Tomorrow, I will host and review The King’s Command by Rosemary Hayes, a lovely new historical fiction novel. Her story traces the experience of her French Protestant ancestors in the late 1600s, during the period of King Louis XIV’s persecution and his revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Reading that story, which is backed by her careful historical research, filled in a host of details about what my own ancestors must have experienced in that same time period. I wanted to place my review in that context, but once I jumped down the genealogical rabbit hole, I gathered so much material that I decided to share my own story as a separate blog post. I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for the author’s post and my review.
I did not learn of my Huguenot ancestry until early adulthood, when my mother began looking into her genealogy and discovered that the original immigrant in her father’s line had fled persecution in France and arrived in the colony of Pennsylvania in 1752. Her source (in that era, before the internet) was a story that had been handed down through the family and published in a county “genealogical history” in 1898 – some five generations after the ancestor arrived.
The published account stated that her ancestor’s father had “suffered death for conscience’ sake” and the mother had fled to Switzerland with her three sons, who subsequently embarked for the colonies after their mother’s death. The brother who is my ancestor was well educated and quickly found work teaching in an academy.
In the middle 1700s, upon disembarking in Philadelphia, all immigrants on shipboard were required to come ashore, swear allegiance to King George II, and sign a document declaring their allegiance. My husband and I were privileged to view a facsimile of the brothers’ three signatures on that declaration in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. many years ago, corroborating at least that component of the information that had come to us.
Not having studied history sufficiently by then to know any better, I naively assumed they’d fled France when the Edict of Nantes was revoked. But the dates don’t fit – the revocation was in 1685, and they didn’t arrive in Pennsylvania until nearly seventy years later.
More recent research on the internet shows that in the 1720s, when the three brothers were born, the family in fact lived in Hesse-Kassel, then a Calvinist region of Germany to which many Huguenots fled after the revocation. Genealogical resources have taken me no further back than the birth of their father, also born in that region of Germany.
The records do confirm that their father met an early death: he died in 1735 at age 34. I have the location of his death, but so far I’ve been unable to get behind the mystery of how he died. Was he fighting in a war? The war of Polish Succession (1733-35) involved the Rhineland, about 150 miles south of where he lived. Perhaps he was called up to serve in that war and campaigned in the siege of Phillipsburg. Did he die of natural causes? An accident? Since he lived in protestant Germany, it seems unlikely he himself died from religious persecution.
Where in France the family originated is also still a mystery to me. The protestant communities of France were largely concentrated in southern and western France. Many of those who settled in Hesse-Kassel and nearby regions of Germany were from regions near Lyon, in the eastern part of southern France. They typically came first through Switzerland, which was inundated with new refugees, and thence to the protestant regions of Germany.
What I now suspect is that elements of the story that was published in 1898 are true, but that they became conflated and condensed in time by the five generations that passed the story down. Quite possibly an original ancestor was killed in France at some time during the persecution and turmoil of the 1680s. If the family did in fact live in southeastern France, the survivors probably did flee first to Switzerland, and thence to the Calvinist communities in Hesse-Kassel, where it appears they and their descendants remained until the 1750s.
In summary, the stories that have come to me offer no detail of what my ancestors did for a living in France, what they experienced across the decade of the 1680s, what event precipitated their choice to leave (an act that was forbidden and punishable by imprisonment, enslavement, or death), and how they managed their escape into Germany. The book I will review tomorrow is a welcome window into what they may have gone through.
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For those of you who have Huguenot ancestors, whether or not they settled in Germany, I highly recommend this virtual museum:
You can select whether to access its resources in English, French, or German. It offers what it calls “tours” – collections of articles following specific topics, most of which also include historical photos and often maps (as below).
Some sample tour titles: