The Puritans get all the press, but they were hardly the only group to settle in the New World in the 17th century. The Dutch and Spanish also receive a lesser share of deserved credit, but one group of pilgrims often gets entirely overlooked. They were called the Huguenots (or, less frequently, the Walloons), French-speaking Calvinist Protestants who fled religious persecution and established a colony in New Paltz just 57 years after Plimoth Plantation was founded. What’s more, they left behind a collection of late 17th-century stone houses on the village’s Huguenot Street, which has been recognized as the oldest authentic street in America.
The key word here is “authentic.” “I’m not dissing Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village or Plimoth, but they are not authentic like this,” says Tracy Doolittle McNally, executive director of Historic Huguenot Street (HHS). “They are reproductions. What is so amazing about this place is that we really are the preeminent museum of family history.” The houses in this National Historic Landmark District have been standing for more than 300 years; many were owned and lived in by the same family for generations. “There is no place in the United States like it,” she says.
In 1677, leaders of seven prominent families from present-day France and Belgium, collectively known as the Patentees, purchased 40,000 acres of land from the Esopus Indians on the west side of the Hudson River. The contract for the sale — whose purchase price included domestic supplies, farming tools, clothing, blankets, wine, horses, tobacco, and gunpowder — was signed by five Esopus chiefs, and 21 Esopus braves approved the property deed. Governor Edmund Andros gave the settlers a patent grant for the land on September 29, 1677. (The original contract, deed, and patent grant are all in the HHS Museum’s archives.) Note that this occurred about five years before William Penn negotiated his treaty with the Native Americans to found Pennsylvania.
In 1678, 12 members of the Bevier, Crispell, Deyo, DuBois, Freer, Hasbrouck, and LeFevre families — who collectively became known as the Duzine — settled the 40,000 acres. They named their settlement “die Pfalz” (New Paltz) in honor of Pfalz-am-Rhein, the German state where they had temporarily found refuge on their way to the New World. Their village was set up like a commune: the Duzine owned some land in common, and shared their products and labor; the rest of the property was eventually divided among their descendants up until 1803. The Duzine held power over the community in various governmental forms until 1826.
At first, the Huguenots built simple woodhouses; in the 1700s, these were replaced with the stone dwellings along what is now known as Huguenot Street. Seven of these houses, built between 1705 and 1799, still survive. They are all built of local fieldstone, laid in clay and straw, and jointed with lime and sand, with chimneys constructed of locally made “thin bricks.” The 1722 Jean Hasbrouck House features its original jamb-less fireplace, one of only three still in existence in America. The 1799 Ezekiel Elting House mimicked the Jean Hasbrouck House but added a brick façade and symmetrical window pattern in the then-popular Federal Style. The Bevier-Elting House represents pure Dutch rural architecture, with its original gable end and side-porch passageway. Other houses were similarly designed, though their orientations changed in later years. The Deyo House, for example, originally followed the same Dutch plan, but was extensively modernized in 1894 — the same year that the Huguenot Historical Society was founded by the Duzine’s descendants in order to prevent further changes to their historic buildings.
The Huguenots themselves, however, did change — or at least they quickly assimilated. “They had to,” says McNally. “There just weren’t that many of them, so they started marrying the Dutch who were there. They went from speaking French to Dutch, and then English.” Most of them began attending the Dutch Reformed Church, which in New Paltz eventually evolved into the Reformed Church of New Paltz.
Today, all of the houses stand in their original locations and display architectural features, furnishings, clothing, textiles, and collections of other items that depict the life of the occupants. Outbuildings also remain on-site, as does a reconstructed 1717 French church and an original burial ground, where one of the oldest stones records the October 7, 1731 death of Abraham DuBois, the last “survivor of the 12 patentees.” The 1705 fort serves as the site’s visitor’s center.
Upkeep is a primary concern of the HHS. In 2012, the 1721 Abraham Hasbrouck House reopened after having been closed, off and on, for 10 years. “It was restored to interpret life at the time from the women’s point of view,” says McNally. “The house held seven children, with four slaves living in the basement, all in this small house in the years leading up to the American Revolution. We now present the life of a large family in small quarters.”
The Hasbrouck Family Association helped to raise funds to restore the house; it is one of more than 10 active groups made up of descendants of the original settlers. Several of these groups maintain their own websites, where they post genealogical information, the family’s coat of arms, and updates on reunions and other news. And while Hasbrouck is perhaps the best-known name (there are a number of Hasbrouck stone houses in neighboring communities in Ulster County), other family monikers frequently pop up around the region, too.
“I was always taught about my family history,” says McNally, who is herself a Deyo family descendant and part of the Deyo Family Association. She grew up in Scarsdale and first visited New Paltz when she was eight years old. “I was completely mesmerized by the stone houses,” she recalls. “I was fascinated. I got to learn American history on a personal level, and that made all the difference.”
And what about the lasting significance of the Huguenots to early America? McNally believes it is about much more than just the impressive stone architecture. “The culturally diverse group of settlers who built this community — including Dutch, French, English, Native Americans, and slaves — that’s what the country became,” she says. “They were the precursors, the frontier of the diversity of America. They didn’t know they were making the American story when they left their country of origin and settled here, but that is their legacy.