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How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast
By Joan DeJean
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The secret history of the rebellious Frenchwomen who were exiled to colonial Louisiana and found power in the Mississippi Valley
In 1719, a ship named La Mutine (the mutinous woman), sailed from the French port of Le Havre, bound for the Mississippi. It was loaded with urgently needed goods for the fledgling French colony, but its principal commodity was a new kind of export: women.
Falsely accused of sex crimes, these women were prisoners, shackled in the ship’s hold. Of the 132 women who were sent this way, only 62 survived. But these women carved out a place for themselves in the colonies that would have been impossible in France, making advantageous marriages and accumulating property. Many were instrumental in the building of New Orleans and in settling Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, and Mississippi.
Drawing on an impressive range of sources to restore the voices of these women to the historical record, Mutinous Women introduces us to the Gulf South’s Founding Mothers.
A Second Coast, a Second Ship
In the popular imaginary, this country’s early colonization is dominated by the Atlantic Coast. The second coast claimed by a European power, the Gulf Coast, seems inconsequential by comparison. The Eastern Seaboard’s European settlement is almost inevitably identified with what has become a cultural icon, the Mayflower, the ship that in 1620 carried 102 Puritans who chose to leave their homeland in search of religious freedom. But the Gulf Coast had an iconic ship of its own, La Mutine. This was the frigate that in 1720 brought some 100 passengers from France to islands situated offshore from what are now the states of Alabama and Mississippi. La Mutine’s voyage marks the first time that a vessel sent to the future United States transported solely women. La Mutine’s passengers were all female convicts, most of them accused of the same crime—prostitution. And unlike those who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, the women on La Mutine did not make the journey of their own volition.
In 1719, nearly two hundred women were taken from a prison in Paris. They were chained together for transport to French ports, where most were shackled in ships’ holds. Unlike the Mayflower’s passengers, these women have mainly been forgotten—for over three hundred years. They have been almost entirely excluded from the historical record, and their stories have never been properly told. When they are remembered at all, the convict women of 1719 are often confused with women who later sailed from France to Louisiana and who are known as “casket girls” because, it is said, they were given personal effects and a small sum of money to be kept in a casket or chest to serve as a dowry when they reached their destination. Even when the women of 1719 are correctly identified, they are dismissed as mere “prostitutes” and blamed for many crucial problems of the fledgling French colony of Louisiana, from a low birth rate to a high crime rate.
This book tells the story of who the women of La Mutine really were. They were not prostitutes. They were instead in various ways victims of the endemic poverty that gripped France in the years prior to their journey—and also of the police corruption that gripped Paris in 1719. They accepted neither victimization passively.
Nearly all of them were ordinary women. The majority had been given what were then the most common names for girls: Marie and Marie Anne. Many of their family names were also common, the Smiths and the Joneses of France. Most were working women; they had struggled to earn a living at a moment when the vast majority of the French were cash-strapped. They had fended for themselves in what was then the most populous city in Europe and in one of the most dangerous times in Paris’s history: in the process, they became streetwise. What happened to these ordinary Frenchwomen could have happened to virtually any woman who found herself in Paris in 1719. When these women fell into the clutches of the Parisian police, they talked back to corrupt officers of the law and defiantly resisted false arrests. Deportation was the price they paid for such defiance.
Across the ocean on the second coast, this country’s French coast, a significant number of these rebelliously unconventional colonists realized a female version of “the American dream.” The women of La Mutine were among the founding inhabitants of settlements from Natchez to New Orleans, where they built the earliest houses—often with their own hands. They became property owners and acquired considerable estates. They founded dynasties. Indeed, with each generation, their tens of thousands of descendants have spread ever more widely across this country. The women’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable given that most had been born into extreme poverty, few had any formal education, and none had received an education worthy of her intelligence.
