Silversmith Paul Revere, also known for his midnight ride, had them in his ancestry. Louis Comfort Tiffany, the designer of exquisite stained glass and a member of the famous jewelry family, was of their blood. Half of the U. S. presidents are in some way connected to them. And in the Richmond region, their names resonate in Virginia history, business and civic achievement: Agee, Chastain, Dejarnett, Duval, Dabney, Foushee, Fuqua, Jacquelin, La Prade, Maury, Moncure, Morrisette, Pickett, Rowlett, Sublet and Witt.
They are among the descendants of the Huguenots, or French Protestants. The origin of the name may come from Besancon Hugues, the mid-1500s Swiss Protestant leader. The Huguenots were oppressed and outright killed throughout France from the mid-16th to the early 18th centuries. The French Catholic monarchy conducted the infamous slaughter of an estimated 70,000 Huguenots from Aug. 23-24, 1572, in the "St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre."
Later, when the Protestant Henry of Navarre converted to Catholicism, he granted his Huguenot brothers a number of rights under the Edict of Nantes (1598). It didn't hold up against ingrained religious bigotry. Many Huguenots fled to safe towns and established themselves in trades, while others began moving away. French-speaking immigrants arrived in Virginia during the settlement's early days. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and once again, open season was declared on Huguenots.
Approximately 400,000 Huguenots fled to Holland and England, and from there a small percentage came to Colonial America. They settled in New York, Boston, South Carolina and here in Virginia, in what is now Powhatan County, on 10,000 acres ceded to them by Richmond city founder William Byrd I.
The lands they settled extended very roughly along Robious Road, west of Old Gun Road, following the Huguenot Trail and Cosby Road, and bounded on the north by the James River.
"It was a real loss to France," says Midlothian resident and Huguenot descendant Priscilla Sallé Condyles. "They were the weavers and the coopers, the winemakers. They'd accumulated the resources so that when they'd finally had enough, they could leave France."
King William of England supplied more than 500 Huguenots with four ships and supplies bound for Norfolk, Va. However, when they arrived at Jamestown, William Byrd I and Gov. Francis Nicholson met them and instead steered the exhausted Huguenots 30 difficult miles upriver from Richmond to an abandoned Monacan Indian settlement, which later became known as Manakin Town. Byrd did this to create a buffer against Indian attacks west of Richmond.
The Huguenots were encouraged by a seven-year tax exemption and permission to have a non-Anglican priest. The winter of 1700-01 was hard, and a number died from hunger and disease. Byrd and the Virginia government provided assistance, warning, however, "if they make no Corne for their subsistence next Yeare they could not expect" further relief.
The Huguenots' original plan for Manakin Town was for a French-style village around a central square with outlying service farms, but the rich, fertile river-bottom land caused them to live on larger agrarian lots spaced farther apart. The land grand was divided into farms, all of which ran in narrow strips to the river. The Huguenots, primarily city dwellers, abandoned notions of vineyards and silk making and instead became farmers.
A 1999 history of the settlement by Allison Wehr Elterich, "The Diligence and the Disappearance of Manakintowne's Huguenots," says the Huguenots were absorbed into the Protestant community, leaving little but their surnames. And in some cases, even those were Anglicized. Roads, bridges and schools were named for them, but their history was fading.
In 1922 a group of 18 Huguenot descendants organized the Huguenot Society of the Founders of Manakin in the Colony of Virginia. Since then, the membership has built an archives and headquarters next to the site of the original Manakin Church, at 985 Huguenot Trail in Powhatan County. The white clapboard chapel, built in 1895 with three unusual gables around its door, and moved twice from its first nearby location, is used for ceremonial occasions. The building contains recycled elements from the 1710 and 1730 structures.
Condyles says, "People come here from far, far away. They come to walk where their ancestors walked."
*Permission of author given