In the early 1700s, the new French colony of Louisiana was facing a population crisis. Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the Governor of Louisiana, asked the French government to send good, virgin women who could be married to the male French colonists in the territory. He was probably hoping for something similar to the Filles du Roi of New France, young gentlewomen who agreed to immigrate in exchange for a dowry paid by the king and a chance at a prosperous marriage.
Instead, the government sent women gathered from the grimmest institutions in France. Of the 258 women shipped to Louisiana between 1719 and 1721, twenty-nine were from orphanages, thirty-five were from poor houses, and 194 were convicted criminals from the infamous prison La Force. They were called the Casket Girls, after the cassettes, or small trunks, they brought with them. Louisiana officials were appalled at the women’s history and complained about their behavior. Some men refused to marry them.
It is unlikely that the women had much choice in the matter of their immigration. French officials referred to them as “women without futures.” The youngest was only 12 years old, but had been a sex worker in Paris since the age of six. Some of the women’s families actually demanded they be exiled to the colonies, so they could be rid of them. The trip across the Atlantic was nightmarish. The women were chained together and kept in the ship’s hold. Those that survived the journey were moved to warehouses in New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile, so they could be reviewed by any man looking for a wife. Most were married within six months of their arrival.
Over time, many of the Casket Girls were able to establish themselves as a part of the fabric of Louisiana society. But their triumph does not erase that they were imported, perhaps against their will, to serve the sexual and procreative needs of the colony’s men.
The Casket Girls got their name from trunks like this one, which they used to transport their belonging to the Louisiana colony. At 9½” high x 22½” long x 10” wide, these trunks did not give the women much room to pack everything they would need to start a new life.