The biographies of the women loaded like cargo aboard a ship called La Mutine, or The Mutinous Woman, are among the earliest surviving records of this country’s first European female settlers. I discovered them in documents preserved in archives in the homeland that rejected them, notably the French National Archives in Paris. This is fitting, for even though the latter part of the women’s lives unfolded in what is now the United States, their story can only be understood in the economic and social context of early eighteenth-century France. They were Frenchwomen: born in France, they grew up there, wearing only French clothing and eating only French food. When they were forced out of their homeland and deported to a fledgling French colony across an ocean, they remained French subjects, under the rule of the French monarchy and French law. Their years in France are the chronicle of their families; of the villages and small towns where they were born; of the lives they made for themselves in their homeland; and in particular of one city, Paris, where many grew up and where they were all arrested. Their time in France ended when a ship sailed across the Atlantic, bearing them away in chains in its hold.
Next begins the story of Frenchwomen who found themselves in a far-flung French colony both vast and still largely uncharted, at a moment when the French remained uncertain about even the name of La Mutine’s destination. While the royal ministers who authorized their exile often referred to the place where the women they spoke of as “merchandise” were to be deposited as “Louisiana,” the colonists who lived there still used the territory’s earlier name, “Mississippi.”i The lived reality of the second life that authorities in France forced upon these women was one that unfolded in a world that was mainly alien to them. When they emerged from the hold of the ship in which they had crossed the Atlantic, these women who until then had rarely met anyone not French-born found a land where the French were but a tiny minority, vastly outnumbered by Indigenous peoples. They found themselves surrounded by flora, fauna, and landscapes that were strange, forbidding, and at times even nightmarish to Parisians and women from the countryside near Paris. Bread made from French wheatflour, the food that had until then been their principal sustenance, was replaced by a new dietary staple: corn. These women from landlocked regions were now surrounded by strange waterways, especially bayous, in whose murky depths they had their first encounters with the predator Europeans considered most terrifying of all, the alligator.
When the women arrived, most of the towns and cities in which they would make new lives did not exist or barely existed; many of these places did not yet have fixed names. When New Orleans, for example, officially became “New Orleans” and acquired the very first shards of an identity, the women were instrumental in that process. The colony comes into focus, settlement by settlement, through the eyes of some of the first Frenchwomen to live there, a view of the construction of French Louisiana that highlights the impact of the women of La Mutine and their families on the colony’s development.
Everything about the process designed to rid France of these women was conceived and executed in great haste and confusion. No French authority had a clear idea of the identity of the alleged criminals being summarily judged: for them, these female prisoners were rarely individuals, merely members of a collective mass of undesirables. There were so many prisoners thus treated, so many voices never before heard, and so many stories to be recovered that readers may find the accounts blending together, just as they did for the French authorities who exiled the women. I hope, however, that these facts will always remain clear: the women of La Mutine were unjustly accused, unjustly convicted, and unjustly sentenced. Even more than that clarity, though, I hope above all to have restored as much as possible to these women voices and an individuality of which they were robbed by the homeland that had rejected them.
i The French colony to which the women were sent included the modern state of Louisiana, significant portions of today’s Mississippi and Alabama, and land now part of other states, including Arkansas, Illinois, and Missouri. In the following pages, I will refer to this vast French territory as “Louisiana,” a name given it in honor of King Louis XIV.
False Arrests and Trumped-Up Charges
Between six and seven a.m. on Tuesday, December 28, 1700, detective chief inspector of the Parisian police Louis Jérôme Daminois was awakened with the news that a corpse had been found in a small street near one of the major gateways into Paris, the Porte Saint-Honoré, the entrance nearest the royal palace, the Louvre.1 Daminois’s lengthy report on the crime scene is a masterpiece of forensic observation.
Daminois “rushed instantly” to the scene, where he found several people clustered in front of the shop of Adrien Jonquet, a marchand grenetier who sold grain and hay. They were gathered around the body of a man of about thirty, “of average height” (then about five feet two or five feet three). The deceased had “blackish hair,” “slightly curly” and worn short, and he was bearded. His black hat with silver trim lay at his side, along with a sword with a golden handle, still in its scabbard. He wore a justaucorps or long jacket in the then highly fashionable shade of brown known as musk, leather pants, and grey wool stockings. His pockets were empty, except for his jacket’s left pocket, which contained “five small pieces of raw beef.” The man’s undergarment was soaked in blood, and “just over his right nipple” was “a wound with a very small entrance point.”
