Koasati Indians
making Cane Baskets

None of the names of the first women in New Orleans have survived.

They have left no written history, but standing on the banks of the Mississippi in the curve the great river makes around the French Quarter, we can imagine how hard life was for the early French women who kept house and raised families in the fetid swamp, the Indian women who brought their wares to market there, or the African women sold on the slave block to serve local wealthy families or to work on plantations.

There were Indian women in and around the swampy settlement of New Orleans before 1718 when the French Canadian, Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, brought his hardy group of approximately 300 men to build the city of Nouvelle Orleans, named in honor of the Duc d'Orleans.

For centuries Indian tribes had used this spot in the river's bend as a trading post, gathering from up and down river and from the Gulf via Lake Pontchartrain to trade stories and goods at what is today the French Market.



Indian women from the Choctaw, Houmas, Acolapissa and other tribes peddled baskets of fruits, herbs and pelts at the markets. As late as the 1830s Indian women in brightly colored scarves and long skirts squatted along the streets of New Orleans selling herbs, spices and foods from outlying areas.

 There was a serious shortage of French women from the very beginning of Bienville's settlement. Among the three hundred men he had managed to lure to New Orleans, only twenty-eight were married, leaving poor prospects for the remaining two-hundred seventy-two bachelors.

Predictably these men formed liaisons with Indian women, but because the Indians were considered heathens and of a different race, marriage with them was forbidden.

Some Indian fathers sold their daughters to white men, and there are cases of Indian women living within the city limits and raising families with Frenchmen.

Given the language and enormous cultural barriers, these women must have lived an alien, quasi-slave existence. That some deserted their French masters and returned to their tribes is not at all surprising.

Some early French women came with their husbands who had signed contracts in France with Louisiana proprietors to work as masons, gardeners, blacksmiths, tailors and bakers. Their wives sometimes could find work as midwives, weavers, cooks and washerwomen.

During th 1750s there was a migration of people from Acadia, part of French Canada, who settled in the swamps south and southwest of New Orleans. Known as Acadians - or Cajuns, few of them made their way to the city in the early years.

Today the Cajuns are still basically a rural people, although their cooking, customs and hospitality are often associated with New Orleans.

Chitimacha Women
with Cane Mat

Black women were also brought into New Orleans at a very early date.

Several free blacks arrived with French families as part of their households from France, serving as maids and cooks. The city also became a famous slave port soon after its founding.

Thousands of African women were sold at auction blocks, separated from their husbands and children and subjected to the worst indignities.

White slavery also existed. There are instances of poor whites being kidnapped and forced to serve as indentured servants or slaves during the 1700s, and more than one account of a white woman discovered in New Orleans being held in bondage, especially if there was any suspicion she had consorted with blacks.

There is no written history of the first women in New Orleans, but a novel, Manon Lescaut, was written in 1753 by l'Abbe Prevost of France with a correction girl as the heroine.

Years later it was twice made into an opera - "Manon" by Jules Massenet and "Manon Lescaut" by Giacomo Puccini. The character Manon Lescaut is believed to be the first American literary heroine.

The vague historical mention of a Natchez Indian princess burned at the stake is what is now Jackson Square in 1730, at the order of the governor of Louisiana, probably refers to one such woman, who perhaps was charged with conspiring with her tribe to attack the city.

Bienville's need to keep his men happy led to a plea in his earliest message to the King of France for a shipment of marriageable women

. But what parents in France of a virtuous daughter in the 1720s would send her alone on a long and dangerous voyage, without hope of seeing her again? However, less virtuous women were available; girls who had fallen into disfavor with their families, orphans living on the streets of Paris, and many who were imprisoned in dungeons and asylums.

So, the first French women sent to Louisiana in response to Bienville's plea were taken from the prisons and off the streets of Paris. Often in chains, they were put on ships headed for the New World.

Undernourished and in poor health, many died during the months-long trip. Those who survived were snatched up on arrival in the Louisiana capital of Mobile by whatever man was fortunate enough to have his pick.

Some of these early women, called "correction girls" fro the houses of correction from which they were taken, eventually made their way to New Orleans.

 Members of old French families in New Orleans generally trace their ancestors back to the filles de cassette, convent-bred, country women, twelve to sixteen years old from France, who reportedly arrived each carrying a dowry from the King of France in a narrow wooden box called a cassette. Ironically, there are no historic documents to support shipments of such women, causing their existence to be in serious doubt.

The Ursuline nuns in New Orleans, who, according to popular myth received, housed, and guarded the filles de cassette until they were found husbands, deny having had anything to do with such girls.

Their strongest evidence is that the "casket girls," if they ever existed, would have arrived between 1700 and 1725, while the Ursulines did not come to New Orleans until 1727.

         Indians, French, Women of Color.