Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Casket Girls

In 1699, France established Louisiana primarily as a military outpost, and later efforts by Spanish and British regimes also focused on Louisiana’s value as a strategic asset. Therefore, soldiers, administrators and support personnel, not families, formed the largest percentage of Louisiana colonists.

Subsequent efforts by French, Spanish and British governments to bring in family groups sometimes succeeded, but not in sufficient numbers to create a growing, productive colony based on natural reproduction to mirror the success of the Atlantic seaboard colonies. To support the military presence, Louisiana needed to grow its population and produce goods for market. These objectives required the presence of families.

Colonial officials were well aware of the success enjoyed by the colonizers of the eastern seaboard colonies, whose settlers consisted primarily of family groups. Officials also understood the civilizing influence women could exert on unruly, male-dominated settlements. At the most basic level, the men who populated colonial Louisiana desired companions and helpmeets capable of softening the rough edges of frontier life. Louisiana needed women.

During the French colonial period, the Company of the Indies began to assemble and transport groups of young women to Louisiana. The first group arrived aboard the Le Pélican in July 1704, and by September most had found husbands. The company made numerous attempts to populate Louisiana by periodically transporting groups of women, some of whom were criminals and prostitutes.

In general, this experiment failed in its effort to provide a sufficient number of marriageable young women to colonial men. In contrast, the casket girls, or filles a la casette, groups of modest young French women so called because of the small chests in which their belongings were shipped, proved to be the most notable success. Upon their arrival in Louisiana in 1728, the Ursuline nuns in New Orleans housed and cared for these young women until they found husbands. Today many Louisianans proudly trace their ancestry to these women.

Efforts to populate Louisiana during the Spanish (1763–1783 and 1783–1810 for West Florida) and British (1763–1783) periods focused on a system of generous land grants in an attempt to lure families from the eastern seaboard colonies. These efforts brought more families to the area, but the majority of migrating settlers continued to be male. Between 1778 and 1783, Spain transported approximately two thousand Canary Islanders, now known as Isleños, most of them in family units, to four settlements in southern Louisiana. The Acadians also came in family units from the 1760s to 1780s. However, neither the Spanish nor British made efforts to recruit women as the French had done.

Regardless of their status or ethnic background, colonial Louisiana women endured difficult lives as they negotiated the dangers of the frontier: scarce supplies, hostile environment, and the hard physical labor that came with transforming the wilderness into a home. Even the most elite women succumbed to the diseases that flourished in Louisiana’s climate. However, the women who eventually came to Louisiana influenced the colony not only in terms of their impact on population growth, but in their contributions to the nascent society and their ability to assimilate and transfer cultural patterns that are still evident today.

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