Although Daminois and his officers interrogated witnesses and residents of the neighborhood for nearly three months, they never established with certainty the identity of the nattily dressed dead man. They most often referred to him as “Saint-Martin,” first name unknown. Their failure to identify the victim was hardly surprising. Most of the witnesses who came forward lived in the area where the murder had occurred, a zone just outside the city’s limits, the faubourg or agglomeration that had taken shape immediately beyond the Saint-Honoré Gate. In 1700, the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, while situated not far from the Place Vendôme and some of Paris’s newest and most elegant architecture, was itself far from truly urban. It was sparsely populated and lightly built up, a transitional zone between the city and the countryside beyond rather than a true neighborhood. Most of those who passed through the Faubourg Saint-Honoré did so on their way into and out of Paris: residents had no reason to know the identity of these transients, most of whom they had never seen before and would never see again.
Numerous witnesses reported having spotted a man they believed to be the deceased late the night before or in the very early hours of that Tuesday morning, always in the company of three or four men, none of whom was ever arrested and only one of whom was ever identified. Within hours of the murder, however, the police’s attention had been drawn to another suspect—a woman. One witness described having seen a woman “running down the street, terrified, carrying in her hands a sword with a gold handle in its scabbard.” Two others claimed to have seen a woman walking in various locations with the men the police were already trying to identify. Still another witness, Catherine Forderet, a seventy-nine-year-old widow who spent her days “begging near the Porte Saint-Honoré,” testified that she had heard a woman singing “the most depraved kind of songs.” Forderet returned later that same day with additional information: “she had just heard that the wife of Bourdin [a neighborhood merchant] had told someone else that she had recognized the woman as ‘la Bouquetière, une créature de mauvaise vie’”—“the Flower Girl [bouquetières sold bouquets and cut flowers], a creature who lived a dissolute life.”
At this point, the still-unidentified woman stood accused of nothing more than of having been seen in the company of men potentially involved in a crime and of singing “depraved songs.” But a thirdhand rumor repeated as an afterthought eventually condemned her to twenty years of misery, determined her life—as well as the destinies of several hundred other women—and ultimately changed the history of French Louisiana.
The day after the murder, December 29, the police were on high alert: finding the woman known as “the Bouquetière” had become a top priority. On January 5, 1701, a town crier and a trumpeter marched around to the city’s main squares and gates calling out the police’s request for any information that could lead to her arrest. No one came forward.
Finally, on January 29, 1701, a full month after the fact, a widow named Marie Le Duc, who lived a considerable distance from the crime scene and near Paris’s principal market, the Halles, walked in and volunteered the name of the man the police soon decided had murdered Saint-Martin. In her statement to Daminois, Le Duc testified that she had learned from the mother of someone Le Duc knew only as “Dubourg” that her son had wanted for a long time to kill a man named Saint-Martin because Saint-Martin “had it coming to him.” Marie Le Duc added that Dubourg was “a good man,” and ended her statement by reporting that his mother had also confided that “people were saying that the Bouquetière was responsible for the murder.” The public rumor machine—or at least the presumed assassin’s mother—had at last explicitly connected the Bouquetière to the crime.
That same day, still another widow, Jeanne Ballet, came in to say she had known Saint-Martin well and that “she had learned that Dubourg had killed him at the instigation of the Bouquetière, who led a scandalous life and was involved in a commerce de débauche [debauchery] with Dubourg.” This was the only time that anyone asserted that Dubourg and the Bouquetière had had a relationship; Ballet’s allegation lent credence to Dubourg’s mother’s charge that the Bouquetière was “responsible” for the murder.
And then, on January 30, the police struck pay dirt with three witnesses who claimed to have direct knowledge of the by then infamous Bouquetière. Marguerite Baudin, the wife of merchant Bourdin and the original source of the rumors, came in to recount in person the story already repeated by Forderet. Baudin also described sighting the Bouquetière at five thirty a.m. on the day of the murder, although her testimony regarding time and place did not align with that of other eyewitnesses. And then there were the two soldiers who became the prime witnesses for the prosecution.
