Book Review :: The Original New Orleans Moms Were Mutinous Women

Book Review :: The Original New Orleans Moms Were Mutinous Women

When we decided to make New Orleans our home, I took all the tours and read all the books. My husband was born and raised here, and my son would spend his school years here, so I was the only one without baseline knowledge of my city. I wanted to know the background, the history, and the stories that formed this place.

Most of the tours I took and books I read talked about the city being founded by criminals and ‘women of the street’ (my phrase, their word starts with a P). This is what I believed until I recently read Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became the Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast. Author Joan DeJean completely flipped the narrative, researching arrest records, marriages, baptisms, wills, and recorded deaths to weave together a story that unraveled everything I was told was true.

These women were forced here against their will, and those who survived the journey, built lives for themselves in the French Quarter, Natchez, Biloxi, Mobile, and beyond.

Here are my top four takeaways from a book that tells the real story surrounding our region’s first European women:

1. They Were Not Criminals: DeJean refers to these women as “survivors,” rather than immigrants, colonists, or convicts. Through extensive research in the Paris archives, she uncovered their arrest records to find that most were simply from poor families who couldn’t feed them, or they were destitute beggars on the street. They were accused of ridiculous crimes to provide a reason to imprison them and ship them off in chains to Louisiana.

2. They Built the French Quarter: Because these women were not from the upper class of French society, they were used to and not afraid of work. Together with their husbands, they cleared lots on Bourbon and Royal Streets with their bare hands, making way for the first houses and businesses in the exact places that we all frequent today. (Think: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and the Omni Royal Orleans, to name two.)

3. They Were Women Helping Women: Always my favorite topic, but in this case, DeJean shows through historical records how these survivors worked together and supported each other throughout their lives. They stood as witnesses to each other’s marriages, became godmothers to each other’s children, and lived side-by-side as neighbors.

4. Their Legacy Remains Today: When they were abandoned on the shores of Biloxi, they showed remarkable resilience as they spread out all over the Gulf Coast, getting married, having children, and building lives. If you are a Bordelon, Fontaine, or Fontenot, it’s likely that you are descended from one of these women.

The research for this book is extensive, and it is clear that the author cares deeply about getting the history right. Long before European religious women came to Louisiana, the first survivors were already here, having arrived against their wills but thriving, nonetheless. They were figuring out how to build a community with just their own determination.

Their strength, ingenuity, and resourcefulness has been overshadowed or erased in mainstream history and urban legends, but this book, in my opinion, corrects that injustice. I can’t say enough about how lovely it was to follow along as DeJean gave a voice to these surviving women and made it possible for them to reclaim their stories.

10/10 recommend!

Stephanie Davi-McNeely
Stephanie Davi McNeely has been in and around the nonprofit fundraising space for nearly twenty years. She oversees development and strategic partnerships, for the ACE Mentor Program of America, a national nonprofit mentoring program based in Philadelphia. There she is responsible for corporate and individual fundraising initiatives, as well as the growth and development of national partnerships with design and construction firms. In her spare time, she plays mom’s league softball, watches her son play soccer, takes French class through the Alliance, and serves as the First Lady of the University of Holy Cross in Algiers. She resides in New Orleans, Louisiana with her husband and 11-year-old son.


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