Pelican Girls

The Pelican Girls, so-named for the ship Pelican upon which the young women were transported, were a group of women sent by French King Louis XIV from France to Fort St. Louis de la Mobile, the capital of the French colony of Louisiana, in response to a plea from colonial officials for French women to marry the colony’s male settlers. The first 23 young women arrived in Mobile (in present-day Mobile County) on August 1, 1704. After encountering the poor living conditions of the pioneer settlement and frequently being abandoned by their husbands, the Pelican Girls launched a successful protest for improved housing and other living conditions. The population growth that resulted from the Pelican Girls’ unions with French colonists was crucial to the success of the fledgling colony.

In 1699, France established the colony of Louisiana over a vast area that stretched from the Great Lakes region near Canada through the interior of North America to the Gulf of Mexico. The colony was initially composed almost entirely of men. Many of them descended the Mississippi River from French colonies in Canada, seeking to stake France’s claim to the region and expand the beaver pelt and fur trade with the Indians who resided on the banks of the Mississippi River and along the Gulf Coast. After exploring the coast, in 1702 the French constructed a seaport on Île du Massacre, or “Massacre Island,” in reference to the mound of bones they discovered there. The French later named it Île Dauphine, or Dauphin Island, the name it retains today. They then built a settlement on Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, an area located a few miles up the Mobile River from present-day Mobile. Now designated “Old Mobile,” to distinguish it from the present-day city located at the mouth of the Mobile River, the original town housed Fort Louis and served as the capital of the Louisiana colony until about 1720, when it was moved to present-day Biloxi, Mississippi.

Known as coureurs de bois (“runners of the woods,” or fur trappers), many of the early French colonists accompanied Indians on their hunts, established bonds with Indian trading partners, and married indigenous women. Alarmed at the prospect of the coureurs de bois shifting their loyalty to the Indians and away from Christianity, the acting governor of Louisiana, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, petitioned King Louis XIV to send French women to Mobile as brides for the settlers to assure the men’s loyalty to France, reinforce Christianity, and populate the colony with French citizens through childbirth. At the king’s direction, the task of recruiting women of marriageable age and social stature willing to relocate to the colony fell to Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, who, as the Bishop of Quebec, established the Catholic Church at Mobile as part of the Diocese of Quebec. (In Old Mobile, he was referred to as Monseigneur Saint-Vallier, Bishop of Quebec.) He visited and personally interviewed girls who resided in convents in Paris and surrounding areas. He selected 20 girls ranging in age from 14 to 19 whom he deemed suitable among those willing to make the journey.

In October 1703, the girls and their escorts left Paris in wagons on a long and tedious 300-mile journey to the seaport town of Rochefort, located on the Atlantic coast of France. There, while awaiting the arrival of their transport, the bishop secured another willing participant, bringing the total to 21. The girls soon learned from local sailors of the hardship, poverty, and disease awaiting them in the New World colony, a far cry from the life promised them by the bishop. In addition, the sailors described their future betrothed as “Canadian barbarians.” Although some sought to return to Paris, the girls were appeased with gifts and generous allowances, along with cassettes (small suitcases) in which to store their belongings. Later, as the Louisiana colony expanded beyond Mobile, similar distinctive cassettes were provided to other girls sent to New Orleans, where they became known as filles à la cassette (women with a suitcase) or “Cassette Girls.”

After months of delays, the girls departed France aboard the ship Pelican on April 19, 1704, bound for Mobile. They were accompanied by Saint-Vallier and an assortment of chaperones, including two “nursing sisters” from a Rochefort orphanage, a midwife, and a frail seminary priest. Also on board were 75 soldiers, laborers, and four families. Two daughters from traveling families were recruited to join the initial 20, thus increasing the number of potential brides to 23.

