First Pettits in America Series #5 –Joshua Pettit/Josue Petit, French Huguenot or Waldensian Refugee in Virginia in 1700
Note: With just a couple of exceptions, most of the ancient source records quoted for this article can be found in R. A. Brock’s Documents Chiefly Unpublished Relating to the Huguenot Emigration to Virginia and the Settlement at Manakin-Town, originally published in 1886. A quality digital copy of this book is available for download HERE.
Note for researchers studying Manakintown: After having studied these documents and other material including the wills of the Manakintown settlers, this researcher has come to the unique conclusion that the Manakintown settlement was primarily a Waldensian colony. A separate paper on this subject will be written and linked to here in the future.
Joshua Pettit/Josue Petit, French Huguenot or Waldensian Refugee in Virginia in 1700
At the outset of this article there is one striking fact which must be declared to anyone who is seriously studying Manakintown. It may be surprising to hear, but the fact is, at no point in any of original source documents related to the settlement of Manakintown are the French refugees ever referred to as “Huguenots.” Never. They are most generally called “French refugees” but when a specific religious designation is mentioned it is one that is more obscure: the Vaudois. The book which compiled these original documents contains the word “Huguenot” in the title and has ample commentary on the Huguenots but the word is conspicuously absent from the source documents themselves. This may be a minor point to some, but the distinction between Huguenot and Vaudois is an important one. It is more than a theological issue as well. An accurate understanding of the religion of these people will tie them to a precise geographic region in France. To accomplish that we must first look at some history.
With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France by King Louis XIV in 1695, Roman Catholicism became the official religion and the era of religious toleration in that country was abruptly and violently terminated. Huguenots, the reformed Calvinist French protestants, were summarily killed in mass with some estimates claiming as many as 300,000 were put to the sword for refusing to renounce their beliefs. Though forbidden by the new law, some 400,000 people fled France in fear for their lives. For the sake of convenience, these religious refugees are collectively referred to as “Huguenots” by modern historians. While a large majority were indeed Huguenots, any person holding a different religious view than that of the Catholic church was considered an enemy of the state and forced to hide or flee. Consequently, among the Huguenot refugees who fled to England were other religious dissenters with different theological viewpoints. One such group was the “Vaudois”.
In 1698 a proposal was submitted to the Lords of the Council of Trade and Plantations in England to arrange for sending the French Protestants in London to the budding colony in Virginia. Presented by William Byrd, these protestants were referred to in the proposal as follows:
(Presented in the year 1698)
Whereas, His Majesty had been pleas’d to refer to your L’ps the care and Disposal of a Consider number of French and Vaudois Refugees that have had ye hard fortune to be driven out of their Country on account of their Religion, and some Proposals have been offered to your L’ps for ye sending ’em to a small Tract of Land lying betweixt Virginia and Carolina which the Proprietors of Carolina call, and order to Settle a New Colony there; I humbly conceive it will appear that Territory is upon no account so fit a Place for this small Colony as ye upper Parts of James River in Virg’a, and that for these several Reasons…
This proposal enumerated six reasons to locate these people to Virginia (as opposed to Carolina) and described the Vaudois Refugees but made no mention of the Huguenots. It is possible due to the confusion of the times, these terms may have been used interchangeably by the English but, as previously mentioned, no reference to the Huguenots is found in these documents. So who were the French Vaudois? Were they French Calvinists like the Huguenots? Not exactly.
The Vaudois take their name from Peter Waldo (“Valdus” in French). He lived from 1140 to 1204 AD. Though they may have predated Peter Waldo by a thousand years, he was an influential leader of their group and the man for whom they were eventually named. Today we know them as the Waldensians but in France they are called the Vaudois. Most people think the protestant reformation started with Martin Luther. The Waldensians were being slaughtered for their rejection of the Catholic religion 400 years before the famous reformers took their stand. The encyclopedia Britannica describes Vaudois beliefs as follows:
Thereafter, the Waldenses departed from the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church by rejecting some of the seven sacraments. The confession of sins was guided by their leaders but did not require a priest; they rejected the use of indulgences. Baptism was to be by full immersion in water and was not administered to infants. Eventually, the elements of the Eucharist (bread and wine) were understood as symbols only, and the Waldenses denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. They also rejected the notion of purgatory and of prayers offered for the dead. Their views were based on a simplified biblicism, moral rigour, and criticism of abuses in the contemporary church. They accepted the Bible as the sole, total authority of all doctrine. Additionally, a formal church building was not viewed as necessary to worship God, and thus many Waldenses held services in their homes, stables, or other locations.
By the time of the French persecution under Louis XIV, the Waldensians and Huguenots had a few differing beliefs but also shared a mutual interest of not getting butchered for their faith. When they escaped together to England the group was painted with one broad brush and later simply labeled as “Huguenots”.
There is evidence of this particular group’s origin in the French Alps in the original documents. It is also interesting that a family legend in this researcher’s branch is that the Pettits originated in the Alsace Lorrine region which is not far from the Waldensian community there.
From the Alps to London and on to Virginia
The request of William Byrd to settle these dissenters up the James River in Virginia was granted and, on July 23, 1700, the British ship Peter and Anthony landed in Virginia with 169 French settlers on board. They made their way up the James River to their new home at the fall line –a place called Manakin Town.
A second ship commanded by Daniel Perreau arrived on September 20, 1700, with around 145 more colonists. On board was a Frenchman named Josue Petit. He is shown on the partial list below taken from Documents Chiefly Unpublished.
The above is a list of persons who arrived at “Manicantnon” by the end of the year (1700) and was compiled on December 1, 1700. Josue Petit is the French form of the English name “Joshua Pettit”. His entry on the list shows that there were four people including him who made the trip from London to Virginia. “Sa femme et 2 enfans” means “his wife and two children.” Thus Joshua Pettit, the Frenchman, made the journey across the Atlantic to Virginia with his wife and two children in tow.
Starvation and Death Ravages Manakintown
The refugees on the second ship expected to be greeted by the settlers from the first. They expected progress to be well underway and anticipated coming along side to help. What they discovered was that many had already died and at least half of those remaining lay sick. They had no provisions of their own and the provisions of the second ship were quickly depleted. The town site was so remote that there was no method of over-land transport to the nearest English settlement. There was no food, nothing in the field, and winter was crouching at their door.
The situation was dire and help was nowhere to be found. In December of 1700, the French refugees sent an emergency petition to Governor Nicholson desperately praying for relief. Some interesting excerpts from this petition are quoted below
But so far was the second party of ffrench Refugees from
receiving that aide and assistance they proposed to themselves
from the first, that on ye contrary it was noe small suprisall there
to understand that more than one halfe of the first party lay sick
at ye ffalis languishing under misery and want, notwithstanding
the considerable supplies that the Sieurs De la Muce and De
Sailly received, both from y’r Excellency and from the Country,
as also y’t a great number of ’em was dead, and y’t so many of
’em as repaired to their new settiem’t were in a distressed condition
and in great disorder, complaining of the hard-heartedness
of De Sailly, and speaking of him as of one whose conduct was
odious and insupportable.
Also it seems the colony’s doctor had ran off and took the medical supplies and instruments with him. They asked the Governor:
That Monsieur La Sosee, physician to ye said Colony, be
ordered to returne again thither and carry back with him all ye
medecins and instruments that ye Colony had entrusted him
There were a number of other requests in the petition as well and these can be reviewed in Documents Chiefly Unpublished. Several of the French settlers signed the petition including Josue Pettit (Joshua Pettit) as seen below:
The aide would come but not until after sickness, disease, starvation and cold had claimed the lives of a substantial number of the colonists.
Survivors of the First Winter
On the other side of the winter of 1700-1701 a tally was made of those who survived. On February 4, 1701, a list of all who would receive an allotment of Indian corn meal from the miller at Falling Creek was compiled. It was stated that if any of those named “don’t settle above, leave their settlement, or dye, their names are to be blotted out…” Of the roughly 500 original settlers, only 218 are listed as having made it through the first winter. A number of survivors were consolidated into single households as the functional family units were decimated by death. Sadly, the record strongly indicates that Josue Petit’s entire family was extinguished, with the exception of himself.
Another “census” was taken eight months later in November 1701. This time Josue Petit appears as “Joshua Pettit” and is listed as a settler from the second ship who lived with a man named Govin and his wife.
This was the last tabulation of settlers found in Documents Chiefly Unpublished and the final total was 203 people. The heavy anglicisation of the French names in the document above makes it difficult to cross reference many of the survivors with the first passenger lists. Therefore, this researcher has not been able to positively identify “Govin” with any of these original settlers though there is little doubt he was among them. (One possible candidate is Anthony Govain.) Also, note the proximity of Joshua Pettit to Isaac Lefavour in this document. His name will appear with Joshua again in six years.
Naturalization and Probate
On May 12, 1705 Joshua Petit along with several other French refugees “made humble suit” to the General Assembly for naturalization. This naturalization was authorized under a 1702 law which gave them the right to “Free Traffick and Tradeing, of Takeing up and Pruchasing, Conveying, Devising, and Inheriting of Lands and Tenements…” and all other right belonging to a natural born Englishman.
As a naturalized Englishman, Joshua Pettit was able to enjoy the fruit of his labor, but the taste must have been bittersweet. He made out his last will and testament on November 5, 1707. The will was recorded in the record books of Henryco County, VA in French and English as seen below:
Making no mention of his wife or any surviving heirs, he left some of his property to a friend and set aside a portion of his remaining estate for the poor.
I give and bequeath to the poor of our Parish a little part of my estate whether for quantity or quality at the [?] & prudence of my inventor and executor.
The provision for the poor in Joshua Petit’s will is a little unusual and not a feature of typical wills of the time. However when one considers the beliefs of the Waldensians, it makes perfect sense. In France, one of the distinctions of the Waldensians was their purposeful simple living, dedication to the spreading the gospel, and their tedious care for the poor and needy. It would be natural for a Waldanese Frenchman to tend to the needs of his destitute countrymen as part of his last will and testament.
His will was received by the Henrico Co court and witnessed by Peter Chastain and Isaac Lefebur. Isaac Lefebur (LeFever) was on the second ship with Joshua Pettit and was probably living nearby as noted on the November 1701 list previously mentioned. Peter Chastain may have been “Chastaing”, one of two the physicians for the colony. The executor’s and heir’s surname is hard to make out but it appears his full name was something like “John Peter Paul de Voure”.
Josue Petit (Joshua Pettit) was a French refugee who found his way to England before 1700. Rather than a reformed Huguenot, the evidence strongly indicated he may have had a Waldensian background. As such he would have been from the Alpine and/or Alsace area of France. He arrived in Virginia with his wife and two children on September 20, 1700. They were sent to the colony of Manakintown. They died that winter due to sickness and starvation and only Joshua Pettit remained. He was naturalized in 1705 and wrote out his will in 1707 which was recorded in Henrico Co., VA in French and English. He mentioned no wife, children or any other family in his will. In typical Waldensian fashion he left a portion of his estate to the poor. He died in 1707.