Three days before Christmas in 1718, Marie Grissot lay dying, giving her last will and testament. The 48-year-old maitresse sage-femme (master midwife) knew that “there is naught as certain as death and nothing more uncertain than the day and hour thereof,” and nowhere was this truer than the harsh home she had made for 14 years, in the fledging colonial capital of Mobile. Grissot had spent virtually all of those years as Louisiana’s sole midwife, bringing new lives and new hope into a settlement in dire need of both.
Settling her affairs, she declared herself a devoted Catholic, willed various sums of money to several people, and left the rest of her modest estate to her nephew. The will is formal and standard, with one exception: she took great pains to ensure that her heir’s father, André Pénigault, be “wholly excluded from her succession, without ever being able to pretend to anything whatever.”
Grissot’s bitterness toward Pénigault stemmed from a years-long feud with the young colony’s commandant and de facto ruler, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville. Grissot and Bienville had gone head-to-head during the desolate years of Mobile’s early existence, and Pénigault, a carpenter in the colony who had married Grissot’s relative, walked away from the conflict with half of Grissot’s royal salary. It was an offense she took to her grave.
On the surface, the Bienville-Grissot feud was a salary dispute, but the conflict also called into question the value of Grissot’s work, which centered on women and babies. Bienville apparently decided that midwifery presented no appreciable benefit to the colony and attempted to take away her entire salary on the grounds that she was “useless for Louisiana,” according to a 1710 report.
Whether done out of desperation, political malice, misogyny, or a combination of all three, Bienville’s attack on Grissot ran counter to France’s official policies and stated goals for colonial development. Not only was a midwife such as Grissot more than useless: The difficult, dangerous business of bearing children was of utmost importance to the young colony.
The Royal Midwife and the “Future Mothers of Louisiana”
In January 1704, Jérôme Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain — the king’s top official in Versailles overseeing the affairs of the colony — wrote to Bienville that a special shipment would be headed to Louisiana. In addition to carrying supplies and soldiers, the Pélican was to bring 24 girls “of recognized and irreproachable virtue … to be married to the Canadians and others who have begun to make themselves homes on the Mobile in order that this colony may be firmly established.” The Pélican girls were “the future mothers of Louisiana,” writes Jay Higginbotham in his meticulous history “Old Mobile: Fort Louis de la Louisiane, 1702–1711.”
It had been five years since Pierre Le Moyne, sieur d’Iberville, had claimed a vast swath of North America for New France. New Orleans wasn’t even a glimmer in Bienville’s eye yet; the only settlements in the entire colony were tiny outposts at Ship Island, Fort Maurepas and Massacre Island (Dauphin Island). In 1702, Iberville had established Mobile, called Fort Louis de la Mobile or Fort Louis de la Louisiane, with the intention of growing it into a large, thriving colonial capital. It was little more than a camp, located at present-day Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff and populated mostly by Canadian fur trappers and French soldiers. (The site of Fort Louis, now referred to as Old Mobile, completely flooded and was abandoned in 1711 for Mobile’s present-day location.) The resident Canadians, hard-living coureurs de bois (or woods runners), were seen as “a heap of the dregs of Canada, jailbirds without subordination for religion and for government,” as Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, governor of Louisiana from 1710 to 1716, later described them. Many of the Canadians lived with Native American women; some of these relationships were explicitly forced, through enslavement, while others assumed a more nebulous form, yet the higher-up officials viewed all such arrangements as “shameless dissoluteness,” as Pontchartrain described the situation in 1711. “It is quite contrary to religion and to the increase of the colony.”
The young female conscripts of the Pélican were seen as crucial to reversing that trend and to helping both the Canadians and Native Americans adopt European custom. But these new arrivals would need help. “By the same vessel, his Majesty is sending a midwife,” Pontchartrain told Bienville. The midwife in question, however, was not Marie Grissot. It was Catherine Moulois, a master midwife who had trained in Paris. Under the king’s employ, she was granted an annual salary of 400 livres. In comparison, Bienville’s salary was 1,200 livres per year. Grissot, a native of Lorraine, and another unmarried woman were hired to look after the health and safety of the girls and assist Moulois as needed.
The Pélican completed its three-month transatlantic voyage in July 1704, and “a short time after arriving all the girls married the Canadians and others [French craftsmen and soldiers] who are in a position to support them,” Bienville reported to Pontchartrain.
Bringing Life into a World of Hardship
Not long after the Pélican’s arrival, Catherine Moulois died or disappeared — her death is not confirmed in the historical record — and Grissot took over as midwife of the colony, inheriting the job’s 400 livres-per-year salary. As early as October 1704, Grissot is documented as having helped deliver a child into the colony.
As sage-femme, Grissot and others that followed her held a level of authority and independence uncommon for most women of the time. In addition to earning a sizeable royal salary, she was able to enter any home and could travel at all hours throughout the colony. Grissot held enslaved people in her service: In 1708 she presented for baptism a man named André, listed as belonging to her, and one census documents four enslaved Native Americans (three male and one female) belonging to the midwives.
Grissot held religious authority, as well: She was able to perform home baptisms in cases where the newborn was not expected to live. Baptismal records of the Archdiocese of Mobile show Grissot carrying out this sad service a number of times. The winter of 1705 was an especially trying one for the colony’s infants, and it is estimated that at least three newborns died. Accusations flew about who was to blame — Bienville accused the parish curé, Henri Roulleaux de La Vente, of baptizing the children naked in winter, and one family complained that Bienville did not allow them a ration of milk during the infant’s illness — but the record does not show Grissot’s level of care being called into question. At the time, even in the palaces of Europe, childbirth presented life-threatening risk to mothers and babies; no one in the colony would have been unfamiliar with the reality of infant mortality.
