The end of May marks my family’s annual visit to Folly Beach, S.C. In 2018, I was especially eager to go because I’d made contact with someone willing to visit cemeteries with me in nearby Charleston’s historic district.
“Hopping” With an Expert
I’ve visited Charleston’s historic cemeteries several times over the years but never with a person I consider a true expert on them. Frank Karpiel has published several articles in newspapers, magazines, and scholastic journals, and he wrote a book on Charleston’s cemeteries in 2013. He’s also taught as a visiting assistant professor at the College of Charleston and an adjunct professor at the Citadel Military College. So he knows what he’s talking about.
I contacted Frank online and he kindly agreed to meet up with me during my May 2018 visit. Because I do most of my cemetery “hopping” solo, it was a genuine treat to do it in the company of someone who can not only share what he knows about the cemeteries but gets as excited about seeing them as I do.
I was also excited that we were meeting at the churchyard French Huguenot Church (FHC) of Charleston, which I’ve never been inside. Because of vandalism over the years, the church wisely limits access to the churchyard and it’s always been locked up when I’ve visited.
But on this day, the church itself was open for tours and Frank was talking with the pastor in the churchyard when I arrived. I blithely climbed over the chain and joined them knowing I wouldn’t be scolded.
History of the French Huguenot Church of Charleston
According to the FHC web site, the Huguenot (or French Protestant movement) had a key role in the European Protestant Revolution. Protestants persecuted by the French Catholic Court migrated to Europe, South Africa, and the Americas.
By the late 17th century, Huguenots had settled in several Eastern coastal areas. These groups grew when Louis XIV caused the Edict of Nantes to be revoked in 1685, stripping French Protestants of all religious and political privileges. The English encourage these refugees to settle in the colonies, most from France’s prosperous merchant and professional classes.
In April 1680, the ship Richmond came to Charleston with 45 French Protestants (Huguenots) aboard and additional refugees followed. In 1687, a church was built on what is now the corner of Church and Queen Streets in downtown Charleston. About 450 Huguenots had settled in the Low Country by 1700.
After the original church was destroyed in 1796 in an attempt to stop the spread of a fire, its replacement was completed in 1800. That was dismantled in 1844 to make way for the present Gothic Revival structure, designed by Edward Brickell White and dedicated in 1845. The current church was damaged by shellfire during the long bombardment of downtown during the Civil War. It was nearly destroyed during the earthquake of 1886.
In his book, Frank points out that the current church building was apparently built over part of the earlier graveyard. So there are more people buried there than the above-ground markers would indicate.
Today, the French Huguenot Church of Charleston is independent and not affiliated with any governing church body. It shares ties to the Presbyterian Church (Church of Scotland), the Dutch Reformed, and Lutheran Church by virtue of its early leadership under John Calvin. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion published in 1536 form the historic basis for the formation of these “Calvinist” denominations. Once a year, it holds a service in French as a way to harken back to its roots.
Portrait of an Artist
One of the first grave markers I saw was for Henry Breintual (I’ve also seen it spelled Brintnell) Bounetheau, the grandson of John Bounetheau and the son of Peter Bounetheau. It reads “who came to Charleston from La Rochelle, France on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes of 1685. The last two are interred beneath this church.”
Born in Charleston in 1879, Henry was the son of Peter and Elizabeth Weyman Bounetheau. Peter is thought to have served in the American Army. Although Henry studied art as a boy, his chief occupation was that of an accountant and he later became an officer in the Bank of Charleston.
At the age of 46, Henry married 26-year-old Julia Clarkson Dupre in April 1844 in Charleston. Like Henry, Julia was of French heritage. She was educated at the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y. and studied art in Paris until a bank failure in 1838 forced her return to South Carolina. She helped her mother Juliana Schmidt Dupre open the Charleston Female Seminary in 1841 and taught there for several years. Henry taught there as well when he had the time.
Henry and Julia only had one son, Henry Dupre Bounetheau, sometime in 1845.
Both Henry and Julia were talented in the art of miniature painting, which involved loading a tiny paintbrush with color and dabbing it onto the surface of the ivory. Although Henry’s talent brought him several commissions from society clients, he never gave up his day job as an accountant. He was also a talented flute player.
The Bounetheaus owned a home in Georgetown, Fla. on the St. John’s River. It was there Julia died of a heart ailment at the age of 50 on Oct. 28, 1869. It’s likely that son, Henry, was living there as well because he was working as a clerk in nearby Jacksonville, Fla. before his marriage to Emma Hudnall in 1884. Julia was buried at the Old City Cemetery in Jacksonville, Fla.
Henry B. Bounetheau died in Charleston on Jan. 31, 1877 of “old age” and was buried in the French Huguenot churchyard. Son Henry D. Bounetheau died on May 3 during the Great Fire of 1901 in Jacksonville, Fla. He was buried beside his mother at Old City Cemetery but a few weeks later, both mother and son were moved to Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville. Henry had in his possession many of his parents’ miniatures that were destroyed in the fire.
One area Frank pointed out was a plain bricked area with a marker that I might not have even noticed. The Manigault vault, marked with a simple stone, is all that is left of a pioneering family of Charleston.
Born in 1704 in Charleston, Gabriel Manigault was a prosperous landowner and merchant. With slave labor, he turned his land purchases into successful rice and indigo plantations. Along with his increasing fortunes, he was active in local politics and represented Charleston in the provincial House of Commons. He married his wife, Ann Ashby, and they had a son, Peter.
Peter Manigault died at the age of 42 in 1773. His wife, Elizabeth, had died earlier that year. Gabriel died in June 1781 and Ann died in April 1782. All of them are buried in the Manigault family vault, along with some of Peter’s adult children. Initially, there were steps leading down into the burial chamber but at some point they were bricked over.
Grinning Skulls and Libraries
You can’t go very far in a Charleston cemetery without encountering a grinning skull and crossbones. Or a winged skull. These are common in New England cemeteries. Before you assume it’s a pirate grave, I can confidently say that most of them were carved on stones for land-loving folk. As I’ve explained in past posts, there’s a reason behind such a gruesome image became a popular gravestone decoration.
The short answer it that the Puritans of the late 17th and early 18th centuries thought you needed to make the most of your short time on earth to ensure where you wound up after you died. This carried over into sending a message to the loved ones that you left behind when they came to visit your grave. The skull and crossbones were to remind them that living a good life would result in ending up in Heaven or in agony in hell if they didn’t.
According to Frank’s book, John was a native of St. Kitts in the Caribbean. Born in 1679, Neufville came to Charleston by way of New York. St. Kitts became home to the first Caribbean British and French colonies in the mid-1620s and was a member of the British West Indies until gaining independence on September 19, 1983.
John’s wife, Elizabeth, was considerably younger than him and their son, John Jr., was born when John Sr. was 60. Both men were Charleston merchants. John Jr. was instrumental in helping to establish the Charleston Library Society, which Frank and I visited later that day.
John died in 1749 at the age of 79 while Elizabeth died in 1754 at the age of 54. Son John Jr. died in 1804 and is buried with his wife, also named Elizabeth, at the FH churchyard near his parents.
I have much more to share from the French Huguenot churchyard. I’ll be back with Part II soon.