History Places People & Places

Joan DeJean

Photo as taken by Matthew Duhon and submitted for publication with permission by Joan DeJean.

Contributing Writer

Editor’s note: Author and University of Pennsylvania trustee professor Joan DeJean, formerly of Opelousas, was interviewed during a telephone conversation Saturday afternoon about her new book “Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of The Gulf Coast.” The following is based on an in-person interview of a previously written story published last Friday on the St. Landry Now website.)

As Joan DeJean receives literary acclaim for her recently-published and extensively-researched book detailing the lives of 18th century French women sent against their will to America, there is one thing she wants to make clear.“This book is not about me. It’s about the women I wrote about that really matter. They were unbelievable fighters, who were poor, falsely accused and despised, yet they became successful and so many of their descendants can be traced all over the United States, including St. Landry Parish,” DeJean said.

DeJean, who grew up in Opelousas, attended the Academy of The Immaculate Conception and graduated from The Academy of The Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau  has authored 13 books which have primarily covered aspects of French social and cultural history during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.Her hardback cover book released in April, “Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast,”  meticulously examines the plight of women considered wrongly by French authorities as criminals, misfits or thieves, who were rounded up capriciously  and  banished aboard prison ships to Louisiana and Gulf Coast areas such as Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans which had been established by France in 1719.

According to the extensive research performed mainly by DeJean , now a trustee professor of French literature and studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the 62 shackled women who crossed the Atlantic aboard a cargo ship and survived the voyage, eventually reestablished their lives, married, owned businesses and became prominent in settling areas of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Illinois and settlements in the Mississippi Valley.Information provided by the University of Pennsylvania in connection with the publication of DeJean’s book indicates that by 1731 at least 37 of the women who survived the journey later lived in what became New Orleans. Some of them became instrumental in developing and owning property in what is now the French Quarter area of New Orleans.

DeJean explained that her early South Louisiana roots were apparently influential during her academic careers at Tulane (Newcomb) University  in New Orleans and later as a Yale graduate student who specialized in French studies, especially those during the early 18th century.“I grew up in an area where French was spoken and where there was already a French tradition,” noted Dejean.

The idea for her recent book DeJean said, originated as she was researching material.“I found one document about this a decade ago and then I started to do more research. It obviously took a long time to pull everything together. These women came from all over France, not just Paris. You have all the genealogy for each of these women and then you have to keep tracing them through French prison records and what happened to them when they arrived from the voyage. Fortunately the French of that period kept great police records and they are still there, describing how these women were arrested and the charges against them,” added DeJean.

DeJean the university information guide notes say, began her interest in using archives for French studies in 1974, using those primarily found in Parisian prison records in the Paris Arsenal library.

DeJean recalls pouring over archived records in New Orleans and Mobile in addition to those she discovered in Paris and other areas once controlled by France. One of the women who arrived on the ship DeJean says,  appears particularly pertinent to St. Landry.

DeJean says Anne Francoise Rolland, a Parisian who first resettled in New Orleans, is responsible for starting the Bordelon family.“When you trace (Rolland) throughout all the chapters, you find her in Mobile, New Orleans and then she is there in what was then Pointe Coupee Parish. Her second husband was a Bordelon, who had emigrated. You find that she had two sons with Bordelon,” added DeJean.

What has impressed DeJean as she began to fasten the details of the French women was their tenacity and wills to succeed despite being dumped into a foreign area without any assistance from those who had abducted them. The Atlantic journey for the women DeJean said, ended when the women disembarked with no assistance on Dolphin Island. Later the women were transported through the Gulf of Mexico in small boats and then dumped off at Ship Island, off what is now the Louisiana and Mississippi coast.“The women were rowed to Ship Island in January and February and then left. You can imagine how they felt, cold, wet and abandoned,” DeJean said during the interview.“They were such survivors. I think people in Louisiana should be proud about the lives that these women created for themselves. No place has ancestors like these women. They were not wealthy. They were condemned unjustly and went through a lot. No one cared about them. They were despised, yet became prosperous,” said DeJean.

In several interviews involving her writings, Dejean said she became intrigued throughout her academic career with the French era of Louis XIV and the events that unfolded during that reignDeJean is scheduled to speak a via Zoom interview at the Virtual Alliance Francaise de Portland, OR. May 4.