The miserable conditions in Louisiana made survival difficult for everyone, young and old. “There is nothing so sad as the situation of this poor colony,” began one report in 1708. Yellow fever had already torn through the settlement in 1704, arriving with the Pélican from the ship’s stop in Havana and killing approximately 40 people. A tropical storm (“violent squall”) blew down Mobile’s warehouse and several other structures in August 1708. Livestock was scarce, and supply ships often suffered long delays.
The colonists’ attempts to grow wheat and corn as subsistence crops failed utterly: None of them were skilled agricultural workers, and few were desirous of becoming so. Sandy soil and flooding killed many of the plants, and what little grain survived to harvest was quickly spoiled by pests. The agriculturally-adept tribes around Mobile successfully grew corn and traded maize with the colonists, but excessive flooding killed some of their crops in 1710 — when the colony had not seen a French supply ship since 1708.
More than once, conditions were so dire and famine so imminent that Bienville sent groups of soldiers to live with allied tribes for the winter, because the colony could not provide for them.
Bienville’s Gambit and the Feud with Grissot
Bienville’s plans for Louisiana were failing, as was his health. Over 1707 and 1708 he lobbied, unsuccessfully, to make a return trip to France, believing that it would cure his “sciatic rheumatism … hepatatic colic and gout.” In short, he was desperate, and it was around this time that he attempted to relieve Marie Grissot of her salary.
Grissot immediately shot back, complaining to Pontchartrain through Nicolas de La Salle, who related the midwife’s testimony in a 1709 letter to Versailles. La Salle, the colony’s commissaire (supply chief), was a veteran bureaucrat 30 years Bienville’s senior, and he had recently launched a raft of mismanagement allegations against the young leader, dividing the loyalties of the colonists. Grissot said she had refused to back Bienville and that ever since, he had “authorized whatever evil he wished upon her, by making the argument that a midwife is useless in this Colony, where, he says, the women can give birth on their own.” Grissot pointed to several “accidents” that had happened prior to her and Moulois’ arrival as evidence to the contrary.
Bienville’s justification was that Grissot had been neglecting her duties: He claimed she was supposed to be tending to the sick of the entire population, as well as laundering the soldiers’ linens. “Mr. d’Artaguiette and I thought that it was useless to have a salary given to a person for no service at all,” he wrote.
Grissot said there had been no such scope of work over the preceding years of her service, and moreover, mixing with potentially infectious patients amounted to medical malpractice. In a letter of support from Governor Cadillac to Pontchartrain, she argued that “the care of the sick was contrary to her profession; that the majority of the soldiers were subject to scurvy” — mistakenly believed to be contagious — “and that thus after having cared for the scurvy patients she could not at all touch the women in childbed or even the children at birth without running the risk of communicating the disease to them.”
The ministère sent a succinct rebuke to Bienville: “I have been informed that you have treated badly the woman named Marie Grisot [sic], a midwife, and that you attempted to prevent her from performing the duties for which she was appointed … I must tell you that since this woman was sent there by the King’s order, His Majesty’s intention is that she should remain there, that she should serve there, and that you should be careful not to give her any bad treatment.”
In 1711, after receiving Pontchartrain’s orders, Bienville and d’Artaguiette presented what they considered a compromise: reinstating Grissot’s salary at 50 percent, taking it from 400 to 200 livres. The other 200 livres they gave to Pénigault, the carpenter, “who is much more useful,” they argued.
For Pénigault, it helped that he was cut from the same cloth as Bienville. After he returned to France in 1721, he compiled his journals and recollections into a narrative, the first full-length account of the French in Louisiana. Neither Grissot nor her services are mentioned anywhere in the document. Just as she excised him from her will, Pénigault omitted her from his story.
The Louisiana Grissot Left Behind
At the time Grissot died, Louisiana was in a period of transition: In August 1717, France handed control of the colony to the Company of the West, the brainchild of Scottish gambler and financier John Law. In less than three years’ time it would cause a massive financial boom and bust.
Bienville turned his attention elsewhere, to a new site for the colonial capital 140 miles to the west. By June 1718, months before Grissot died, Bienville’s team was clearing land for what would become New Orleans. Three years later, Grissot’s first official successor arrived: Jeanne Sulmon Dauvillé, a master midwife from Paris, was sent to New Orleans under an annual salary of 1,200 livres — a far cry from Grissot’s pay, even at its fullest. She would remain the colony’s only official midwife until 1749.
Grissot and the women and children she served endured unimaginable hardship and loss, facing steep odds to fulfill the reproductive roles France had assigned them. Despite the greater failure of Mobile as a colonial capital and economic engine, Grissot and her patients played an essential role in populating the young colony. Each successful birth must have infused the downtrodden settlement with a dose of the mirth and hope that only new life can bring.
Such was the dream and folly of colonial imperialism: filling distant shores not only with French forts, plantations, and statesmen but also French families, so that the glory of France could spread around the world. mb
Molly Reid Cleaver is a senior editor at The Historic New Orleans Collection. A writer and musicologist based in New Orleans, her work has appeared in the New Orleans Advocate, NPR.org, and the New York Times.
This story was originally published in 2021 by The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Special thanks to THNOC Curator Howard Margot for his generous assistance and expertise with the French archival documents referenced in this story.