Carolina was an English colony, of course, but did you know that the French actually beat the English in the race to get there? Of course, the Spanish beat them all in 1526. Quelle surprise. Their settlement, San Miguel de Gualdape, was actually the first European settlement in what is now the United States, possibly located near the site of present-day Georgetown, South Carolina. Unfortunately for the Spanish, though, San Miguel was abandoned after only 3 months when famine, disease, and unrest among their Native American neighbors forced the settlers to return to Santo Domingo. The French arrived in 1562, after Admiral Gaspard de Coligny organized an expedition to settle the region. The expedition, led by Norman navigator Jean Ribault, built Charlesfort on present-day Parris Island but, like the Spanish before them, they didn’t stick it out for very long. Ribault, having returned to Europe for supplies, was detained because of the French wars of religion, leaving his fledgling settlement to founder. After only one year, all but one of the 28 remaining settlers set off across the Atlantic in a makeshift vessel. You may have read about their fate: by the time they were rescued by a passing English ship, the unfortunate crew had already resorted to cannibalism to stay alive as they drifted aimlessly on the ocean. Meanwhile, the Spanish sent an expedition from Cuba to destroy Charlesfort, and the French experiment in colonizing the area came to an end. It wasn’t the end of French settlement though …
Carolina wasn’t founded as an English colony until 1629, when the English King, Charles I, granted all of the land between the 31st and 36th latitudes in America to his attorney general. The area was named the Province of Carlana, but was eventually changed to Carolina, after the Latin form of the king’s name. In 1663, after the Restoration, Charles’s son, Charles II, gave the land to eight English noblemen called the Lords Proprietor, and the first English settlement in Carolina was established in 1670 at Charles Towne. It wasn’t long, though, before French settlers began to make their appearance there.
I’ve written before about my own “French connection“—how one of my first ancestors born in America was a full-blooded Frenchman. Andrew Dubose, born in 1699 in Jamestown, Carolina (also known as Saint James Santee or French Santee), was the son of two Huguenot settlers who emigrated from France to Carolina at the end of the 17th Century. They were two of an estimated 400,000 Huguenots who left France for England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, and America in the years before and immediately following King Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had given limited religious freedom to French Protestants.
The thousands of Huguenots who settled in Carolina ended up leaving quite an impression. Charleston is still home to the oldest Huguenot Church in America, established in 1681—and by some accounts, the sole surviving French Calvinist congregation in the country. The congregation these days is anglophone, of course, but the church holds two French-language services each year. It is located in Charleston’s French Quarter—certainly not America’s most famous French Quarter, but an important one, nonetheless. Bounded by the Cooper River, Market Street, Meeting Street and Broad Street, it was named the “French Quarter” in homage to the many French merchants who settled there in the city’s early days.
There are many place names in South Carolina that bear the mark of this French connection: Abbeville, Beaufort, Bonneau, Bordeaux, Eau Claire, Fort Motte, Gaston, Gourdin, Pacolet, Port Royal, Ravenel, Turbeville, Vaucluse …
And then there are the places named after famous South Carolinians of Huguenot origin:
The city and county of Laurens are named for Henry Laurens. Laurens is a little-noted leader of the American Revolution, who served as President of the Continental Congress after John Hancock, was a South Carolina signatory to the Articles of Confederation in 1778, and was one of the United States’s peace commissioners during the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris of 1783, ending the American Revolutionary War.
The most famous South Carolinian of Huguenot origin is certainly Francis Marion, a general in the South Carolina militia and the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. The city and county of Marion are named for him. He is known as one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare because of his military tactics in the swamps of South Carolina, which also gave rise to his nickname, the “Swamp Fox.” It was under General Marion that Peter Dubose, my fifth great grandfather and the son of Andrew Dubose (mentioned above), served as a militia captain during the Revolution. (As an interesting aside, the protagonist in the film The Patriot is based partly on General Marion.)
Horry County, the largest county in South Carolina and home to Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand beaches, was named for Peter Horry, a brigadier general in the South Carolina Militia during the American Revolution, who later served under General Marion after the fall of Charleston in 1780. Because he happened later to move into the house that Peter Horry built in Columbia, that brings us to John Gabriel Guignard. Guignard served as the Surveyor General of South Carolina and is the namesake of Guignard Drive in Sumter and Guignard Park in Cayce.
One of the more famous streets in Columbia, which borders the State House grounds to the north is Gervais Street, named for John Lewis Gervais. A Huguenot born in Germany after his parents immigrated there in 1741, Gervais subsequently immigrated to South Carolina in 1762. He served in the Continental Congress as well as in the state Senate of South Carolina, where he championed efforts to establish a new state capital at Columbia.
And finally, we have Brigadier General Isaac Huger, who served in the Cherokee War of 1760 and the American Rev-olutionary War, but who is most famous for his perennially confusing namesake in Columbia: Huger Street. Now, South Carolina natives know that the street’s name is pronounced “You-gee” but you certainly hear plenty of people mispronouncing it as “Hyoo-gur.” Of course, the South Carolina pronunciation isn’t exactly the proper French pronunciation, but it definitely preserves something of the French character that General Huger’s family brought with it to Carolina, lo, 300 years years ago. (Incidentally, Gen. Huger’s brother, Major Benjamin Huger hosted the Marquis de Lafayette near Georgetown in 1777 during his first visit to America at the height of the Revolution. His son Francis was later instrumental is aiding the Marquis’s escape from an Austrian prison in Moravia where he had been imprisoned during the French Revolution as an enemy of the French monarchy.)
So there you have it — a brief survey of South Carolina’s grand French heritage. Let’s be proud of it, fellow South Carolinians … even if we don’t always pronounce it correctly!
May 14, 2012 P.S.—A May 13, 2012 article in Columbia, South Carolina’s The State newspaper provides a nice discussion of Ribault’s settlement at Charlesfort. You can access it here. My own account here on je parle américain can be accessed here.
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved