When Bishop England High School moved from downtown Charleston to Daniel Island in 1998, veteran history teacher Daniel Lesesne had only the faintest notion that this move was taking him to home turf.
|Daniel Lesesne uses examples from his own ancestorís story in his history classes at Bishop England High School.|
He knew that his family patriarch, Isaac Lesesne, had landed on Daniel Island around 1700, and there was said to be a graveyard there.
But Daniel Lesesne had never been to Daniel Island before. He had no idea that a few years later, the continuing development of the island would lead to the discovery of the graveyard with the remains of some of his ancestors, and that that would spark in him a new interest in his familyís history and connect him to relatives hitherto unknown across the country and around the world. And he would end up spending part of his summers in France.
Daniel Lesesne grew up in the Lowcountry, in Summerville and Beaufort, and later in Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. He attended Clemson University, finished his bachelorís degree at Charleston Southern and earned his masterís degree at The Citadel. After a stint in the Navy, he was employed at the College of Charleston in administration, but soon found his way back to teaching, his first love.
"It has long since been confirmed that I love the teaching process," he said.
He is now in his 20th year at Bishop England, where he usually teaches advanced U.S. history and two or more sections of advanced world history. He is particularly interested in American social and cultural history.
"I was instinctively, I think, interested in South Carolina history," he said.
He and other family members have now traced that history back to around 1700, but the record is incomplete.
|The Lesesne family cemetery still holds stones from as early as the 1800s.|
"One of the formidable challenges for any family living outside of France is that the times were so tumultuous around the French Revolution (1789-99) that many of the records were lost," he explained. "My French cousins believe that all of the Lesesnes were connected to Normandy. Lesesne is a Norman name."
Isaac Lesesne was a Huguenot, a French protestant, who was forced to flee his homeland because of religious persecution during the reign of the French king, Louis XIV (1638-1715).
"We know that Isaac Lesesne was the patriarch of all the Lesesnes, and that he arrived around 1700 and was given 200 acres which became the original plantation," he said. "He was among the many Huguenots who came to Carolina and were welcomed, because they were protestant, and this was an English protestant colony, but also because they were mostly middle class and very industrious, skilled artisans, some professionals, with a very strong work ethic. So they were considered to be an asset to Carolina, which interestingly was the point of view of other nations in Europe as well. They were generally welcomed in England."
Many Huguenots also immigrated to Prussia and northern Germany (the Prussian government provided land and other incentives), the Netherlands and South Africa after it became a Dutch colony. The migration of talent was Europeís gain and Franceís loss, Lesesne said.
"We believe Isaac actually traveled to England as a very young boy and it was from England that he came to Carolina, and that he spent time with other Huguenots in England, probably in London, [after] having escaped from France," Lesesne said.
The Huguenots, including Isaac Lesesne, were very enterprising people, he said.
|Descendants erected a sandstone monument to mark the Lesesne family cemetery on Daniel Island.|
"Isaac Lesesne fiddled around with all sorts of ventures to make a living, from making bricks to deer skins to indigo Ė and that would have been characteristic of the Huguenots. Isaac could quickly assimilate into English colonial culture. Thatís really symbolized in his life by the fact that he had two wives, the first was a French Huguenot, Elizabeth Tresvant, and after her death, a subsequent marriage to an English woman, Frances Netherton.
"So there are two clans of Lesesnes ó I have a cousin who is a lawyer in Charlotte . . . he was out of the Frances Netherton line and I was out of the Elizabeth Tresvant line. . . . Most of the French Huguenots assimilated also into either the Presbyterian or the Anglican Church. My family became Anglican," he said.
By about 1800, however, the Lesesne family holdings on Daniel Island had been sold, and the family no longer had ties to the island, Lesesne said.
"When I was growing up I had only a vague, very general knowledge of the extent of the family connection to Daniel Island," he said. "I always knew that Daniel Island was the site of the earliest family property and I always knew that there was a cemetery somewhere, but I never visited, and I think that was a function of it being out of the family so long. There were a lot of other cemeteries with lots of other Lesesnes buried in them -- it was just outside of my scope of interest."
That changed, however, with the completion of the Family Circle Cup Tennis Center, he said. The Lesesne family cemetery is located near the walking path behind the tennis courts at the corner nearest the Mark Clark Expressway.
"The Daniel Island developers became interested in that cemetery and contacted us," Lesesne said. "We rededicated the cemetery the same year the Tennis Center opened ."
Both Daniel and his wife, Erica, became keenly interested in the family history after learning of the cemetery. Erica put "tremendous energy" into genealogical work to learn more, Daniel said.
"Itís another classic example of an in-law becoming very interested in the family she married into," he said.
They decided to put up a sandstone obelisk at the cemetery telling its history, and with help from the Historic Charleston Foundation solicited tax-free donations for the monument. There were more than 200 donors who were Lesesnes from across the country, Daniel said.
