The Huguenots in New France & Acadia

It’s a little-known fact that the Huguenots were also present in the French colonies. The first attempt at colonizing Acadia was in 1603 by de Pontgrave and Sr. des Monts, both Huguenots. Later joined by Champlain, their attempt failed due to poor organization. They tried again around 1605, bringing about 20 men, soldiers and artisans, both Catholics and Protestants, but little came of it.

Mr. de Razilly was the one who finally established a permanent settlement at Port Royal. In 1636, the first families landed in Acadia, having traveled aboard the St.-Jehan, the Acadian equivalent of the “Mayflower”. These adventurers needed the permission and protection of the King as well as financing from French merchants and shipowners to organize such settlements. Huguenot merchants were well-represented in that group. The home ports of these merchants were St.-Malo and Rouen, with the addition of LaRochelle later.

Of the original pioneers, Jean Pitre and Isaac Pesseley, among others, were Huguenots. As it is today, business had no religion. As long as the Protestant merchants kept themselves to business affairs, everything was fine. However, if they wanted to marry into the population, the young men had to renounce their religion. Some did not give up easily. For example, a Scottish Huguenot, being attended to by a priest and a well-intentioned woman on his death bed, refused to be converted to his last breath.

The Huguenot merchants used their influence to send some ministers of their faith along with Catholic missionaries. This mixture of faiths brought some interesting results. Here is Champlain on the subject: “I have seen the minister and our curé in fist fights, trying to resolve their religious differences, the minister often complaining to Sr. des Monts that he was being harassed by the priest”. His last word on the subject, “They sent here a doubting priest and minister, and they expect them to convert all the Indians!”

Acadia had a few posts halfway down the coast of Maine, making them next door neighbors to New England, a cause for much friction. From its foundation to the final rendition, Acadia changed hands more often than Alsace-Lorraine. There was an element of piracy, (corsaires or privateers sounds so much better), on both sides. One day, they were raiding each other’s posts and ships, and the next, they were trading. In spite of France’s objection, the merchants, as far away as Quebec, found this trade more profitable, as they did not have to cross the Atlantic. An Acadian merchant and pioneer, Louis Allain, being bilingual and a land owner in Wells, Maine, purchased a boat, the “Endeavour”. He used it to sail up and down the coast, probably becoming the first North American mail boat!

Quebec and Montreal also had their share of Huguenots. With the passing of time and marriages, their children were assimilated by the Catholic population. The more hardy stayed single or moved to other areas, but some certainly came back after the British conquest.

A family genealogist with a Huguenot ancestry, facing a brick wall in his research in Europe, should look north. Who knows!

Huguenot cross image  by Syryatsu (Creative Commons)

Originally published in : The Winthrop Quarterly, August 1996

©2016 Janet Comeau

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