Joan Dejean, Mutinous Women (Non-fiction) 

Review by Megan St. Marie

JOAN DEJEAN, Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers on the Gulf Coast. New York: Basic Books, 2022. ISBN: 9781541600584

reviewed by Megan St. Marie

Many have heard of les filles à marier and les filles du roi, single women of marriageable age who emigrated from France to Québec and other parts of present-day Canada in the 17th century, but historical accounts have largely overlooked a later group of Frenchwomen who settled in the Gulf Coast region of colonial North America during the 18th century, in some cases migrating north to French outposts in present-day Arkansas and Illinois. There were roughly 100 shackled female passengers on the frigate La Mutine when it arrived at coastal islands in 1720, soon after a far smaller number were similarly deported aboard Les Deux Frères. Unlike those in the earlier and better-known northerly groups, these women were convicts forcibly sent to French-controlled lands in the present-day states of Alabama and Louisiana. As DeJean’s painstaking research makes plain, they came to North America “de force” (255), with no choice in making the perilous transatlantic journey. The audacious corruption that led to their convictions and removal from France is nothing short of stunning.

By combing through primary sources to carefully analyze word choices, the paper trail from one document to the next, and connections between the women themselves, DeJean moves the lives of the women of Les Deux Frères and La Mutine from the margins of history to its very center. Throughout, her writing fairly bristles with righteous indignation at the treatment they endured—in France, at sea, and upon their arrival in the region the French then called “the Mississippi.” For example, writing of collusion between the notorious Salpêtrière prison and officials determined to increase the French colonial population in the Gulf Coast, DeJean notes: “Everything about the process implemented to rid an overcrowded Parisian women’s prison of detainees by shipping them off across an ocean was ill-considered, muddled, and bungled” (53).

Her account honors those who lost their lives during this shameful episode by interrogating the claim that only one woman perished during the crossings. Using census records and comparative analysis with other voyages (including one by German immigrants and another when La Mutine was used as a slave ship), she persuasively estimates “a nearly 54 percent mortality rate” (150). The bulk of DeJean’s work, however, is focused on celebrating the estimated 46 percent who survived and triumphed against terrible odds, designating them in her subtitle and throughout the text as “Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast.” While such an honorific is arguably overdue for women historically maligned at best and utterly erased at worst, it risks undermining the book’s efforts to uplift women’s history by taking for granted the whiteness/Frenchness of the region’s “founding mothers,” thus jettisoning Indigenous, Black, and other women to the very margins from which DeJean plucks Les Deux Frères and La Mutine’s survivors. 

Sidestepping this oversight, DeJean makes the case that one reason the women of Les Deux Frères and La Mutine were so long denied historical recognition is that most were accused of prostitution. Although she stops short of challenging the social stigma associated with sex work, she immediately disputes the convictions, writing in a front-matter section called “Preliminaries”: “They were not prostitutes. They were instead in various ways victims of the endemic poverty that gripped France in the years prior to their journey—and also of the police corruption that gripped Paris in 1719. They accepted neither victimization passively” (2, emphasis original). The first chapter of the book then examines “false arrests and trumped-up charges” (9), laying blame for wrongful convictions with, for example: families seeking to deny daughters inheritance or dowries (55); punitive measures taken by upper-class employers of vulnerable washerwomen and maids (50, 68); police seeking convictions for unsolved crimes by pinning the blame on defenseless street vendors and other poor women (16–17); the unscrupulous tactics of John Law “[a] Scottish economic theorist [who] began to consolidate control over the French economy” (33) in 1717; and the flagrant abuses of power carried out by the infamous, longest-serving Salpêtrière baillie (warden), Marguerite Pancatelin (26). 

Law endeavored “to make France for the first time a major power in maritime commerce and the equal of its English and Dutch rivals. He pledged that trade with Louisiana would save the country from looming financial disaster” (36). In order to fulfill this promise, he needed to vastly increase the production of goods for export (namely, tobacco), which required shoring up the population of European settlers and workers. DeJean explains: “In December 1717, when Law’s takeover of the French economy began, Louisiana’s [European] population [sic], military personnel included, was likely only 550” (42). Law committed to sending 6,000 settlers to the colony, and Pancatelin pounced at the chance to rid herself of women prisoners she deemed difficult or problematic, while enriching herself. At the center of her scheme was a 14-page document entitled “Fit for the Islands” that listed 209 girls and women with dubious rationales for their deportation orders (88). 

What follows is a rigorous accounting of the lives and legacies of those women who came to North America. DeJean repeatedly uses the word “dynasty” to describe the intergenerational impact of their descendants on the region, and she often reports what can be described as, if not rags-to-riches life trajectories, then rags-to-stability status. Girls and women who were rejected by their French families, maligned by law enforcement, wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes, and exiled from their homeland in chains, used their wits and the legal mechanisms at their disposal to marry, own property, protect their children’s legitimacy and inheritances, and otherwise claim their autonomy and assert their dignity in a world that tried to deny them both.

Perhaps most compelling is the story of Marie “Manon” Fontaine, wrongfully convicted of murder, exiled from Paris, imprisoned at Salpêtrière after violating her exile, accused of seditious acts at the prison, and finally designated “fit for the islands” and sent in chains across the Atlantic. A culminating review of her will presents Manon as a resourceful, intrepid, skillful person who rose “[f]rom itinerant flower girl to dame” (364) while forging deep connections in her New Orleans community. 

Manon Fontaine’s narrative stands out because of how DeJean threads it through the text as a whole. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to follow other women’s stories. Although nineteen maps, illustrations, and other images are included, the book would benefit greatly from additional data visualization tools to organize and present information about the women of Les Deux Frères and La Mutine. A timeline, and most crucially, a list of the surviving women (separate from the index) with brief notes about their lives would be tremendously useful. DeJean presents their stories with obvious care and impressive attention to detail, but readers will likely struggle to distinguish one woman from another. This is especially of concern since several women share common first names and surnames. DeJean acknowledges, “The majority had been given what were then the most common names for girls: Marie and Marie Anne. Many of their family names were also common, the Smiths and Joneses of France” (2). Furthermore, many are referred to by various aliases, errant names, and nicknames due to shoddy recordkeeping in some cases and personal choice in others.

While keeping track of individuals’ names, triumphs, struggles, and quotidian details may pose challenges, the collective story of DeJean’s subjects is unmistakable. It is a story of how a small group of Frenchwomen successfully “mutinied” against powerful forces. It is a story of exploitation and of survival against the odds, of a legacy once denied and obfuscated, now restored and exalted. It is also a story that has ramifications for the better-known history of the Cajuns. Just as the women of Les Deux Frères and La Mutine are lesser-known than les filles á marier and les filles du roi who came before them, continued emphasis on sharing the story of the Acadians who fled to Louisiana after their banishment from L’Acadie during Le Grand Dérangement (1755–1764) has overshadowed the history of these other Frenchwomen settlers of the Gulf Coast. And yet, it is not difficult to surmise that the francophone/Creole culture of the region, which they helped establish, was crucial to inspiring Joseph Broussard to lead the first group of 200 Acadians to Louisiana in February 1765, aboard the Santo Domingo. In other words, today’s Cajun culture, so named for the Acadians, may never have found a place to evolve were it not for the role the women of Les Deux Frères and La Mutine played in fortifying the francophone presence in the Gulf Coast.