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Huguenot Fort Post by :lonch Category :Essays Author :Lydia H. Sigourney Date :November 2011 Read :2701

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Huguenot Fort

AT OXFORD, MASSACHUSETTS


I stood upon a breezy height, and marked
The rural landscape's charms: fields thick with corn,
And new-mown grass that bathed the ruthless scythe
With a forgiving fragrance, even in death
Blessing its enemies; and broad-armed trees
Fruitful, or dense with shade, and crystal streams
That cheered their sedgy banks.

But at my feet
Were vestiges, that turned the thoughts away
From all this summer-beauty. Moss-clad stones
That formed their fortress, who in earlier days,
Sought refuge here, from their own troubled clime,
And from the madness of a tyrant king,
Were strewed around.

Methinks, yon wreck stands forth
In rugged strength once more, and firmly guards
From the red Indian's shaft, those sons of France,
Who for her genial flower-decked vales, and flush
Of purple vintage, found but welcome cold
From thee, my native land! the wintry moan
Of wind-swept forests, and the appalling frown
Of icy floods. Yet didst thou leave them free
To strike the sweet harp of the secret soul,
And this was all their wealth. For this they blest
Thy trackless wilds, and 'neath their lowly roof
At morn and night, or with the murmuring swell
Of stranger waters, blent their hymn of praise.
Green Vine! that mantlest in thy fresh embrace
Yon old, grey rock, I hear that thou with them
Didst brave the ocean surge.

Say, drank thy germ
The dews of Languedoc? or slow uncoiled
An infant fibre, mid the fruitful mould
Of smiling Roussillon? or didst thou shrink
From the fierce footsteps of a warlike train
Brother with brother fighting unto death,
At fair Rochelle?

Hast thou no tale for me?
Methought its broad leaves shivered in the gale,
With whispered words.

There was a gentle form,
A fair, young creature, who at twilight hour
Oft brought me water, and would kindly raise
My drooping head. Her eyes were dark and soft
As the gazelle's, and well I knew her sigh
Was tremulous with love. For she had left
One in her own fair land, with whom her heart
From childhood had been twined.

Oft by her side,
What time the youngling moon went up the sky,
Chequering with silvery beam their woven bower;
He strove to win her to the faith he held,
Speaking of heresy with flashing eye,
Yet with such blandishment of tenderness,
As more than argument dissolveth doubt
With a young pupil, in the school of love.
Even then, sharp lightning quivered thro' the gloom
Of persecution's cloud, and soon its storm
Burst on the Huguenots.

Their churches fell,
Their pastors fed the dungeon, or the rack;
And mid each household-group, grim soldiers sat,
In frowning espionage, troubling the sleep
Of infant innocence.

Stern war burst forth,
And civil conflict on the soil of France
Wrought fearful things.

The peasant's blood was ploughed
In with the wheat he planted, while from cliffs
That overhung the sea, from caves and dens,
The hunted worshippers were madly driven
Out 'neath the smiling sabbath skies, and slain,
The anthem on their tongues.

The coast was thronged
With hapless exiles, and that dark-haired maid,
Leading her little sister, in the steps
Of their afflicted parents, hasting left
The meal uneaten, and the table spread
In their sweet cottage, to return no more.
The lover held her to his heart, and prayed
That from her erring people she would turn
To the true fold of Christ, for so he deemed
That ancient Church, for which his breast was clad
In soldier's panoply.

But she, with tears
Like Niobe, a never-ceasing flood,
Drew her soft hand from his, and dared the deep.
And so, as years sped on with patient brow
She bare the burdens of the wilderness,
His image, and an everlasting prayer,
Within her soul.

And when she sank away,
As fades the lily when its day is done,
There was a deep-drawn sigh, and up-raised glance
Of earnest supplication, that the hearts
Severed so long, might join, where bigot zeal
Should find no place.

