As discussed in previous articles on SNN, South Carolina was settled as a colony of a colony – Barbados. In addition to the English and English-Barbadians, Scots settled in Carolina in large numbers (numbering almost as many as the English). Irish, Welsh and German settlers also made up significant portions of the colony’s White population. One of the smaller groups of Europeans who helped to settle Carolina was the French. Though by 1790 they constituted slightly under four percent of South Carolina (according to US Bureau of the Census), French Carolinians prospered in agricultural pursuits and were elected to high office. After some initial hostilities with the British majority, the French were eventually assimilated into the English-speaking White population. Historian Dr Walter Edgar discusses the French experience in colonial South Carolina on pages 50-52 of his book South Carolina: A History, excerpted below:
After the English, the French were the most significant ethnic group in terms of colonial affairs, far out of all proportion to their numbers. South Carolina had the largest French population (in terms of percentage) of any of the thirteen original colonies. It was a diverse group made up of Huguenot refuges, French-speaking Swiss, and Acadians.
The first French settlers were Huguenots who were attracted to South Carolina by the promise of religious and political freedom and the availability of land. In April 1680 a group of forty-five Huguenots arrived in South Carolina aboard the Richmond (the Huguenot answer to the Carolina and the Mayflower). Over the next few years others immigrated as families or individuals. Then in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes that had guaranteed French Protestants the right to worship freely. Huguenots were persecuted, and thousands sought refuge in Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, and the New World. In the decade following the revocation fifteen hundred fled to South Carolina, many of them escaping with only their lives.
…Some Huguenots remained in Charleston, but most moved north and east long the eastern branch of the Cooper River and on to vacant lands along the Santee River, to what was then the South Carolina northern frontier. There they established themselves as planters in what would become one of the richest rice-growing areas of the colony. Until about 1720 they continued to speak and write in French and married within the Huguenot community. After that time Huguenots intermarried with the English majority in the lowcountry, joined the Church of England, and made “little effort… to perpetuate the remembrance of a distinct nationality.” A few even Anglicized their names.
While they may have become Anglicized, in many ways Huguenots and their English neighbors continued to recognize the former’s heritage. The area along the Santee where they lived was known as the French Santee, and when parishes were established in the eighteenth century, one was called St. Thomas and St. Denis.
..Assimilation did not come easy for the Huguenots, who found themselves the objects of intense ethnic animosity. In the elections for the first Commons House of Assembly in 1692 five of the six delegates from Craven County were Huguenots. this led to an angry petition to Gov. Philip Ludwell asking him to prevent the Huguenots from taking their seats: “Shall the Frenchmen, who cannot speak our language, make our laws?” …Governor Ludwell ignored the protests and permitted the Huguenots to take their seats.
In response to the concerns of the English majority, for election purposes Craven and Berkeley Counties were combined, thus eliminating a French-majority election district. However, by the time the Third Assembly met in 1696, there was at least one Huguenot in the Berkeley and Craven delegation.
The proprietors, who had encouraged the Huguenots and other refugees to settle in South Carolina, were horrified at the emergence of this raw ethnic hatred. By word and deed they did what they could to support the Huguenots from three thousand miles away. …The controversy continued to simmer until the Commons House passed its own naturalization act in 1697 granting aliens “all the rights, privileges, powers and immunities whatsoever, which any person born of English parents may, can, might, could, or of right ought to have, use and enjoy.” While the act only applied to those who had petitioned for citizenship, it set a precedent for assimilation.
Most subsequent French immigrants – and most others – did not have to undergo the tribulations that the Huguenots had been forced to endure during the early proprietary years.
Dr Edgar then goes on to discuss an exception to the above trend – the unfortunate experience of the 1,023 Acadians who were relocated by the British government to South Carolina in the 1750s. They were scattered through the various parishes, generally ill-received by Carolinians and within a year their numbers had been diminished to about one third of their original number due to disease and emigration.
…By the 1730s the Huguenots had begun to abandon their language and customs and to merge with the English majority. They were no longer as alien as they once had been. The more they became assimilated, the more successful they became. Later French immigrants settled on the frontier away from the centers of population and, for a while, clung to their own ways. Then they, too, married their neighbors whether or not they were French. In Charleston no one really cared whether backwoods French or German settlers kept their “alien” culture and language. Out of sight and earshot, they were supposed to be the colony’s first line of defense against the Indians.