Following a brief stop in present-day Haiti to take on supplies, the Pelican arrived at Havana, Cuba, on July 7, 1704. There, the girls received permission to disembark. For a week, the Spanish bishop of Cuba ensured that they were comfortably housed and entertained with tours of Havana, the long-established, flourishing center of commerce for Spanish colonization throughout the Americas. Soon after the Pelican set sail for Mobile on July 14, passengers and crew fell ill with yellow fever, a deadly mosquito-borne disease, acquired during their stay in Havana.

By the time the Pelican finally arrived at the Dauphin Island port one week later, half the crew had died and most of the passengers were ill. After two shallow-bottom boats transported the girls on the final leg of their journey up the Mobile River, the arduous, ten-month odyssey concluded on August 1, when the Pelican Girls, as they would soon come to be known, arrived at Old Mobile. Although most of the ill passengers recovered from the yellow fever soon after their arrival, one of the Pelican Girls succumbed to the disease.

Having spent a week in the well-established, cosmopolitan city of Havana, the Pelicans Girls were appalled by the deplorable conditions they encountered at Mobile. The housing quarters were composed of crude shacks with dirt floors, decorated with deer skins stretched over the windows, and the soldiers who garrisoned Fort Louis wore animal skins in lieu of uniforms. Consequently, some girls tried to flee the colony onboard boats headed to France but were refused passage.

With no recourse but to remain, the girls set about determining whom to marry. From a group of perhaps 50 eligible men, only about 25 were established with a home and land. After settling upon whom to marry, a marriage contract was completed, followed by a short courtship. In the early weeks of August 1704, 13 marriages were performed in rapid succession. Several Pelican Girls bided their time and were rewarded with marriages to the wealthier French soldiers stationed at the settlement.

Toward the end of August, however, the courtships and marriages came to an abrupt halt when colonists began to fall ill, victims of Mobile’s first yellow fever epidemic. It has been surmised that the epidemic was caused by mosquitos biting ill passengers who arrived on the Pelican. After a two-week incubation period, the mosquitos began infecting the town’s residents. By the time the epidemic ended in early November, two of the newly married Pelican Girls and two of Bienville’s senior officers, both of whom were engaged to Pelican Girls, had died.

Eventually, all of the Pelican Girls were married except one. Marie-Froise du Boisrenaud, who had been enlisted as a chaperone, initially refused to marry any of the available colonists. Much to Bienville’s annoyance, Boisrenaud claimed the Canadians were unsuitable for a woman of her noble background. Although a number of the Canadian men were enamored with her, Boisrenaud stood her ground and emerged as one of Bienville’s loudest critics. The stalemate between Bienville and Boisrenaud continued until March 1705, when Boisrenaud met Pierre Dugué Boisbriant, a cousin of Bienville who served as the King’s lieutenant and was Bienville’s aide-major. She fell in love with him while tending to injuries he sustained in a battle with Choctaw Indians. Unwilling to abide the union of his most vocal critics to his aide-major, Bienville forbade the marriage. With the proposed marriage thwarted by Bienville’s refusal, Boisrenaud remained as a resident of the colony but never married. From all appearances, the living conditions suffered by married Pelican Girls offered little incentive for Francoise to reconsider her single status.

Once married, the girls quickly became disillusioned, as their husbands frequently disappeared into the woods, often to spend time with their Indian wives. Many of the husbands refused to plant gardens, and food became so scarce that some girls survived by eating acorns. Eventually, the Pelican Girls staged a protest denying their husbands “bed and board” until the men constructed better homes and planted proper gardens. Known as the “Petticoat Insurrection,” the women’s protest taxed Bienville’s patience, but their gambit was successful in forcing the men to better provide for their wives. Claiming that the young women were pampered city girls, an exasperated Bienville sent government authorities a request that only hard-working country girls be sent in the future.

Further Reading

  • Hamilton, Peter J. Colonial Mobile. 1910. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
  • Higginbotham, Jay. Old Mobile: Fort Louis de la Louisiane, 1702-1711. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.

Share this Article

Dauphin Island Map

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Dauphin Island Map

Pelican Girl Leaving Her Family

Appears In

Photo courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Pelican Girl Leaving Her Family