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"Mutinous Women" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

On an October day in 1719, a cargo ship, the La Mutine (the mutinous woman) set sail from Le Havre, France for its destination, “the Mississippi.” The dilapidated vessel was loaded with desperately needed supplies for the colonists, but it also carried an unusual commodity: women convicts. The prisoners had been arrested on phony charges of prostitution, theft, and smuggling, or they were apprehended just because they were poor or considered misfits in society. The women were gathered from all over France and imprisoned at Paris’ Salpêtrière Asylum until they were loaded onto La Mutine where they were shackled together in the hold of the ship. Of the sickly 132 exiles who began the long voyage only 62 survived.

The mostly male population of the colony welcomed this surviving cargo. Many of the women made beneficial marriages and rose to positions of influence and wealth in New France. A few became instrumental in establishing the cities of New Orleans, Mobile, and Biloxi and some moved on to found additional settlements in Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, and Mississippi.

La Mutine was sponsored by the investor (and con artist) John Law who sought to expand the power and profits of his newly formed Company of the West. He had been granted a trading monopoly in the French colony of Louisiana. Stock in his business soared as the entrepreneur touted the territory as a land of opportunity with soil capable of producing fine tobacco and hills filled with gold and silver. To entice permanent settlers, the one commodity he needed to provide was women for his empire, so he welcomed the deported French women to America.

Law’s cartel failed in 1720 due to the failure of his bank. Chaos ensued in the colony until new leadership emerged. The breakdown of Law’s domain freed the women and other colonists to pursue their hopes and dreams on new terms. Against all odds, many of the freed survivors not only thrived but founded dynasties that continue to this day.

Some women purchased and developed property in what is now known as the French Quarter of New Orleans. DeJean writes:

“This book is not about me. It's about the women I wrote about that really matter. They were unbelievable fighters, who were poor, falsely accused and despised, yet they became successful and so many of their descendants can be traced all over the United States, including St Landry parish.”

Consider Marie Igonnet a girl from Auvergne, a poor and remote region of France. There Marie helped her father, a weaver, look after the altar in their church. When an altar cloth needed to be repaired Marie would take the parament to her father for restoration. One day in 1710 she was carrying the church’s ciborium to a goldsmith for repair. On her way, she noticed the vessel was filled with broken, consecrated hosts. Near starvation, she ate them. For this crime of divine lèse-majesté, the 17-year-old was sentenced to be burned at the stake, but in a rare show of royal mercy, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Nine years later Marie Igonnet’s name appeared on the warden’s list of those prisoners to be exiled. She survived the voyage and contributed to the settlement of the coastal colony.

All the changes in the young colony did not come without conflict. Many of the colonists’ gains were at the expense of Native American tribes whose land was forcefully seized and many Native American and French lives were lost in skirmishes over land claims.

This book is extensively researched and incredibly detailed. DeJean investigated the lives of the falsely accused women by studying French prison archives, government documents, and parish records. She traced the movements of their families through marriage, birth, financial, and death records over many years. The extensive detail makes for slow reading at times, but the author’s description of this little-known history and the contributions of the Gulf South’s formidable Founding Mothers is worthwhile and inspiring reading.

About the Author: Joan DeJean has written 13 books covering aspects of French social and cultural history during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She was born in southwest Louisiana and is a trustee professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Basic Books is the publisher of this 437-page thoroughly noted and indexed book.

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