Claude Dubois was the first one in. He claimed to have seen Dubourg and the Bouquetière together on the evening before the murder and ended his testimony with a bombshell: “The Bouquetière had been boasting that she had had Saint-Martin killed, that she had had many others killed before him, and that she would have others killed in the same way.” A second soldier, Thierry François, alleged that “a week or so ago,” he and other soldiers had run into the Bouquetière when she was out with several friends. Upon seeing her, one of the soldiers exclaimed, “There’s the bitch responsible for the death of that poor Saint-Martin.” To which, he maintained, she replied, “Yes, you poor beggar, I had him killed. I’ve had many others killed, too, and I’ll do the same to you.” Next, when the Bouquetière and her friends left the place where they’d all been having a beer, her friends attacked the soldier who had insulted her, wounding him with a sword thrust “just above the right nipple.” All the while, in François’s words, the Bouquetière kept yelling, “Yes, I killed him.” François closed by adding that “he’d also heard that about two months ago the Bouquetière had had one of the Swiss guards killed.”
With those two witnesses, the Bouquetière was promoted from accessory to one murder to a very rare category in the annals of crime: a female serial killer. The signature to the crimes for which she was allegedly responsible was a single sword thrust just above the right nipple.
By February 2, the Bouquetière had been incarcerated. The following day, she was taken for questioning from For-L’Évêque prison on the banks of the Seine not far from the Halles to nearby police headquarters, the Châtelet. “Marie La Fontaine, age 20, residing on the place Ville-Neuve,” reads the file identifying the suspect. That notation reveals that the police had dealt with their prime suspect so summarily that they had never bothered to make sure they were writing her name correctly. Had they inquired, she could have explained that her family name was in fact “Fontaine,” rather than “La Fontaine,” and that her friends and family knew her as “Manon,” the diminutive of “Marie” that became wildly popular in the early eighteenth century.
The Parisian neighborhood where Manon Fontaine lived, the Ville-Neuve or New City, took shape in the first half of the seventeenth century in what is now Paris’s second arrondissement or district. Unlike the winding alleyways of medieval Paris, the New City’s streets were modern—straight and well aligned. They were also short and narrow and bustling with foot traffic from the merchants and artisans and working-class Parisians who populated the area and for whom it had been designed. Those streets were lined with the modest dwellings two and three stories high in which the New City’s residents lived, as low-income workers of the day typically did, crammed into tight quarters: a family of four or five might share a single room, at most two. The New City was well situated, within easy walking distance of the Halles market, as well as the royal palace, the Louvre, and the elegant and spacious streets that surrounded the palace and that were home to a clientele highly desirable for merchants and artisans, the aristocrats who frequented the court.
Figure 1. The street vendors called bouquetières, or “flower girls,” walked through Paris displaying the selection for sale that day in baskets strapped around their waists.
Figure 2. Other itinerant Parisian street vendors carried fruit for sale in these wide, flat baskets, known as inventaires, or inventories.
Manon Fontaine said she made a living as one of the city’s countless street vendors. A “fille vendante [sic] du fruit,” she crisscrossed Paris’s streets all day long hawking fruit carried in a large and deep basket strapped to her back, with a second basket, this one broad and flat and known as an inventaire or inventory, secured around her waist and extending out in front of her as a display space for her wares. As she moved along, she would have advertised the goods she had for sale by calling out to pedestrians, repeating continuously the names of the fruits in her basket that day. Manon explained that people knew her as “the Bouquetière” because she had formerly walked the city’s cobblestones selling little bouquets, carrying and displaying her nosegays in the same manner. She also stated that she could neither read nor write, something that explains why she had not availed herself of her legal right to review her testimony and thus had not noticed the incorrect spelling of her name.
In eighteenth-century Paris, the chants of street vendors like Manon Fontaine—“carnations, carnations, my beautiful carnations”; “baked apples, apples baked in an oven”—reverberated incessantly through the streets. This was an age-old urban ritual: the calls of wandering sellers like Manon Fontaine were the heartbeat of the city, so basic to the soundscape of Paris that these chants were known as “les cris de Paris,” “the cries of Paris,” as though the vendors were somehow the voice of the city itself.
