Posted by & filed under News.

A room in Peter Jay’s New York City home was hung with portraits of people surnamed Peloquin.

Peter, who would become John Jay’s father, called it the Bristol Room. The room celebrated the English port city that provided the Peloquins and the Jays with sanctuary when both families self-exiled from their native France to escape brutal religious persecution in the 17th Century.

The portraits on the walls offered Peter a way to stay connected with friends and family across the Atlantic.  In a 1726 letter to his aunt, Francoise Peloquin, he explained “I often find myself in our Bristol room (as we call it) to pay you a visit, along with those of your dear family.” More than 180 Peloquin-Jay letters are in the Jay archives at Columbia University.

The families shared other trans-Atlantic bonds.  When Peter Jay was 18, his father Augustus sent him to Bristol to advance his education. When Peter established himself as a merchant-trader in New York, his most important business connections were with the Peloquins.

The story of the Peloquin family is very much a Jay family story. The families were connected by circumstance, faith, heritage, commerce – and marriage.

The ancestral Peloquin and Jay families were Protestant Huguenots living in Roman Catholic France. For much of the 16th Century, the Protestant religion was repressed under French law. Respite came in 1598, when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes. Protestants were promised a significant degree of religious freedom. In 1610, Henry was killed by an assassin who did not find him sufficiently Catholic.  The liberties enjoyed by Protestants gradually eroded until 1685, when King Henry’s grandson, Louis XIV (The Sun King) revoked Nantes. Under his Edict of Fontainbleau, the Protestant church was outlawed, and Protestants were forcefully and harshly compelled to convert.  Perhaps as many as 400,000 Huguenot families chose to flee instead of complying. That itself was a dangerous choice: it was illegal to remain in France as a Protestant, but it was equally unlawful to leave the country.

The Huguenot emigrants went to Protestant countries, including England, the Dutch Republic, the German states and British North America. It was the flight of the Huguenots that added “refugee” to the English language as a “borrow word” from the French.

Pierre Jay, John Jay’s paternal grandfather, first hired a ship to smuggle his wife and daughter, along with some furniture, to England.  When their absence caught the attention of the French authorities, he followed them aboard one of his own vessels.

He left without his 17-year-old son, Auguste, who was on one of his father’s ships, trading for ivory, gold, and enslaved people along the African coast. When he returned to LaRochelle and found his family was gone, he managed to arrange passage to the North America, eventually settling in New York City. Meanwhile in Bristol, the Peloquins and Jays joined a growing Huguenot community dating back to 1681.

Etienne Peloquin anglicized his name to Stephen. It appears Jay remained Pierre. In New York, Auguste adopted the more English-sounding, Augustus.

Most of the Bristol refugees were tradesmen, farmers, or fishermen. Weaving was a common occupation. Many survived on welfare payments provided by the English Poor Laws; some also received charity from local Anglican churches.

The merchants, who prospered in the import-export business, were set apart by their wealth. Five families, including the Peloquins and the Jays, comprised a the social elite in the city.

Stephen Peloquin was the most prosperous. He was the first Huguenot to be named a “freeman,” a distinction necessary to conduct business in the city. Pierre Jay later secured “freeman” status as well.

Peloquin’s wealth and social standing were recognized in 1693, when he was awarded the Freedom of the City. That was an English municipal honor, dating back to the 14th Century. In Bristol, it went to only one man a year.

When Pierre Jay fled France, he abandoned 6,000 livres in cash, along with land and two houses worth more than 12,000 livres. All of it was seized by the French state.

An exact monetary conversion is difficult. As an estimate, we can begin, with the fact that when the currency was introduced by Charlemagne in the 8th Century one livre was worth one pound of silver. Based on the price of silver at the start of 2023, Jay abandoned a fortune worth $7 million today.

However, Jay was not destitute when he arrived in Bristol. The holds of his escape ship were laden with valuable cargo he was able to sell once he reached England.

While the Huguenots generally were accepted in Protestant England, their reliance on public and church welfare led to pockets of resentment.

Some of the animosity ran deeper. In 1694, when a bill was proposed awarding instant citizenship to all Huguenots, Sir John Knight, who represented Bristol in Parliament, opposed the measure in apocalyptic terms. His rant was so extreme that his supporters later toned it down for publication. Knight warned of disruptions caused by “the great noise and croaking of the Froglanders.” Continuing, he pleaded “Let us first kick the Bill out of the House, then the foreigners out of the Kingdom.”

The Bill was defeated, but the foreigners stayed.  King Charles II issued letters of denization to the Huguenot immigrants. Although a step short of full nationalization, denization guaranteed many of the same rights enjoyed by citizens.

Eventually, the connection between the Peloquin and Jay families advanced beyond business.

In 1703, Stephen Peloquin married Pierre’s daughter, Francoise, sister of Augustus. The couple had three children: sons John and David and a daughter Marianne.  (“Mary Ann” in the Bristol archives. We are using the form of the name favored by the Jays.)

John followed in the family business, becoming a successful merchant-trader.

David, also established himself as a trader but eventually served in public office. In 1735, he was appointed to a one-year term as sheriff, the highest office in a British county. In 1751, he was elected mayor of Bristol. After his election, he joined other Huguenot influencers in renewing the call for naturalization. They were ignored by Parliament.

Marianne never married and inherited significant wealth when her father died in 1730. Stephen left an estate valued at 80,000 pounds, 20 million dollars today. When Marianne died in 1778, her will endowed a charitable fund of 19,000 pounds.

As a grand-daughter of Pierre Jay, Marianne was a direct Jay descendent. Because she was unmarried and childless, her line was extinguished with her death.  However, her personal generosity endures. The benevolent fund she established in her will was absorbed in 2005 by the Bristol Municipal Charities, and continues to aid those in need.

The Peloquin portraits displayed on the walls of Peter Jay’s Bristol Room became cherished Jay family possessions as they were passed down through the generations. Two Peloquin portraits are in John Jay Homestead’s collection: Stephen and Marianne.