"We heard from Lesesnes whom we didnít even know of," he said, including relatives from Mobile, Ala., Chapel Hill, N.C., California and Nebraska. "We have been enabled to meet all kinds of Lesesnes that we would otherwise never have been in touch with."
The most surprising development, however, was the discovery by Erica of a French chateau that had been owned by Lesesne ancestors. It was "serendipity," Daniel said. Erica "knew vaguely of a small village called Ranton just south of the Loire River" in France. Searching online, she found a website for Chateau de Ranton, a 14th century castle now available for rent. Christofe Le Sesne de Menille had become lord of the castle by marriage in 1665, and it remained in the Le Sesne family until it was sold in 1776. Erica e-mailed the current owners, an English couple living in Paris, but heard nothing for some time.
When the reply finally came, "They told her about a marvelous thing that had happened within a very short time of [her] e-mail," Daniel said. "[They had] received an e-mail from a Frenchman named Lesesne who was also doing genealogical work and trying to get information.
Erica decided immediately that she had to go to France to check this out. She and daughter, Emma, visited the chateau in March 2001. Daniel and Erica spent two weeks there in the summer of 2002 and have returned every year since. They now rent the castle for two weeks each summer with cousins Liz and Sally Lesesne. The first week is a family week, when they can visit with French Lesesne relatives. They invite paying guests for the second week. Liz, a professional chef, cooks for the guests and Sally, a painter, does art for the table and Daniel and Erica serve the meals. During the week, guests can do art and they also have the opportunity to tour the markets, wineries and other attractions of the Loire Valley. (For more information, contact Dan and Erica at (843) 722-6721 or visit their web site at email@example.com) "And that was the means whereby we were placed in touch with a whole Lesesne family in France that we knew nothing about," Lesesne said. "As a direct consequence of this cemetery I have been to France and spent time with family members that I would never otherwise have been spending time with, much less even met."
|The 14th century Chateau de Ranton, once owned by Lesesne ancestors, accommodates up to 12 guests.|
Incidentally, the Lesesnes also reconnected with a couple in Orleans who were "like adoptive parents" to Emma, who had stayed with them for a year in 1996 as a student.
Lesesne said the original Lesesne plantation home on Daniel Island was probably where the Tennis Center building is today. Much of what is known about the plantation is the result of historical and archaeological research by Carolina Archaeological Services and the Charleston Museum, who were commissioned by the South Carolina Department of Highways and Public Transportation prior to the construction of the Mark Clark Expressway. Their report, "Home Upriver: Rural Life on Danielís Island, Berkeley County, South Carolina," by Jeanne Calhoun and Martha Zierden of the Charleston Museum and Lesley Drucker of Carolina Archaeological Services, was published in 1987.
The archaeologists found remnants of outbuildings and slave quarters on the site but did not find remnants of the plantation house. They did find the partial remains of five skeletons a few hundred yards from the Lesesne cemetery. The remains were of three women, a man and a child who may have been employed by the Lesesne family. University of South Carolina professor and site archaeologist Ted Rathbun took them to Columbia for more study. They were inadvertently kept for many years in a small box in Rathbunís office until Rathbun found them as he was preparing for retirement. They were re-interred in 2004 in the Lesesne cemetery, with a new grave marker explaining the recovery. Isaac Lesesne probably was buried in the cemetery, although his grave was not found, Lesesne said. Since the graveyard is on a point on the Wando River shore, it is very likely that his grave and those of other early family members were submerged as the shoreline eroded. No maps or drawings of the plantation or the plantation house were passed down through the family, nor were any pictures of the owners or other intact artifacts, Lesesne said.
Daniel Lesesneís is the ninth generation of Isaacís descendants, he said. Isaacís son, Isaac Lesesne, Jr., greatly increased the familyís landholdings on Daniel Island, purchasing an additional 700 acres. He also operated a lumber mill and lime kilns, and had a store on Broad Street and Gadsden Alley in Charleston. He represented St. Thomas and St. Dennis parishes in the 16th Royal Assembly and contributed to the founding of the College of Philadelphia. His son, Isaac Walker Lesesne, served in the Francis Marion Brigade during the Revolutionary war. Other prominent descendants have included Henry Deas Lesesne, who at the time of the Civil War was a law partner of James Louis Pettigrew, the noted Unionist lawyer and most prominent lawyer in the South. A cousin several generations removed was Thomas Pettigrew Lesesne, editor of the Charleston News & Courier, who began the Good Cheer Fund in support of youth league sports. Thomas Pettigrew Lesesne was also so strong a supporter of The Citadel that a gate to the campus is named after him. Consequently, Lesesne is one of the first French names that Citadel cadets have to learn when they come to Charleston, Lesesne said.
Members of the Frances Netherton clan of Lesesnes migrated to Williamsburg County in the second generation and established themselves there. That line of Lesesnes has included two college presidents, both named Joab Lesesne, who presided over Erskine College and Wofford College.
Besides their daughter Emma, Daniel and Erica Lesesne have a son, Daniel, who is a tour guide in downtown Charleston. They live in Charleston in a home built after World War II.