Manon denied knowing any of the men she was alleged to have frequented; she denied the rumors about her conduct. She explained that in the early morning hours of December 28, she was asleep at home with her mother, with whom she would have shared not only a single room but also a bed. The police never bothered to verify her alibi, nor did they question her neighbors about her character, a procedure that would surely have proved instructive, for the New City, unlike the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, was a close-knit community in which residents lived in such tight proximity that they saw their neighbors all the time and knew them by sight. During Manon’s interrogation, she also denied that she “had conspired with Dubourg and enticed Saint-Martin to follow her by promising him debauchery so that Dubourg could kill him.” This question made it clear that Daminois was so eager to indict the Bouquetière as an accomplice to murder that he was floating hypotheses with no foundation in the evidence he had gathered.
On February 5, the prisoner was brought in again; this time, Daminois took a no-holds-barred approach. Was she responsible for Saint-Martin’s death? Had she ordered many men to be killed, as soldier Thierry François had alleged? Had one of her friends wounded François’s fellow soldier with a sword thrust above the right nipple? Had she ordered the assassination of a Swiss guard? Manon categorically denied all these accusations.
Daminois sent out a bailiff to round up still more witnesses, and on February 17, new depositions were recorded. Two of them provided highly incriminating testimony regarding Dubourg. A third witness, master cobbler Claude Martin, testified that on the day of the murder he “had seen two men between 5 and 6 a.m.,” adding “but not their faces, so he would not be able to identify them.” This was the first indication that the already fragile case would soon go up in smoke.
On Wednesday, February 23, the first of what were known as “confrontations” was staged at police headquarters. Accused and accusers were gathered together in the same room; under oath, they responded to questioning by Daminois and a team of officers, all of whom did their best to intimidate the accuser and, especially, the accused. Catherine Forderet, the first person to place Fontaine at the scene of the crime and to make allegations regarding her character, admitted that she neither knew nor recognized Manon Fontaine. One after another, numerous witnesses said the same thing. Only two, Ballet and Le Duc, said they could identify Manon as the woman called the Bouquetière. Neither of them, however, had placed her at the scene of the crime.
Later that same day, and when Manon was no longer present, Daminois gave the witnesses the chance to add new evidence. Only Forderet chose to modify her story, although not in the way the police were expecting: “She shouldn’t have said that the woman was young and of average height, because she hadn’t seen her face,” Forderet’s statement concludes. One key witness thereby disqualified herself.
Like cobbler Martin before her, Forderet forced the police to confront a fact that should have given them pause from the start: in a small byway outside the city limits and without Paris’s sophisticated streetlighting, at five a.m. on the 28th of December, the night would have been pitch-black. None of the witnesses could have been sure of any identifications, of the many specific details they had offered up, not even really of the number of men and women they claimed to have seen. Indeed, already on December 28, Charlotte Travitz, one of the group gathered around the dead man when Daminois arrived on the scene, admitted that they hadn’t been able to discern anything at all until “a woman carrying a candle happened along.” By the light of that candle, they noticed for the first time the blood on the victim’s clothing and realized they were dealing with a corpse.
On February 25, Manon was confronted with Marguerite Baudin, the source of the rumors that had put the police on her trail. When Baudin identified her as “the Bouquetière, of whom she had heard it said that she lived a dissolute life,” Manon rejoined that she had never seen her accuser before. Once again, Daminois came up empty-handed.
From then on, it went steadily downhill for the police. On Monday, March 7, Manon Fontaine was confronted with the two soldiers, each of whom identified her as the Bouquetière and repeated his wild tales about her proud avowals of having been responsible for the murders of many men. Later that afternoon, however, one of them, Claude Dubois, retracted the core of his testimony: “He had heard only through hearsay that the Bouquetière had boasted of having had Saint-Martin killed.” Ultimately, one of the only two witnesses to have offered evidence of the Flower Girl’s complicity provided Daminois merely with still more neighborhood gossip.
On and on it went, as witness after witness brought in to confront the Bouquetière said the same thing: they did not know the accused, and their testimony had nothing to do with her. Finally, on March 23, 1701, after three months during which the Parisian police had questioned twenty-one witnesses and Manon Fontaine had been interrogated by prominent officers of the law on three occasions, had endured serious intimidation, if not some form of what would now be considered torture, and had “confronted” all witnesses at least once, the case officially known as “The Crown vs. Marie La Fontaine and four unidentified men” came to an end.
