Deported From France, These Woman Helped Build New Orleans

On Dec. 12, 1719, a ship named “La Mutine,” the Mutinous Woman, left the French port of Le Havre. The frigate was bound for the vast territory in what is now the United States that the French called “Louisiana” in honor of King Louis XIV. The vessel transported only female passengers, all of them convicts taken from one of Paris’s most notorious prisons. Most of the 96 women on board had been labeled “prostitutes,” as if they had been legally convicted of engaging in the exchange of sexual acts for money. But the reality behind the Mutinous Women’s lives in France is far more complicated.

The arrests of many of these prisoners were made months prior to their departure. This was when the corrupt Parisian police officers began rounding up female prisoner for shipment across the Atlantic. The authorities had become acutely aware that there was a severe shortage of Frenchwomen within a colony which Indies Company officials wanted to quickly develop and make a large producer of tobacco. This would allow France to challenge the English colonies in the Chesapeake. Every woman who was seen in Paris streets could face trumped up charges.

Manon Fontaine was a Parisian street vendor aged 19 who sold day-old fruits from her basket. She was being arrested for murder and was taken to court. Even though Manon had been elsewhere at the time of the crime and could prove it; even though, under questioning, the alleged witnesses who had testified against her all admitted that they had never seen her before, Manon Fontaine spent 19 years behind bars—until she was transported to Louisiana.

First, the women that survived the crossing were taken to an island off Alabama’s coast and then dropped on a Mississippi beach. The Mutinous women soon found their way to French outposts near Mobile as well as to Arkansas and Illinois. From Natchez to Gulf Coast, they helped establish French outposts. And when Louisiana was given a new capital, Mutinous Women—Manon Fontaine foremost among them— were among the founding inhabitants of the city named “New Orleans.”

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New Orleans’s founding is usually dated 1718. In February of that year, the colony’s governor, Bienville, selected a site for a future capital, as yet unnamed, and assigned some 50 men to clear land. Their efforts were almost futile.

Louis Pierre Leblond de la Tour started the planning for New Orleans in 1721. Charles Franquet de Chaville was his student and Adrien de Pager were both chosen to assist him in designing the capital. Pauger started clearing sufficient space for street layout with a few workers. The work involved a lot of labor, as there was a large number of cypress trees that had to be removed and felled. There were also thick cane and river Reeds that needed to be cut away. With Le Blond de La Tour’s consent, Pauger next set about “assigning lots along these streets to residents.” A few spaces were earmarked for public edifices, but otherwise land was virtually up for grabs. Pauger created an informal map with projected streets and used letters to reserve spaces for certain individuals. With this understanding, New Orleans’s original inhabitants then pitched in. They made their own roads and constructed their houses. They even, as Pauger admitted, helped fell trees “to build this city.”

During the crucial first years of the city’s existence, at least 36 Mutinous Women resided there. You can see how diverse experiences and customs from France were weaved into the fabric of this new capital.

Manon Fontaine, and others who survived the beginning days of New Orleans were raised on their land. They built homes in the ground they cleared. Paris was home to many women who had worked hard in Paris. The city was full of laundresses who carried large parcels and scrubbed clothes. Manon Fontaine, a street vendor in Paris, walked Paris’ alleyways and boulevards all day carrying heavy bags. They were able to do their jobs alongside their husbands in New Orleans. Manon and two other survivors married blacksmiths, and those farriers’ hands, hands strong enough to pound metal for hours on end, proved essential to carving homes out of canebrake. When the nowhere of New Orleans became somewhere, Manon and other founding inhabitants were part and parcel of the city’s first built environment, with the mud from which New Orleans was shaped embedded under their fingernails.

In December 1731, an architect’s draftsman named Gonichon created a map considered the most accurate representation of New Orleans a decade after the engineer Pauger began clearing brush to build a capital. On Gonichon’s map, lots were numbered, and an accompanying chart listed their owners. It is possible to see exactly who lives in each case by using both the chart and the map. Colonial administrators still deplored the negative effects that the colonies of Mutinous Women had on their stability in 1731 and contemplated shipping the survivors to New Orleans. This map shows the truth behind these fantasies. The map shows how well-integrated many survivors were, even though some had to leave their original allotments by that point.

There, right on the quay on lot 36, were ship’s Captain Joseph Lazou and Marie Louise Balivet, passenger number 178. Indies Company official Laurent Bordelon and Anne Françoise Rolland lived on lot 53 on Chartres Street. In a debt crisis, Jean Cariton (master tailor) and Marie Anne Dinan lost 55. Françoise Dinan’s widower occupied their home, lot 168 on Royal Street, while two blocks away on lot 47 at the corner of Royal and Orleans, Marie Louise Brunet lived with her husband, joiner Jean Baptiste Montard, and their first child. The eastern end of Bourbon Street was jam-packed with survivors: Manon Fontaine, on lot 230; Marie Angélique Dimanche, on lot 218 at the corner of St. Ann; Marie Daudin, on lot 173; Jeanne Coroy, on lot 171—just across the street from lot 246, the home Marie Daudin’s daughter would later acquire.

Continue reading: Colonial America Women Were more Powerful than We Credit Them for

Properties, including those of widows, were listed in the husband’s name. Two lots—226 on Orléans Street, 241 on St. Ann—were in the name of Manon Fontaine’s husband, the blacksmith known as “Bourguignon.” In all, of the roughly two hundred privately owned properties in the city, 8-10% were in the hands of women banished from France and still officially pronounced undesirable in their new homeland.

Only one married woman was acknowledged as a property owner in her own right: lot 230 on Bourbon Street had been granted “to the woman named Bourguignon.” That acknowledgment could be seen as an implicit recognition of one key facet of the identity that New Orleans acquired in its first decade. This settlement was the first in Louisiana to allow deported women to exercise true power and influence.

The Mutinous Women made the city theirs in various ways—by working alongside men to shape it, by acquiring so much of the new urban space. Rather than passively accepting their fates and the definitions imposed on them by men in positions of authority, they attempted to redirect their lives—and even to take political action. This would have been possible anywhere in the world in the 1720s. Paris was the only place where low-born women tried so hard to change history. Even then it was rare.

New Orleans was where Mutinous Women were able to reinvent themselves the most. And so it is fitting that, even though some deported women had larger lots and others terrain on more prominent streets, none owned more pieces of New Orleans than Manon Fontaine—the illiterate street vendor become major property owner.

Source: Mutinous women: French convicts became the founding mothers of the Gulf Coast. Joan DeJean Copyright © 2022. Basic Books, an Imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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