Early Louisianan had shortage of available brides

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Journal Correspondent

In Louisiana's early days the French population was entirely male because the colony fell under the jurisdiction of the navy department, and conditions were considered too dangerous for women and children. When Louisiana was established in 1699 the population was just 82 men and boys, 13 of whom listed their occupation as buccaneer.

Most of the men were coureurs de bois ("runners of the woods" who engaged in the fur trade with Indians. In 1704, acting governor Sieur de Bienville became concerned that the coureurs de bois were losing their Christianity by spending so much time with the Indians and marrying Indian women. He also worried about their loyalty. If an Indian war erupted, on whose side would the coureurs de bois fight?

Bienville's solution was to bring good Christian women to Louisiana for the men to marry. Thus, in 1704 the ship Pelican arrived at the capital Fort St. Louis de la Mobile (in modern-day Alabama) with twenty-three women. Some were as young as fourteen, but French law allowed a girl to marry at age twelve.

The so-called Pelican Girls volunteered to come but were no doubt misled by officials who portrayed Louisiana as a Garden of Eden filled with eligible young bachelors. What they found were half-wild coureurs de bois and crude shacks with dirt floors and deer skins stretched over the windows. Even the French Marines who garrisoned the colony wore animal skins instead of uniforms.

The Pelican Girls found husbands, but Bienville's experiment failed. The women quickly became disillusioned because their new husbands continued to spend much of their time in the woods (often with their Indian wives) and refused to plant gardens. Food became so scarce that some girls survived by eating acorns.

To force their husbands to build better homes, the Pelican Girls launched the Petticoat Rebellion and denied their husbands "bed and board" until better homes were built. The ploy worked, but it also angered Bienville because he blamed the women for creating unnecessary problems. Bienville claimed the young women were pampered city girls who did not want to work and asked his superiors to only send hard working country girls in the future.

Unfortunately, the Pelican also brought Yellow Fever to Fort St. Louis and many of the Pelican Girls died within a short time. Thus, Louisiana continued to suffer from a shortage of settlers, and John Law's Company of the West took drastic steps to populate the colony in 1717-1721 after it became proprietor. In addition to sending volunteers who wanted to come to Louisiana to start a new life, Law convinced the government to deport thousands of criminals, as well.

During this four-year period, more than one-half of the women who arrived in Louisiana had been convicted of prostitution and branded on the face with the fleur de lys. Five of them became the first French women to reside in Natchitoches. As it turned out, the men there did not seem to care if the women were branded because four of them quickly married and the fifth had two proposals. Her suitors agreed to fight a duel to settle the matter, but the commandant stopped them. It is assumed that the woman was then allowed to choose the man she wanted.

The Natchitoches District, which included all of North Louisiana, continued to suffer a shortage of women for years to come. According to researcher Elizabeth Shown Mills, in 1740 approximately 50 percent of all native-born girls in the district were married before reaching age fourteen, usually to a soldier or trader in his mid-20s. When the Louisiana Purchase was made in 1803, more than 1 in 5 of the people living in northwest Louisiana were descended from female convict deportees.

Thanks to John Law's efforts, Louisiana's population soared to about 8,000. Among the arrivals were six Ursuline nuns who landed in New Orleans in 1727. The Ursulines were dedicated to education and opened the colony's first school for girls and later operated Louisiana's first charity hospital. They also took in orphans and helped care for unmarried women. Today, the Ursulines are still active in New Orleans, and several schools can trace their origins to the nuns. Saint Mary's Catholic Church is located on the site of the original Ursuline Convent.

In 1728, another ship arrived in New Orleans with 88 eligible young women. Each girl's belongings were stuffed in a small chest that resembled a casket so the girls became known as les filles a la cassette, or "the casket girls." The Ursuline nuns cared for and watched over the Casket Girls until they were married. Records indicate that all found husbands, even one who "looked more like a soldier on guard duty than like a young lady."

Dr. Terry L. Jones is professor emeritus of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has received numerous awards for his Civil War books and outdoor articles.\