French America

The French Roots of New Rochelle

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This issue takes us to one of the oldest cities in New York State, founded by French Protestants in the 17th century.
© Mathieu Persan

In 1654, English physician Thomas Pell made an agreement with the Siwanoy tribe and bought a plot of land on the banks of the Long Island Sound, 19 miles northeast of New York City, which would become the Pelham Manor estate. After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, thousands of French Protestants – Huguenots – fled persecution and found refuge in America.

Thomas Pell’s nephew, John Pell, then Lord of Pelham Manor, received orders from William III, King of England, to sell land to the French. In 1689, he sold 6,100 acres of his estate to 33 families for 1,675 pounds and the payment of one fattened calf every year – a tax inherited from feudal duties!

The first arrivals were mostly from the province of Aunis (now part of the Charente-Maritime département) and had fled France from the port of La Rochelle. When they founded the first settlement, they named it “La Nouvelle-Rochelle” or “New Rochelle.” In 1692, they built a wooden church whose first pastor was David de Bonrepos. Trinity-Saint Paul’s Church was later built nearby, and still stands at 311 Huguenot Street.

The settlement had 692 inhabitants in 1790, as many other French people had joined the community over the years. However, English had already been established as the official language, and the final municipal reports written in French were published in 1738. In Hudson Park, a monument bears the names of the 151 French families with ties to the history of New Rochelle, including Bouteiller, Flandreau, Lamoureux, Sicard, and Tourneur. And since the early 20th century, exchanges between New Rochelle and La Rochelle have helped maintain the history of the Huguenots.

Some of the direct descendants of exiled French Protestants include two of the Founding Fathers: Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, and John Jay, a signatory of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Their respective grandfathers, André Laurent and Auguste Jay, fled France and settled in Charleston, South Carolina.

Article published in the December 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.