** From Rhode Island Historical Society

Gabriel Bernon (1644-1736), a Huguenot and prominent merchant of an ancient family in La Rochelle, France, fled that country in 1686, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes led to his religious persecution. He arrived in Boston (via Amsterdam and London) in June, 1688, with the intention of establishing a settlement at Oxford, Massachusetts; a plan that had evolved through his meetings with other refugees when in London. Bernon's financial support made the settlement a reality for other French Huguenot families who sailed to America with him, but he chose to settle in Boston. The Oxford settlement was abandoned in 1696 after an Indian attack in which four of its members were killed. Attempts were made to re-establish Oxford in 1699, but it was abandoned permanently due to Indian threat in 1704.

After the first break-up of the settlement, Bernon relocated permanently to Rhode Island (in 1697). He stayed in Newport until about 1706, when he moved to Providence. He left Providence for Kingston in 1712 and lived there until 1718, then returned to Providence, where he stayed until his death in 1736.

He had re-established himself in trade soon after his arrival in the American colonies, becoming interested in shipbuilding, and the manufacture of such items as nails, salt, and pine rosin. His business successes attracted the attention of prominent persons in the colonies and in England, who attempted to assist him in establishing contracts with the English government for naval supplies. He also made use of some of the Oxford property by setting up a wash-leather manufactory there, and supplying glovers and hatters in Boston and Newport with that product.

Bernon's lasting mark on the history of Rhode Island, however, is in the area of religion. Charles W. Baird observes, "Bernon had been a member of the French Church, until his departure from Massachusetts...But in Rhode Island...he became a fervent and zealous member of the Church of England." He was active in establishing churches in each of the Rhode Island towns in which he lived at different times during his nearly forty years of residency: Trinity Church in Newport, St. Paul's Church in Kingston, and St. John's Church in Providence. These were Rhode Island's earliest Episcopal churches.

Bernon also is the ancestor to many of Rhode Island's oldest families, including Allens, Crawfords, Dorrs, Coddingtons, and Whipples. He was twice married, first to Esther Le Roy, whom he married in France in 1673, and who died in Newport in 1710; then to Mary Harris, whom he married in 1712. Each marriage produced one son in addition to several daughters; however, neither son survived to have children, so all of Bernon's descendants are through his female children. Bernon died in 1736 at the age of 92, and is buried beneath St. John's Church in Providence.


Bibliography

Baird, Charles W.,The Huguenot Emigration to America (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1885).