About the Huguenots

bevierelting.jpg

The history of the Huguenots began in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany, when Martin Luther tacked Ninety-Five Theses to the front door of a church and launched what we now know as the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation spread throughout Europe as thinkers such as Luther and John Calvin, a Frenchman, influenced people to break their ties to the Roman Catholic Church and embrace new manners of Christian worship that focused on the central importance of Biblical texts and a personal relationship with God.  Calvin was especially important in France where his followers, drawn primarily from the middle class and skilled artisans, came to be called Huguenots (there remains a considerable difference of opinion as to the origin of the term).  

Violence soon followed.  In France, the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Huguenots raged for more than 30 years and included the most infamous massacre of Protestants in European history: the slaughter of thousands of Huguenots in Paris on St. Bartholomew's Day -- August 23, 1572.  The conflict continued until a Protestant French king, Henry IV, put a stop to it by issuing the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which gave considerable protections to the Huguenots to worship as they pleased.  But tensions remained high until 1610, when Henry was assassinated, bringing Louis XIII, a Catholic king, to the French throne. This event brought returning persecution of Huguenots and, not long thereafter, outright warfare.  The fall of La Rochelle in 1628, a Huguenot stronghold that was besieged for months, ended almost all hopes of positive resolution for the Protestants, causing many of them to eventually flee their homeland for safer communities elsewhere in Europe.      

Among the Huguenots who left were a group of families from northern France, located near Calais, and what is now southern Belgium. Their names were Bevier, Hasbrouck, DuBois, Deyo, LeFever, and others. They first found safety in die Pfalz, a Protestant region in present-day southwest Germany. It was a tenuous existence, however, given the growing desire of Catholic France and Spain to subdue Protestantism throughout Europe. Consequently, fears that violence was again about to reach their doors caused the families to leave their homes once more and set sail for a Dutch colony in North America, New Netherland, where Protestants were embraced.  The Dutch were famous for their religious toleration and, unlike the equally tolerant English, had reformed their church in ways much more similar to the Calvinist faith practiced by the Huguenots.  It is likely that such circumstances influenced the decision of many of the families to make the perilous transatlantic journey and settle in the Dutch colonial town of Wiltwijck (today's Kingston), on the Hudson River in the 1660s and 1670s.  By that time, though, the colony had been surrendered by the Dutch to the English and renamed New York--the same year that a French army ravaged die Pfalz.  

Perhaps fearing the loss of their religious identity and French heritage in a community dominated by seemingly less pious Dutch settlers and merchants, a group of Huguenot families led by Louis DuBois and Abraham Hasbrouck, among others, decided to create a community of their own, one where they could exercise more authority over their worship and their way of life. They arranged the purchase of 30,000 acres of land from the local Esopus Indian tribes, and a land patent confirming it was issued by the new English Governor of New York, Sir Edmund Andros, in 1677.  By 1678, the families had moved to the banks of the Wallkill River and established the village of New Paltz. The families built their first homes out of wood, along with a palisaded fort on a site that had been used for centuries by the Esopus.  They divided up their property among the families, began to farm and plant orchards, and created their own church, overseen by the Consistory, comprised of the 12 leaders of the families, who also assumed all political authority over the small community (historians have come to refer to the Consistory as "the Duzine," the French word for dozen).  They then, over the next several decades, began to construct more permanent buildings around the outside of the original fort, made out of stone and in a Dutch style, as the community grew to include more people of Dutch descent.  Those famous buildings form the foundation of the Historic Huguenot Street you see today.

hasbrouck.jpg

Over the course of the 1700s, the Huguenot community expanded to include people from many different ethnic backgrounds, including enslaved Africans.  They attempted to hold onto their French heritage, through their language and religion, and actually succeeded much longer than any other Huguenot community in North America.  But the economic changes brought by an expansive British Empire and a strong local Dutch influence soon transformed New Paltz into a multicultural society, one in which French, Dutch, and English were spoken and written with seemingly equal facility, although their religious practice appears to have permanently shifted from the French Reformed faith of the Huguenots to the somewhat more moderate Dutch Reformed Church at some point in the eighteenth century (and survives to this day). By the 1770s, however, the people of Huguenot Street were actively involved in the creation of yet another society: the United States of America.

Come visit us today to learn more about their stories and how they helped make America.