a handful of refugees came from other colonies, in British North America and the British Caribbean, in the early 1700s. Most refugees were merchants and artisans from France’s western provinces, such as Aunis, Saintonge, Poitou, Normandy, and Brittany; and coastal cities, such as La Rochelle, Dieppe, and Le Havre. While a few of them settled in Goose Creek and in the parish of St. John’s Berkeley, the Huguenots who came during the proprietary period founded three communities in the lowcountry before 1690. The most important was that of Charleston, where a congregation was founded in 1680 and a church was built in 1687. Huguenots also settled up the Cooper River in Orange Quarter. The third settlement, French Santee, was located south of the Santee River in present-day Georgetown County.
Beyond individual and local resistance, the Huguenot experience in South Carolina was characterized by a rapid and complete integration into Anglo-American society. In 1706 both the Orange Quarter and Santee churches became Anglican parishes under the respective names of St. Denis and St. James Santee, while Charleston Huguenots gradually drifted toward St. Philip’s. By the 1730s and 1740s most second-generation Huguenots had virtually abandoned the use of the French language and many, especially among the most affluent, had intermarried with families of British origin.
In 1885 the Charleston-based Huguenot Society of South Carolina was founded to preserve the state’s Huguenot memory through the publication of its journal, Transactions; the erection of markers wherever Huguenots settled in the state; and the sponsoring of commemorative events. With the Charleston Huguenot Church (1845), the Middleburg Plantation (1697), and the Hanover House (ca. 1716), South Carolina possesses a remarkable Huguenot architectural heritage and with historical figures such as Francis Marion, Gabriel Manigault, and Henry and John Laurens, a true Huguenot pantheon.