- “Gripping from its opening scene of a corpse discovered on a Paris side street, Joan DeJean’s Mutinous Women tells the stories of these French women, deported as unwanted criminals to what would become, less than a century later, part of the United States… Through astounding research in French and Louisiana archives… Ms. DeJean uses her knowledge as a scholar of early modern France to great effect. … a fascinating history and a reminder that all kinds of people helped to build what became the United States.”—Wall Street Journal
“Working with a chaotic and often confusing historical record, DeJean traces the constellation of forces—including avarice, corruption and misogyny—that permitted the rapid roundup of another 96 or so female prisoners to be transported in the dank hold of La Mutine. The horrific conditions of the women’s journey and the will to survive that must have sustained them when they were set down, largely without resources, in a barren, swampy, inhospitable land, are evoked in vivid detail.”
—New York Times Book Review
- “Their lives became early examples of the American dream, and of its violence… In their previously little-known stories is a concise picture of all that makes U.S. history remarkable and troubling.”—The Atlantic
- “An array of impressive primary sources… guide the overarching theme of this groundbreaking study, revealing the importance of these women in the early years of French colonization of the Third Coast.” —CHOICE
- "What transpired after they landed ashore, however, is a clear demonstration of the beauty and power of the feminine spirit, and DeJean chronicles their experiences in well-written, often gripping prose....Readers will come away fascinated and inspired by this relatively unknown tale of strength and the human spirit."—Kirkus (starred review)
- “DeJean skillfully reads between the lines of the existing police and prison documentation to bring context and nuance to these women’s stories…. This scrupulous account restores a group of remarkable women to their rightful place in French and American history.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Exploitation and dishonesty fueled the settling of the Gulf Coast, and so doing rendered these women voiceless for generations. With rich writing, author and University of Pennsylvania professor DeJean gives the women who settled Louisiana, and their lost stories, a long-overdue historical reckoning.”—Booklist
“DeJean… does a wonderful job of tracing the lives of these women through government and parish records, plotting their marriages, deaths, births and financial fortunes through succeeding decades. … A fascinating book for history lovers, not just academics.”
- “Joan DeJean has written a gripping narrative of female courage and resilience that gives the women of La Mutine a justice long denied. Their astonishing and all-but-forgotten story will now take its rightful place in our rapidly changing understanding of the nature and meaning of European settlement of the New World.”—Drew Faust, Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor and president emerita, Harvard
- “This is a wonderful book, richly detailed, meticulously researched, and beautifully written. Telling the hitherto unknown story of a group of working-class, young women unjustly seized by authorities from the streets of early eighteenth-century Paris, Mutinous Women takes us on a fascinating journey from the poorer quarters of the vast city to the emerging towns and expansive landscapes of French Louisiana. Against all odds, after enduring terrible privations in their homeland and a long Atlantic crossing chained together in the hold of the frigate La Mutine, most of the women who survived succeeded in establishing their own families and eventually achieved a level of material comfort their native country denied them. Joan DeJean's account offers eloquent testimony to the courage and fortitude of these brave young women who played a significant role in the founding of French Louisiana.”—James Horn, author of A Brave and Cunning Prince
- “Mutinous Women brings to life a remarkable story, that of some two hundred women arbitrarily deported from France to the fledgling colony of Louisiana in 1719. Many died crossing the ocean, but others survived to play crucial roles in the settlement of a region that still treasures its French heritage. Joan DeJean’s vivid narrative is both an engrossing addition to the history of American colonization and a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.”—Jeremy Popkin, author of A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution
- “In a work of archival virtuosity and daring reconstruction, Joan DeJean takes us from the villages of France to the alleys of Paris to the bayous of Louisiana, recovering the lives of a group of women heretofore lost to history. Exquisitely vulnerable to the capricious forces of ambition, finance, and venality, these indomitable women wrested control of their lives to chart new paths for themselves and their descendants.” —François Furstenberg, professor of history, Johns Hopkins University
- On Sale
- Apr 19, 2022
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Basic Books