The Protestant Reformation took root in France in the middle of the 16th century under the distant leadership of Jean (John) Calvin who settled in Geneva in 1541. In the 1560s, France was devastated by a series of religious and civil wars. These wars ended in 1598 when Henry IV, a former Huguenot who converted to Catholicism to access the throne, signed the Edict of Nantes. This edict protected the Huguenots. In the 17th century, however, its provisions were abrogated one by one. Daily life for the Huguenots was more and more limited and many Huguenots, especially in Northern France, converted to Catholicism. After a decade or so of legal harassment, and at times military violence, Louis XIV, whose objective was to achieve a religious reunification of his kingdom, revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Huguenots could then either convert or resist. Resistance led to imprisonment and being sent to the galleys and, for women, to convents. At least 150,000—of a population of nearly 800,000—left France, forming what has been labeled by French historians as the Refuge. Huguenots fled first to neighboring countries, the Netherlands, the Swiss cantons, England, and some German states, and a few thousand of them farther away to Russia, Scandinavia, British North America, and the Dutch Cape colony in southern Africa.
About 2,000 Huguenots settled in New York, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in the mid-1680s and in 1700 in Virginia. They settled in port cities, Charleston, New York, and Boston, or founded rural communities (New Paltz and New Rochelle, New York, Orange Quarter and French Santee, South Carolina, and Manakintown, Virginia). The Huguenots originally attempted to live together and founded French Reformed churches. But with time they married English settlers, were naturalized, were elected to colonial assemblies and to political offices, and joined other churches, especially the Church of England. In South Carolina and New York, they acquired slaves, a sign of their economic prosperity. By the 1720s and 1730s most Huguenots were fully integrated into colonial societies while maintaining for a decade or so the use of the French language in the private sphere and keeping ties to their original French church. In the 18th century, a new wave of Huguenot refugees mixed with French- and German-speaking Swiss formed rural communities in South Carolina (Purrysburgh, New Bordeaux) under the leadership of a colonial entrepreneur or a pastor. These communities quickly disappeared as Huguenots gradually acquired land elsewhere or moved to Savannah and Charleston.
In the 1880s, Huguenot Societies were formed to commemorate the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in England, Germany, New York, and South Carolina. The memory of the Huguenot diaspora was maintained by these genealogical, historical, and patriotic societies until professional historians started to study the Refuge a century later.