Les Forçats

Artist: Jeffrey Goodman

Storyteller: Shannon Lee Dawdy

Marie Baron was among thousands of forçats, or French criminals sent to Louisiana in the early 1700s as forced laborers. Most were convicted for life terms, but if they survived the first few years (the majority did not), they could acquire a de facto freedom. In 1719, Marie was shipped with several other women from France “under orders of the king.” New Orleans’s mythology has remembered these early women as prostitutes, but Marie’s life simply illustrates the harsh conditions of French working-class women, both at home and in the colonies. /// A young woman of 18 when exiled, her crime was that she had become pregnant out of wedlock. After burying a little girl at Biloxi shortly after her arrival, she married and settled at Natchez, Mississippi. There she lost her first husband and another child in the Natchez Indian uprising in 1729 and was taken captive. /// After she escaped to New Orleans, Marie met and soon married a soldier named Dumont de Montigny. Years earlier in France, Dumont had been assigned to watch over 500 forçats waiting to embark for Louisiana. Many were low-ranking soldiers who had attempted desertion. The rest, according to Dumont’s colorful mémoire, were “young people whom their relatives wanted to be rid of, whom they were sending, it was said, to seek their fortune. Without a doubt I was one of this number.” /// Marie and Dumont settled into a cottage at the corner of Dauphine and Bienville in the French Quarter. There they had two children, the first of hers to survive into adolescence. The family struggled with poverty (and more imprisonment for Dumont) and raised most of their food in a little kitchen garden next to their house. For them, there was no fortune to be found in the colony, but they did survive.