1745 map of French Louisiana territories, drawn by cartographer Herman Moll.
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Part of the Long History of Child Trafficking: 18th-Century French Louisiana

In the 1720s, French colonial authorities seized children off the streets of Paris and forced them to settle the New World.
In the early decades of the eighteenth century, the French faced a demographic problem—few wanted to move to the Gulf South. For the French crown, this spelled disaster. In an era where population size meant power, French colonial officials declared that they needed to “populate these colonies immediately with French subjects” so as to hold on to their imperial claims along the Mississippi River Basin.

The Mississippi Company’s emigration of forçats, or forced exiles, to the Louisiana colony in the 1720s and 1730s seemed to answer the population crisis. This program was supposed to move adult convicts, vagrants, and other unsavory characters from France to her colonies. But by 1732, the Mississippi Company had forcibly migrated at least 1,129 youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty five across the Atlantic Ocean. Few, if any, of these youths were convicts. Instead, most were shipped to Louisiana as a result of a highly orchestrated trafficking scheme that focused on seizing minors from state institutions, like poor houses and orphanages, as well as through bounty-hunters who rounded up children in the streets.

The program started during the fall of 1719 when John Law, the head of the Mississippi Company, arranged the transfer of 497 boys and girls to Louisiana. Law socially engineered the population of Louisiana, taking “an equal amount of boys and girls” from Parisian poor houses to ensure that there “would not be an over population of males” in the colonies. Ideally, Law wanted these children to marry before they left for Louisiana, ensuring that “families could flourish” in the new territory. On September 18, 1719, Law coordinated the mass marriage of 184 young couples in the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in Paris. These couples, all at least sixteen years of age but no older than twenty, had met the previous day in the church’s priory. There “the poor girls chose their husbands from a large number of boys.” After the mass ceremony, the couples were shackled together, “the husband with his wife,” and marched out of the city on foot, escorted by twenty royal archers, to the Atlantic port city of La Rochelle. The forced marriages were often fleeting, with more than half of the women and nearly a quarter of the men perishing in the overland journey and the voyage across the Atlantic.
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