Tuesday, October 26, 2010


   The observation that both the Revere and Vassall family were of French Huguenot ancestry reveals a little known and long forgotten fact about immigration into the English colonies that became the United States. The Huguenots - French Protestants- were the first substantial continental European immigrants to arrive in British America, the first to form identifiable "immigrant" communities within the English colonies, and the first to assimilate thoroughly. Although the Huguenots' experience ultimately proved atypical, it spoke to the special openness of America to European immigrants in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
   The Huguenots came to America in a second, unanticipated stage of a bitter and forced exile from France. The first stage occurred between 1675 and 1690 as 100,000 French Protestants fled France when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes that had guaranteed limited Protestant worship in Catholic France since 1592. This stream of emigrants, called "le refuge" by Protestant historians, sent French Protestants streaming into Prussia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England.
   The second stage emerged as refugee Huguenots decided to emigrate to America to escape their miserable exile in Europe. The Huguenot exodus occurred just as a late seventeenth century colonization push was beginning in America and colonial entrepreneurs advertised extensively among the Huguenot refugees. Huguenots settled in some surprising places in America. Pennsylvania, that refuge for the religious persecuted, received almost no Huguenots despite William Penn's advertising. Instead, most of the 2,000 to 2,500 Huguenots who arrived in America between 1680 and 1700 headed for South Carolina and New York, with smaller numbers going to New England. In New England, most congregated in Boston, and like New York City, most of Boston's Huguenots were merchants and tradesmen. The Huguenots quickly disappeared as a cohesive religious and ethnic group in America. By the third generation, most Huguenots had long since become Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists and even Quakers. The two remaining active Huguenot congregations in New York and Charleston closed during the Revolution.
   Intermarriage speeded the religious fissure and, as early as 1700, fewer than twenty years after most Huguenots arrived in the colonies, almost half of New York and Boston Huguenots, men and women alike, took English, Dutch, and Scots-Irish spouses. Apollos Rivoire, Paul Revere's father, married  Deborah Hitchborn, a member of a fourth generation New England family so that Paul was one half French Huguenot and one-half old Yankee.
   Through much of the eighteenth century, refugee Huguenots dominated London's silver trade, producing baroque pieces with heavy ornamentation. Colonial silversmiths, however, produced pieces with a cleanness of line and simplicity of content that set it far from the work of London's Huguenot silversmiths. Part of this difference was due to an autonomous apprenticeship system employed by silversmiths throughout the colonies. Colonial silversmiths regularly trained their own apprentices, so that by the mid eighteenth century, a substantial number of colonial silversmiths were third generation silversmiths. Apollos Rivoire learned his silver crafts from Boston silversmith John Coney, and Paul Revere apprenticed to his own father. Paul Revere became widely acknowledged, both in his own time and since, as the single finest silversmith of the colonial period.

Silver tankard by Apollos Rivoire, circa 1750

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting read. It appears Mr Witek's research into Colonial America is quite extensive, painting a very detailed background for his main subject.