She hath a quiet bed
Beneath yon turf, and an unwritten name
On earth, which sister angels speak in heaven.

When Louis Fourteenth, by the revocation of the Edict of Nantz, scattered the rich treasure of the hearts of more than half a million of subjects to foreign climes, this Western World profited by his mad prodigality. Among the wheat with which its newly broken surface was sown, none was more purely sifted than that which France thus cast away. Industry, integrity, moderated desires, piety without austerity, and the sweetest domestic charities, were among the prominent characteristics of the exiled people.

Among the various settlements made by the Huguenots, at different periods upon our shores, that at Oxford, in Massachusetts, has the priority in point of time. In 1686, thirty families with their clergyman, landed at Fort Hill, in Boston. There they found kind reception and entertainment, until ready to proceed to their destined abode. This was at Oxford, in Worcester county, where an area of 12,000 acres was secured by them, from the township of eight miles square which had been laid out by Governor Dudley. The appearance of the country, though uncleared, was pleasant to those who counted as their chief wealth, "freedom to worship God." They gave the name of French River to a stream, which, after diffusing fertility around their new home, becomes a tributary of the Quinabaug, in Connecticut, and finally merged in the Thames, passes on to Long Island Sound.

Being surrounded by the territory of the Nipmug Indians, their first care was to build a fort, as a refuge from savage aggression. Gardens were laid out in its vicinity, and stocked with the seeds of vegetables and fruits, brought from their own native soil. Mills were also erected, and ten or twelve years of persevering industry, secured many comforts to the colonists, who were much respected in the neighbouring settlements, and acquired the right of representation in the provincial legislature.

But the tribe of Indians by whom they were encompassed, had, from the beginning, met with a morose and intractable spirit, their proffered kindness. A sudden, and wholly unexpected incursion, with the massacre of one of the emigrants and his children, caused the breaking up of the little peaceful settlement, and the return of its inmates to Boston. Friendships formed there on their first arrival, and the hospitality that has ever distinguished that beautiful city, turned the hearts of the Huguenots towards it as a refuge, in this, their second exile. Their reception, and the continuance of their names among the most honoured of its inhabitants, proved that the spot was neither ill-chosen, nor uncongenial. Here, their excellent pastor, Pierre Daille, died, in 1715. His epitaph, and that of his wife, are still legible in the "Granary Burying Ground." He was succeeded by Mr. Andrew Le Mercier, author of a History of Geneva. Their place of worship was in School Street, and known by the name of the French Protestant Church.

About the year 1713, Oxford was resettled by a stronger body of colonists, able to command more military aid; and thither, in process of time, a few of the Huguenot families resorted, and made their abode in those lovely and retired vales.

A visit to this fair scenery many years since, was rendered doubly interesting, by the conversation of an ancient lady of Huguenot extraction. Though she had numbered more than fourscore winters, her memory was particularly retentive, while her clear, black eye, dark complexion, and serenely expressive countenance, displayed some of the striking characteristics of her ancestral clime, mingled with that beauty of the soul which is confined to no nation, and which age cannot destroy. This was the same Mrs. Butler, formerly Mary Sigourney, whose reminiscences, the late Rev. Dr. Holmes, the learned and persevering annalist, has quoted in his "Memoir of the French Protestants."

With her family, and some other relatives, she had removed from Boston to Oxford, after the revolutionary war, and supposed that her brother, Mr. Andrew Sigourney, then occupied very nearly, if not the same precise locality, which had been purchased by their ancestor, nearly 150 years before. During the voyage to this foreign clime, her grandmother was deprived by death of an affectionate mother, while an infant only six months old. From this grandmother, who lived to be more than eighty, and from a sister six years older, who attained the unusual age of ninety-six, Mrs. Butler had derived many legends which she treasured with fidelity, and related with simple eloquence. Truly, the voice of buried ages, spake through her venerated lips. The building of the fort; the naturalization of French vines and fruit-trees in a stranger soil; the consecrated spot where their dead were buried, now without the remaining vestige of a stone; the hopes of the rising settlement; the massacre that dispersed it; the hearth-stone, empurpled with the blood of the beautiful babes of Jeanson; the frantic wife and mother snatched from the scene of slaughter by her brother, and borne through the waters of French River, to the garrison at Woodstock; all these traces seemed as vivid in her mind, as if her eye had witnessed them. The traditions connected with the massacre, were doubtless more strongly deepened in her memory, from the circumstance that the champion who rescued his desolated sister from the merciless barbarians, was her own ancestor, Mr. Andrew Sigourney, and the original settler of Oxford.

