THE PELICAN GIRLS
(Also known as the Casket Girls.)
In early 1704, Bienville wrote to the French Crown (King Louis XIV) asking for girls of marriage age to be sent to the colony at Mobile (Dauphine Island) to marry the single French settlers living there. Due to France being at war at the time the French Ministry asked the Catholic Church to make the selections. Twenty three respectable girls of good families were carefully chosen from the convents in France to be sent to the colonies by the Church for the French Government. The girls were chosen by Monsignor Vallier, the Bishop of Quebec, who had just established the Catholic Church at Mobile as a part of the Diocese of Quebec. Father Henry La Vente was appointed pastor of the Mobile parish by Monsignor Vallier, and was to sail with the chosen girls.
An excerpt from a letter to S. de Bienville pertaining to the Pelican girls:
His majesty sends by that ship 20 girls to be married to the Canadians and others who have begun habitations at Mobile in order that this colony can firmly establish itself. Each of these girls was raised in virtue and piety and know how to work, which will render them useful in the colony by showing the Indian girls what they can do, for this there being no point in sending other than of virtue known and without reproach. His Majesty entrusted the Bishop of Quebec to certify them, in order that they not be suspect of debauch. You will take care to establish them the best you can and to marry them to men capable of having them subsist with some degree of comfort.
The war in Europe caused a delay of the Pelican and two escort ships scheduled to sail from Rochefort. During this delay, the girls heard stories from the sailors of the hardships, savages, Canadian barbarians, poverty, murder and disease in the colony. This did not sound like the life promised them by the Bishop of Quebec. Some of the girls requested to return to Paris after hearing the stories, but were finally appeased by gifts and generous allowances and agreed to continue.
The group after many delays, finally, departed the port of Rochefort, France for the colonies on April 19, 1704. They were accompanied by Father Henry La Ventre, three additional priests, and four nuns from the religious order, Sisters of Charity, who looked after them on their voyage to the colonies. Also on board were 75 soldiers, laborers and four laborers' families.
Of the girls chosen, some were as young as 14 years old and the oldest around 19 years. The girls, including Marie Gabrielle Savary, matriarch of the present day Saucier families of the Gulf Coast, Illinois and Missouri traveled alone under the supervision of the priest and nuns, with the exception of the three Burelle sisters, whose parents and older brother accompanied them on the voyage from France.
The Pelican arrived at its first port of call in Cap Haitian, Haiti on June 8th 1704. From here they sailed on June 17th 1704 for Havana, Cuba, arriving there on July 7th 1704 to the great relief of the girls who had been on the sea for almost three months. They were entertained and taken on tours of the sights of Havana. The continuing problems of mosquitoes were the main discomfort for them while there. On July 14th the Pelican set sail for Pensacola where it was to take on fresh water and supplies. The Spanish government of Pensacola would not allow the Pelican and its escort ship into port, so they anchored off shore, where they were re-supplied by the Spanish. After a little over a week, the Pelican and its escort pulled anchor and set sail from Pensacola for Mobile and the French colony there.
They Arrived at Mobile on August 1st, 1704, aboard the ship “Le Pelican”; hence forth, they were referred to as “the Pelican Girls”. These were the first ones that came to Mobile and the Louisiana colony to marry the french settlers. They were quite well behaved, and they had little trouble in finding husbands. The ship also brought another passenger, Yellow Fever, from Havana, Cuba. About half of the ship’s crew fell sick with the fever and many died. A number of the girls from the ship also fell ill with the fever and died, along with numerous settlers and soldiers of Mobile.
The Pelican girls were also called by some “The Casket Girls” because of the casket like box given to each one before they departed France for the Colonies and Mobile. This box contained items given each to help in their new lives, much as was done for the Les Fills Du Roi who were sent to Quebec earlier to marry the single French men there.
Arrangements for the marriage of the Pelican girls were not left entirely to chance. The Canadian soldiers and settlers knew nothing beforehand of their prospective brides-to-be. The girls had already learned a good deal about their prospective husbands. They had been well informed about the background and present situations of each bachelor. From a group of fifty or sixty eligible men, only about forty would be seriously considered, and perhaps twenty five regarded as good prospects for marriage. As for the group known as “Les Canadians”, there were no affluent men, but some were better established than others in the colony. Jean Baptiste Saucier was considered as being one of the better than average established settlers of Mobile.
Among the twenty three or so girls seeking husbands, there were some, quite naturally, who were considered more desirable as wives, by standards of backgrounds, having been reared in delicate and refined circumstances. Many of the girls felt superior to the majority of soldiers and settlers, who seemed to regard them as “pieces of merchandise” for having thrown themselves blindly into a chosen exile and marriage to men in the colonies they had no prior contact with. The girls could not forget the dismal life they endured in the Convents of France and felt they would now have a better chance of finding a husband than they would have had in France with an arranged marriage by their families. They now at least had a choice of whom they wanted to marry, after a short courtship.
Engagements were followed by small celebrations, feasting and dancing into the early morning hours. Marriages were performed on a daily basis during the month of August 1704 by Father LaVente and his assistant Father Davion.
Gabrielle Savary, now twenty years old, was one of the last Pelican Girls to marry, having accepted twenty-nine year old Jean Baptiste Saucier’s marriage proposal in late August of 1704. They were married in Mobile at Fort Louis on September 17, 1704. It is supposed that she held out longer in making her decision of which available bachelor to marry, trying to make a better marriage contract for herself, as Jean Baptiste was one of the wealthier and better connected of the French soldiers at the settlement.
Everything did not go smoothly for the Pelican girls, some lost their new husbands to the fever, some of them did not survive the fever themselves and some were abandoned by their new husbands and they all endured the harsh poverty of the new colony at Mobile.
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 many diseases that flourished in the Louisiana Territory’s climate. However, the women who eventually came to Louisiana Territory 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 in the region today.
Today, along the Gulf Coast area from Florida to the state of Texas there are many families that are descendants of the numerous Pelican Girls that were sent to the early colony to marry one of the single Frenchmen either at Mobile or at New Orleans in the early 1700's. Many of these descendants reside heavily in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. When you look through the local area phone books you can't help but recognize these familiar early pioneer names.
A full-size authentic replica of the Le Pelican was built at La Malbaie in Quebec. Construction on the ship began in 1987, but the project was beset with problems and it was not completed until 1992. The Le Pelican was purchased and brought to Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish, Louisiana in 2002 as a riverside tourist attraction. Sadly the ship sank at its mooring after being hit by a barge and has been submerged for more than six years. The Le Pelican was the ship that brought women from orphanages and convents of France to marry colonists in Mobile in 1704.