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History of the Casket Girls of New Orleans

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Photo Courtesy: Historic New Orleans Collection
casket girls
“Filles à la cassette” arrive in America. 1870s lithograph of an earlier sketch by an unknown artist.

The Casket Girls

What exactly are casket girls? The filles à la cassette (“women with suitcases”) traveled to French colonies in America. They arrived in the New World with a trunk, or cassette, containing their belongings. The word “cassette” morphed into “casquette” over time, and that translaed to “casket”. History recorded these women as “casket” girls. The filles à la cassette were some of the original “mothers” of New Orleans. Here’s their story.

Legends of the Casket Girls

“Caskets” conjure up images quite different from a suitcase of dresses and petticoats these woman were known to carry on the long voyage to New Orleans. These suitcases were relatively small, so that the women could carry them without assistance. Many of the photos of “original” cassettes stretch this concept, literally, so that the suitcases appear to be large enough to carry a body.

By the time the storytellers told the tale of these women, their suitcases took on a new perspective. Why did young women bring “caskets” to the new world? Did their luggage contain more than petticoats? Paranormal Fiction writers love old New Orleans. The city’s mix of Catholicism and voudon set in a location influenced by Africans, French, Spanish, British, and Asian is nirvana for writers. It’s natural for writers to run with this and tell vampire tales.

Most of the vampire-themed stories centering on the filles focus on two things: the caskets and the convent. Perhaps one of the most interesting legends relating to vampires are the stories about the third floor of the 1751 convent building. The legend is that the third floor was sealed off. The windows were permanently shuttered. While some stories say those shutters were nailed down with nails blessed by a pope, Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to visit New Orleans in 1987. One might assume these nails were brought to Rome for blessing, then shipped across the Atlantic. In spite of the holes in the stories, many are still fun to read. Don’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Old Ursuline Convent to decide for yourself. In the meantime, here’s a little history about the casket girls.

History of the colonies and casket girls

The founders of New Orleans were explorers, trappers, and traders who established encampments along the lower part of the Mississippi River.  The French established three main outposts along the Gulf Coast: Mobile, Biloxi, and later, New Orleans. Because the early explorers were mostly male, Catholic priests in the region became concerned that, without wives, the future of Christian evangelism in the French territory was at risk. They turned to bishops and mayors of French port cities, who gladly agreed to empty their jails and brothels. This was essentially “transportation” of “undesirable” women.

These women did not make good domestic partners for the colonial men. The priests sought an alternative plan. They asked King Louis IV for assistance. The King tasked the Bishop of Québec with appealing to convents and orphanages in France. They sought out young women who they could contract to come to the colonies. The bishop’s expectation was that virtuous women from the convents to be good candidates for marriage. The “casket girls” were contracted to be wives of men in the colonies.

Marriage Material

The “consignment” of women traveled to Mobile in 1704. They came on the merchant ship “Pelican.” Therefore, Mobile affectionately refers to their filles à la cassette as “Pelican Girls.” A number of these women moved to New Orleans as part of a migration to the larger city over time.

The second consignment of “marriagable” women arrived in Biloxi in 1719, then New Orleans, starting around 1728. New Orleans was 10 years old at this time. Ursuline nuns from Rouen, France, arrived in New Orleans in 1727. The Ursulines’ mission was to educate the women of the colony and evangelize the natives. These nuns took charge of the filles à la cassette. The women lived with the nuns until they were married off to men of the colony.

Replica of Le Pelican (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons user “Harung”)

The journey to Louisiana

A young woman heard of the programs to bring women to the colonies through the nuns of their convent, school, or orphanage. The nuns wanted to reduce the number of girls in their care. The women contracted with men who arranged their trip. They traveled from their homes to port cities in France, such as Le Harve. Once in Le Harve, they took ship for America. The women sometimes found themselves waiting for months for  the next ship.

The passage across the Atlantic took months. The ships usually stopped in Haiti, at Cap-François, now known as Cap-Haïtien, on the island’s north coast. After picking up supplies and drinking water, the ships pushed on, into the Gulf of Mexico. The passage was a difficult one. A number of them died from yellow fever and other travel-related diseases.

New Orleans in the 1720s

Casket Girls
Plan of Fort St. Charles, originally on the site of what is now the Old US Mint (Map courtesy of Historic New Orleans Collection)

New Orleans was a French outpost in the 1720s. The capitol of Louisiana at the time was Biloxi. Bienville extended his control of the Gulf Coast. He ordered plans and surveys of the land in the “crescent” of the Mississippi. The city expanded out from Fort St. Charles, at what is now Esplanade Avenue and the river. Like many settlements, civilians built homes outside the fort. They built a parade ground for the army troops, and a parish church next to it. The French Quarter as we know it was just a concept on paper.

Most of the Casket Girls didn’t see much of their spouses. French women used to working in convents and orphanages now took charge of households. The men of the colony in the 1720s-1730s were fur trappers and traders. The trappers spent long periods away from home, collecting the merchandise they sold for export. The traders took manufactured goods from Europe to the farms, plantations, and outposts for sale.

The climate of the colony also required a good bit of adjustment for these women. The weather was hot and the clothing they brought from France was likely wrong for the climate. They adapted to the city as they established households and raised children.

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The original (1734) Ursuline Convent.

The Ursuline Sisters

The Ursulines founded a school almost immediately after their arrival in 1727, where many of the women attended until they married.

The city built the order’s first convent in 1734. That building was replaced by the existing convent in 1751. The Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. It survived the fire of 1788 because of its distance from the source of the fire, which began closer to Canal Street. The city built the convent close to Fort St. Charles, on the eastern, downriver side of the Vieux Carre.

The Order of St. Ursula continue their mission of educating women in New Orleans to this day. While there were more Ursulines staffing elementary schools, such as St. Angela Merici in Metairie, the order focuses its efforts on their high school campus uptown.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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