The first Mardi Gras celebration in what is now the USA was held in 1703 in modern-day Alabama, in the French settlement Fort Louis de la Louisiane, aka Mobile. (If you’re on Team Louisiana, be a good sport and read on as an act of goodwill.) This was roughly 260 years before the boobs-for-beads tradition took off its top in nearby New Orleans though, and there was a shortage of ladyfolk at this party. In fact, as recently as 1700, the Mobile census had contained only men’s names. So, the party lacked that essential “Girls Gone Wild” vibe.
In addition to reducing raucous revelries to anticlimactic sausage-fests, the shortage of femmes limited the settlement’s expansion. To remedy this, the settlement’s founder, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, petitioned the king of France to send single ladies from abroad. It took several years of asking, but in 1704, he finally got what he wanted: carefully vetted maidens headed his way as brides-to-be.
Would Mardi Gras 1705 turn out to be the Act 3 of every romantic comedy ever made, a happy ending that emerges despite all odds? Shipping exportable girls to a natives-versus-colonizers combat zone and fixing them up with shellshocked, blue-balled bachelors on arrival sounds like an unstoppable lovey-dovey happy ending. No?
Act 1: Only the Finest Ladies
Quality assurance was a priority for King Louis XIV, who had struggled to populate Martinique colonies owing to imported French demoiselles who reneged on the breeding deal once ashore. So, women who wanted to wed French colonizers in Mobile had to prove that they were reliable. Thus, Louis commissioned the Catholic Church to select virtuous girls of marriageable age. Virgins aged 14 to 19 were recruited from orphanages and covenants, thoroughly examined, and subject to background investigations. Also, each one had to submit letters of recommendation from people who could vouch for their morality.
The 23 girls who passed this rigorous battery of tests were given a casquette (“little box” in English, pronounced like “casket”) of items to help them start a new life abroad. From that, they earned the nickname “Casket Girls.” And on April 19, 1704, they boarded the ship Pelican and set sail for – no joke – Massacre Island, off the coast of Mobile. (It was renamed Dauphin Island in 1707, sigh.)
Act 2, Part 1: The Havana Stowaway
En route to Mobile, the Pelican made a scheduled stop at Havana, Cuba, from July 7 to 14. While enjoying a hospitable stay as the guests of the Bishop of Cuba, the brides-to-be and their entourage of Church officials were suckled by mosquitos. When they returned to the ship, they unknowingly brought Yellow Fever with them. After the ship left Havana, most of the crew members and several of the girls became sick with high fevers and ended up dying. A lot of them were even buried on Massacre Island.
In addition to wiping out a substantial percentage of the Pelican’s passengers, Yellow Fever took the lives of numerous Mobile settlers and soldiers, as well as many Native Americans. The humid climate there and the standing, stagnant water in the marsh areas kept the deadly mosquitoes thriving, wreaking havoc on the defenseless population. Ultimately, Bienville’s demand for mail-order brides to bulk up the population ended up having the reverse effect at first.
Act 2, Part 2: The Bait and Switch
The French maidens had come to the colony willingly because they had been promised lives of luxury with well-to-do husbands. Many of them had dim prospects back in France, facing either arranged marriages or spending their lives as servants. So, this was a means to attaining a higher quality of life, even if it carried high risk.
To their surprise though, harsh poverty was what awaited them in Mobile, not mansions and refined gentlemen. Even worse, there was a clash of culture. The girls saw themselves as superior because they had been made to feel like God’s purest creatures on earth, but the men regarded them as mere merchandise. Thus, when the girls rebelled against having been duped and tried to return to France, the men felt duped by the unwillingness of the supposedly willing ladies they had been waiting on.
The two sides were at an impasse until the girls capitulated and made peace with being stuck in the settlement. Once they were more cooperative, they were allowed to be courted by the men and choose whom they wished to marry. For the rest of the girls’ first month there, marriages were performed daily for all but one of the girls: Francoise du Boisrenaud. Bienville denied her permission to marry the man of her choosing (who had proposed), so she refused to marry anyone else the rest of her life. Another girl, Gabrielle Bonet, ended up being abandoned by her husband the day after their honeymoon. She is said to have wandered around shamefully in only her petticoat as she descended into madness and disappeared into the forest.
Act 3: Mardi Gras 1705
After all that drama, from terminal illness to abject squalor, how did the Casket Girls’ harlequin novel end? Well, like any rom-com, it requires you to suspend your disbelief in order to appreciate the net-positive climax (pun acknowledged, gutter-minds) and resolution. Despite everything that the girls had endured, the initial objective of the Pelican voyage was met: abundant procreation thenceforth in Mobile. In fact, the gestation period implied by a 1705 birth for the first recorded colonist-Pelican baby indicates that these couples wasted no time in starting a family after being pronounced man and wife.
Also, 1705 was the first year that dancing was recorded as part of Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration, possibly reflecting happy marriages. (Or maybe the men simply hadn’t been scrawling poetically in their journals about dancing with other men in the pre-Pelican years – but why spoil it.) So, the lovey-dovey happy ending to this story can be visualized as a room full of couples swaying to music, potbellies pressed up against each other, full of gras and first-trimester fetuses.
The first Mardi Gras celebration in the USA – whether in Alabama or Louisiana – was bereft of voluptuous bosoms and the public nudity we’ve come to expect since the Women’s Lib era. But the Casket Girls and subsequent rounds of imported French women (who were criminals and prostitutes, not Church-picked beacons of piety) took care of that problem by adding feminine panache to the party. And most historical accounts describe the outcome in favorable terms. Even the most cynical one conceded, “Many girls did make good matches and went on to marry men that presumably loved and cared for them as the birth records show.”
Zoom out as young husbands and wives in tattered clothes prance dizzily around a dirt ballroom floor, with necking couples swatting mosquitoes off of improvised wine glasses and cakes of cornbread. Roll credits.
Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.
“Dauphin Island, AL,” Gulf Information Pages, http://www.dauphinislandhistory.com/kennedy/pelican_expand318x228.htm.
“Fort Louis de la Louisiane,” Fort Wiki, http://www.fortwiki.com/Fort_Louis_de_la_Louisiane.
Jessica Lacher-Feldman, “Il y a longtemps… The Pélican Girls in Mobile and Yellow Fever Comes Full Circle,” https://apps.lib.ua.edu/blogs/coolathoole/2008/08/01/il-y-a-longtemps-the-pelican-girls-in-mobile-and-yellow-fever-comes-full-circle/.
Kelly Kazek, “Louisiana again claiming 1st Mardi Gras; here’s the case for Mobile,” https://www.al.com/living/2018/02/louisiana_again_claiming_1st_m.html.
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Wayne A. Saucier, “The Pelican Girls,” https://thesaucierfamily.weebly.com/the-pelican-girls.html.
“We Are the Pelican Girls Brought to Mobile to Marry French Soldiers,” Our Southern Souls, https://oursouthernsouls.com/we-are-the-pelican-girls-brought-to-mobile-to-marry