Other narrations she had also preserved, of the troubles that preceded the flight of the exiles from France, and of the obstacles to be surmounted, ere that flight could be accomplished. The interruptions from the soldiery to which they were subject, after having been shut out from their own churches, induced them to meet for Divine worship in the most remote places, and to use books of psalms and devotion, printed in so minute a form, that they might be concealed in their bosoms, or in their head-dresses. One of these antique volumes, is still in the possession of the descendants of Gabriel Bernon, a most excellent and influential man, who made his permanent residence at Providence, though he was originally in the settlement at Oxford.

Mrs. Butler mentioned the haste and discomfort in which the flight of their own family was made. Her grandfather told them imperatively, that they must go, and without delay. The whole family gathered together, and with such preparation as might be made in a few moments, took their departure from the house of their birth, "leaving the pot boiling over the fire!" This last simple item reminds of one, with which the poet Southey deepens the description of the flight of a household, and a village, at the approach of the foe.

"The chestnut loaf lay broken on the shelf."

Another Huguenot, Henry Francisco, who lived to the age of more than one hundred, relates a somewhat similar trait of his own departure from his native land. He was a boy of five years old, and his father led him by the hand from their pleasant door. It was winter, and the snow fell, with a bleak, cold wind. They descended the hill in silence. With the intuition of childhood, he knew there was trouble, without being able to comprehend the full cause. At length, fixing his eyes on his father, he begged, in a tremulous voice, to be permitted "just to go back, and get his little sled," his favourite, and most valued possession.

A letter from the young wife of Gabriel Manigault, one of the many refugees who settled in the Carolinas, is singularly graphic. "During eight months we had suffered from the quartering of the soldiers among us, with many other inconveniences. We therefore resolved on quitting France by Night. We left the soldiers in their beds, and abandoned our house with its furniture. We contrived to hide ourselves in Dauphiny for ten days, search being continually made for us; but our hostess, though much questioned, was faithful and did not betray us."

These simple delineations, more forcibly than the dignified style of the historian, seem to bring to our ears the haughty voice of Ludovico Magno, in his instrument revoking the edict of Henry IV.: "We do most strictly repeat our prohibition, unto all our subjects of the pretended reformed religion, that neither they, nor their wives, nor children, do depart our kingdom, countries, or lands of our dominion, nor transport their goods and effects, on pain, for men so offending, of their being sent to the gallies, and of confiscation of bodies and goods, for the women."

The information derived from this ancient lady, who, in all the virtues of domestic life, was a worthy descendant of the Huguenots, added new interest to their relics, still visible, among the rural scenery of Oxford. On the summit of a high hill, commanding an extensive prospect, are the ruins of the Fort. It was regularly constructed with bastions, though most of the stones have been removed for the purposes of agriculture. Within its enclosure are the vestiges of a well. There the grape vine still lifts its purple clusters, the currant its crimson berries, the rose its rich blossoms, the asparagus its bulbous head and feathery banner.

To these simple tokens which Nature has preserved, it might be fitting and well, were some more enduring memorial added of that pious, patient, and high-hearted race, from whom some of the most illustrious names in different sections of our country, trace their descent with pleasure and with pride.


(The end)
Lydia H. Sigourney's Essay: Huguenot Fort

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