The Huguenot Society

of the

Founders of Manakin in the Colony of Virginia

Book Review: The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society. Jon Butler. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1983. (Paperbound)

Jon Butler brings to bear the considerable insights and research of modern history to the study of three groups of Huguenots in colonial America--in Boston, New York, and South Carolina. The results are mixed, and for the settlement at Manakintowne, rather frustrating.

There's a good rationale for his choices of these three settlements: range and timing. Each was established in a very different environment, in terms of population, religion, politics, slavery, and culture. So generalities which hold across each settlement would seem to be true for all Huguenots. Also, these settlements were established early, primarily between 1680-1690, by people who were not more than a generation removed from the persecution in France. Nevertheless, the remaining records for the Manakin settlement, which was established only 15 years after the Revocation and within the first and second generations, are at least as informative and would have given depth to this study--and perhaps even modified some of its conclusions.

Butler seems to have unstated definitions for success of the Huguenot settlements, expectations which they never seem to have accomplished, not in a way satisfactory to him anyhow. He perceives serious failures of cohesion--religious, social, and cultural, and hasty movement to assimilate and marry "exogamous" spouses who were not in the Huguenot community. Though he acknowledges that many Huguenots contributed greatly to the developing colonial society, he keeps reminding the reader of loss of community and unity. He seems particularly disappointed that the French churches were early co-opted by the Anglican church, required to use its French prayer book, and modify the religious practices they had struggled to develop.

As he points out, the Huguenots never had a strong central organization, not even in France. Centuries of struggle meant that congregations were generally local and family-centered. Strong leaders were vulnerable and often persecuted; passive resistance of small groups, who could hide easily, seemed the wisest course. Also, the refugees came from all over France, a country with widely differently regional cultures, and they ranged from peasants to nobility. Their ministers, especially after escaping to other European countries, often disagreed on matters of theology and how much to accommodate other Protestant practices. The Huguenots had not been brought together by persecution, as so often happens, but often divided, especially as they went to other countries and were taken in by different groups of Protestants. So is it any wonder that the union brought by language and religious persecution often proved inadequate for continuing community, especially in a country where they had to adapt quickly to new vocations in order to survive financially?

Perhaps what is amazing is that the Huguenot refugees were able to create any kind of viable community--and yet they did, over and over. And is their experience so different from other emigrants from non-English speaking countries? Survival demanded adaptation, and marriage out of such very small groups would be expected, as well as dispersal to new lands being made available. Adaptability and survival are not negative attributes--and may well be the best sign of success for any emigrant group. Adaptation is not exactly disappearance!

One pattern that Butler finds is particularly troubling--and was true in Manakintowne as well. As he documents, Huguenots in all three areas, especially South Carolina, rather quickly adopted the institution of slavery. One would think that their background of injustice would have made them more rather than less sensitive to the issues involved in owning slaves. Perhaps the strong class divisions and large peasant population of France were a factor. Yet proportionately they soon had more slaves than their neighbors, and some in South Carolina became very active in the slave trade. Butler does not offer an explanation, and perhaps there is none that we can understand today. What surprised me was how many Huguenots in New York had slaves.

I cannot help but wonder what the book would have been like if Butler had given Manakintowne the kind of attention he has given the other settlements. With such a wealth of legal documents, especially deeds and wills, and church records--none of which he consulted, perhaps he would have seen deeper community ties than he does. The primary unit for the Huguenots at Manakintowne--and surely other places--seems to be the family, as I read these documents. And does that not continue today, in the very existence of the society? Yet he does not even mention modern Huguenot societies linked to any of these settlements.

There also seems to be a story to be told--not of "disappearance"--of the Manakin Episcopal church, as well as those families who found new theological homes with the dissenting Baptists (whose Calvinism was not so different from that of many of the Huguenots in France). There's much more here than Butler's statement about Manakin: "neither Anglicanism nor any independent Huguenot church life prospered, and some parish residents drifted into Virginia's growing ranks of Dissenters, especially after 1750." That's not the spin I would put on the evolution of Huguenot theology in Virginia.

Perhaps someday a scholar with Butler's resources and analytical tools will turn to the Manakin settlers, comparing them with these other settlements but being less negative. Meanwhile, it is interesting to see the patterns of other settlements, especially for readers who can compare them with the Manakin patterns, and who have a much broader notion of what "success" the Huguenots found in being part of America, and bringing their own strengths--and perhaps a weakness or two--to the developing American character.

Reviewed by Ann Woodlief
National Librarian, 2004